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The Lincoln's Dog Test

I tend to agree with Abraham Lincoln, who once observed that he didn't care much for a man's religion whose dog and cat were not the better for it.  And it's not just dogs and cats, either, but all the beings of the Earth--including the somewhat annoying ones we happen to share a species with.  I take it that that's what religion is for, and that we honor our religious tradition best by illustrating that.

Compassionate engagement with the world ought to be the main fruit of anyone's religious life.

I would think that was obvious, if we did not live in the age of the Internet.  But living in the age of the Internet, I am exposed to an awful lot of ideas that go under the name "religion," and some of them bear the same religious label I do.  This bothers me, possibly more than it should, because I dislike having the religious tradition that I love so poorly represented.  This is especially true for me of Pagan ideas, because Paganism is a religion that is still forming and taking shape, and so a good many people get to present themselves as experts in our religion, and to take a part in shaping it.  And not all of those people live out their Paganism in a way that benefits their dogs and cats, let alone anyone else on the planet.  I am thinking most of recent discussions on health care over at The Wild Hunt, where a vocal minority of Pagans seem to have missed kindergarten on the day we were all taught sharing with the other boys and girls, and to be determined to use Paganism as the excuse note for that fact.  But that discussion, though a vivid illustration, is hardly rare enough to bear remark.

My guess is that my Christian readers are as offended by some of the discussion that passes for "Christian" in the world at large in something of the same way, though there the cause is more the wide popularity of the religion than any other cause.  If enough people identify with a movement, you can be sure they will begin to carry the name and symbols of that movement as a flag, and to use it to rally troops for "our side," rather than to use as a tool for self-transformation or growth.

Flag waving seems to be part of the human character.

And understanding and working with the human character, in a way that improves our ability to relate to and to live in harmony with one another and with the world, strikes me as the only valid measure of anyone's religion, whatever labels they may give it.

Relating to gods, spirits, ancestors, and religious communities?  Well, yes--because those are either ways to enter into relationship with one another and with the world, or ways to deepen our ability to do so harmoniously and well.  The key is relationship; the key is kindness.

It's probably obvious that I envision God/gods/Spirit as immanent within the world.  If you don't, this summation of the purpose of religion is probably missing something--about relating to that God/gods/Spirit beyond the world.  But it is interesting how much of any of the world's religions turns out to be a compilation of advice on how best to approach that central task of being in harmonious relationship with one another and with the world.  How do we best recognize and channel human character to accomplish that end?  Often there are lists of recommendations: The Nine Noble Virtues.  The Five Wonderful Precepts.  The Ten Commandments.  They all break down to advice from other human beings, more or less inspired by Spirit, on how to harness our unruly selves to the plow, and till the field of our relationships with others until we bear fruit: Compassion. Integrity. Courage. Humility, and Respect for what is beyond our understanding.

I put it to you that any religion that does not include as its primary goal the cultivation of these fruits or their close relatives is what used to be called "false religion."  And while religions may include many other goals and goods, important or otherwise, I am inclined to dismiss the moral relativism of our era and call them that.

  • If it doesn't make you kinder...If it doesn't make you more compassionate...
  • If it doesn't make you more awake, aware, and committed to the well being of others...
  • If it doesn't show you the limits of your individual self, and lead you to reach beyond that...
  • If it doesn't help you to find the places where your self-interest misleads you, or causes you to betray yourself or others...
  • If it doesn't help you to discipline yourself to a level of humility that allows you to hear new things from others and from your gods...
Fido, Lincoln's dog
Then your religion is probably false, and you may be guilty of idolatry.  It would be a good idea to reexamine the ways  you are relating to the teachings you have been given.


Hystery said…
I am sure of almost nothing in the spiritual realms except that we are called to love, but some Pagan I am! My mind almost always goes to Christian Scripture. ;-)

Matthew 25: 44-45 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

I was not aware of Lincoln's quote on this subject. Thanks for bringing it to us.
Cindy Maxey said…
This Friend speaks my mind.
greg27241 said…
I just found your website. I have drifted in and out of Quakerism for years, mainly because i lived in places where there weren't any. Also, my family members aren't too keen on it either. So i remain one in private reading and meditating. I like your article and I have met some Pagans who seem very Quaker-like to me. Thanks for the blog and the thoughts.

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