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AIDS and religious virtues.

In 2003 UNAIDS took the unusual step of convening a group of Catholic and other Christian theologians, who met in Namibia to address the issue of how religious communities might be able to help reduce the spread of HIV. Sub-Saharan Africa has been particularly affected by AIDS, and Namibia itself has one of the highest rates of infection. It is now generally recognised that the virus is predominantly spread there through unprotected heterosexual intercourse. Of course, it also can be spread from mothers to their babies, and people can be infected from dirty needles and blood donations. Nevertheless, unprotected heterosexual (or homosexual) intercourse is the way that it mostly is spread. An activity which is intensely desirable and enjoyable is directly linked to the spread of the deadly HIV virus.

If this spread is to be halted, human behaviour needs to be changed. UNAIDS realised that, especially in the deeply religious cultures of sub-Saharan Africa, local churches might be able to facilitate such a change. Yet UNAIDS was also aware that some local religious leaders had made highly misleading and inflammatory claims about AIDS - for instance, stating that it was a punishment from God for homosexuality. In addition, Catholic authorities were insisting at the time that condoms should never be used even to prevent HIV infection.

The report indicates the aims of the meeting:
 In the context of HIV and AIDS, the most powerful obstacle to
 effective prevention, treatment and care is proving to be the
 stigmatization of people living with HIV and AIDS. Christian
 theology has, sometimes unintentionally, operated in such a way as
 to reinforce the stigma, and to increase the likelihood of
 discrimination. However, at other times, Christian theology has
 also, often, been successful in challenging society's injustices
 and bringing about change ... The purpose of the present document
 is to identify those aspects of Christian theology that endorse or
 foster stigmatizing attitudes and behaviour towards people living
 with HIV and AIDS and those around them, and to suggest what
 resources exist within Christian theology that might enable
 churches to develop more positive and loving approaches. (1)


UNAIDS also realised that if this issue is to be addressed adequately, and change hearts and minds, then as many religious traditions as possible need to be involved. So they subsequently held similar workshops for Hindu and Muslim theologians, believing that they could make a positive contribution in this important area.

Moral Passion

Religious traditions have no monopoly on moral passion but they do have particular reason for having strong, even passionate, moral convictions. In religious traditions with belief in a creator God, a crucial and emphatic connection is usually made between this belief and human moral behaviour. God who created us is righteous, so we in turn should be righteous. God who created us is compassionate towards us, so we in turn should be compassionate towards others. This is not simply a form of divine command ethic (although it can be that), but also an ethics of response to divine goodness. The philosopher John Cottingham expresses this clearly:
 If God himself [sic] is in his essential nature merciful,
 compassionate, just and loving, then when we humans act in [good]
 ways we are drawn closer to God, the source of our being, and the
 source of all that is good. Such acts command our allegiance in the
 strongest way, since they bring us nearer to the "home" where our
 true peace and fulfilment lie; and, conversely, in setting our face
 against them, we are cutting ourselves off from our true destiny,
 from the ultimate basis of joy and meaningfulness in our lives. If,
 on the other hand, there is no God, if God is "dead", then there
 might (as Nietzsche frighteningly suggested) be conclusive reasons
 to steel ourselves against impulses of love and mercy, to harden
 our hearts against compassion and forgiveness, since such
 sentiments might get in the way of our will to power, or our
 passion for self-realization, or some other grand project we happen
 to have. (2)


As his admits, John Cottingham writes this from a perspective shaped by Jewish and Christian traditions. It does not do justice to a Buddhist perspective, or even to some Hindu perspectives. However, it does capture the contrast between Western theists like himself and Western atheists who follow in the tradition of Nietzsche. It is a contrast that can be found readily in Muslim, Jewish and Christian sacred texts, as the following passage illustrate:

From the Qur'an:
 We command you, to be mindful of God. Even if you do ignore him,
 everything in the heavens and the earth belongs to him, and he is
 self-sufficient, worthy of all praise ... yourselves, your parents,
 or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God
 can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire,
 so that you can act justly -- if you distort or neglect justice,
 God is fully aware of what you do. You who believe, believe in God
 and his Messenger and in the Scripture he sent down to his
 Messenger, as well as what he sent down before. Anyone who does not
 believe in God, his angels, his Scriptures, his messengers, and the
 Last Day has gone far, far astray. (3)


From the New Testament.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. (8) Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (9) God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. (10) In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (11) Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (12) (1 John 4:7-11)

From the Hebrew Bible:
 5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
 whose hope is in the LORD their God,

 6 who made heaven and earth,
 the sea, and all that is in them;
 who keeps faith for ever;

 7 who executes justice for the oppressed;
 who gives food to the hungry.

 (Psalm 146)


There are obvious differences between these passages (for example the threat of the Last Day in the first and the atoning sacrifice in the second), yet each makes a strong link between belief in the goodness of God and human moral behaviour. Ethics and faith are emphatically connected.

What about forms of Buddhism that have no belief in God at an- especially the Theravada Buddhism of South and South East Asia? Do non-theistic Buddhists (or polytheistic/pantheistic Hindus) suffer from the moral weaknesses of atheism suggested by John Cottingham? Would such Buddhists be tempted to find conclusive reasons to steel themselves against impulses of love, mercy and compassion? In reality there is considerable evidence of the rigorous life expected of the Buddhist monk, such as in the following:

From the Buddhist Nikayas:
 A monk refrains from killing living creatures. He discards sticks
 and swords, and is gentle and full of compassion, remaining
 sympathetic and well disposed towards all creatures and beings.
 This is one aspect of his moral behaviour.

 Letting go of what has not been given to him, he refrains from
 taking what is not given. Accepting and wanting only what is given,
 he lives honestly, without stealing. This is a further aspect of
 his moral behaviour.

 Giving up the non-celibate life, he follows a life of celibacy. He
 lives detached, refraining from the vulgar practice of copulation.
 This is a further aspect of his moral behaviour. (4)


Far from pursuing some will to power or passion for self-realization, the monk is "letting go" and "giving up" with the positive aim of attaining enlightenment. Here is the crucial difference between the non-theistic monk of Theravada Buddhism and Nietzsche's atheistic superman. The former is attempting to go beyond self and the cycle of rebirth in order to attain enlightenment whereas the latter is exalting in self. In one famous passage, an ascetic who "as a consequence of his energy, application, practice, and attentiveness ... reaches that state of concentration where, with his mind concentrated, he sees with godlike vision, purified and surpassing that of men."
 Bad actions certainly do exist. Bad conduct has its result. Indeed,
 I have seen that person who here in this life harmed living
 creatures, took what is not given, behaved improperly sexually,
 spoke what is untrue, talked maliciously ... and had mistaken
 views; and I have seen that at the breaking up of the body, after
 death, that person was reborn in a state of misfortune, an unhappy
 destiny, a state of affliction, hell. (5)


Clearly this is not atheism in John Cottingham's Western sense. Non-theistic forms of Buddhism do have a powerful sense of meaning that structures reality independent of self. From a Western perspective it manifestly constitutes some form of sacred belief and myth that is quite unlike the beliefs depicted by Nietzsche.

A Buddhist sense of meaning that structures reality independent of self is also expressed, albeit in more modern terms, by the Dalai Lama:
 When we come to see that everything we perceive and experience
 arises as a result of an indefinite series of interrelated causes
 and conditions, our whole perspective changes. We begin to see that
 the universe we inhabit can be understood in terms of a living
 organism where each cell works in balanced cooperation with every
 other cell to sustain the whole. If then, just one of these cells
 is harmed, as when disease strikes, that balance is harmed and
 there is danger to the whole. This, in turn, suggests that our
 individual well-being is intimately connected both with that of all
 others and with the environment within which we live. (6)


What all of this suggests is that these different religious traditions have a rich variety of remarkably strong positive and negative drivers. A committed belief in a loving and compassionate God is closely related to a passionate belief that people, in turn, should be loving and compassionate to each other. So does an ascetic life that seeks enlightenment for self as well as for others; the Dalai Lama frequently appeals for compassion and "balanced cooperation." Negatively, a fear of judgment on the Last Day (to be found in parts of the Qur'an and the New Testament but seldom in the Hebrew Bible) or a desire to escape the cycle of rebirth (within Theravada Buddhism) and/or a harmful lack of balance can also be a strong driver within religious traditions.

Personal Righteousness

There are a number of different ways to address HIV and AIDS across various religious traditions. One especially fruitful one involves the tension found in several sacred writings between righteous personal/sexual lives and duties to other people. Beyond the fault lines of patriarchy, there is a widespread recognition that human sexuality does need to be disciplined and, conversely, that undisciplined sexuality can be deeply harmful.

There are differences between and among a number of religious traditions about the legitimacy of polygamy, and disagreements about the merits of celibacy. For the Buddhist and Catholic monk celibacy clearly is a requirement. Within early Christianity, celibacy was sometimes lauded more highly than marriage, even for the ordinary believer. Paul wrote bluntly: "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. (9) But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion" (1 Cot. 7:8-9). Yet even within this piece of blunt advice to the Corinthians (which may have been affected by a belief that the world was soon to end), Paul spoke of the need for self-control. So also does the Bhagavad Gita:
 Bodily asceticism is said to consist of reverencing the gods,
 Brahmins, teachers, and the wise, and of purity, honesty,
 continence, and non-violence. Vocal asceticism is said to consist
 of speech that does not cause distress, is truthful, pleasing and
 beneficial, as well as the daily recitation of the sacred texts.
 Mental asceticism is said to consist of clarity of mind,
 gentleness, silence, self-control, and purity of disposition. That
 threefold asceticism, undertaken with utmost faith by disciplined
 men who have no desire for reward, is thought of as pure. (7) Even
 the much later Tantric tradition within Hinduism, frequently seen
 by Westerners as simply a glorification of eroticism, is in reality
 often more sober and disciplined and concerned with rituals that
 actually purify the body (8)


The Qur'an, like the Jewish Torah, regards menstruation as "unclean" and prohibits sexual intercourse during menstruation. The concept of uncleanness runs through both traditions, and is not to be confused with modern concerns about germs or "yuk." This ritual uncleanness is primarily concerned about un-holiness. In Judaism, contact with menstrual blood barred a person from entering the temple. However there is also a more modern consideration for male self-control in the face of painful conditions women may face, as this passage from the Qur'an indicates:
 They ask you [Prophet] about menstruation. Say, Menstruation is a
 painful condition, so keep away from women during it. Do not
 approach them until they are cleansed; when they are cleansed, you
 may approach them as God has ordained. God loves those who turn to
 him, and he loves those who keep themselves clean. (9)


A number of the rituals and interdictions surrounding human sexuality in ancient texts will appear to many modern readers as anachronistic. Effective contraception and vastly increased life expectancy have radically changed many people in the modern world. Yet there are still abiding concerns about ill-disciplined sexuality that have re-surfaced, especially in the context of AIDS.

Duties to Others

The other relevant feature of many religious traditions is their strong notion of duties towards other people, involving a strong commitment to compassion and justice. The Qur'an sees human justice as intimately related to a belief in God. God sees everything that humans do. God will be pleased with human justice and will punish human injustice. The unjust will receive their punishment on the Last Day:
 God commands you to return things entrusted to you to their
 rightful owners, and, if you judge between people, to do so with
 justice: God's instructions to you are excellent, for he hears and
 sees everything. You are to believe, obey God and the Messenger,
 and those in authority among you. If you are in dispute over any
 matter, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you truly believe in
 God and the Last Day: that is better and fairer in the end. (10)


There is also a very strong emphasis upon almsgiving in the Qur'an. It is the duty of believers to be charitable and to give alms to those in need. Again, God is fully aware of people's almsgiving and will reward the charitable. Alms should be given in order to please God. They should definitely not be given to impress other people:
 Those who spend their wealth in God's cause are like grains of corn
 that produce seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains. God gives
 multiple increase to whoever he wishes: he is limitless and all
 knowing. Those who spend their wealth in God's cause, and do not
 follow their spending with reminders of their benevolence or
 hurtful words, will have their rewards with their Lord: no fear for
 them, nor will they grieve. (11)


There are surprising resonances here with parts of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. The language is different but the sentiments appear similar. In both it is assumed that believers do give alms, and that this will be rewarded by God -- unless the giver is doing this simply to be seen by other people. There are also some resonances (as well as obvious differences) with this verse from the Bhagavad Gita: "A gift given, not in return for benefits received, but because it is one's duty to give to a worthy person at an appropriate time and place, is remembered as a pure donation." (12)--especially if the benefits received are in the present life.

[Jesus said,] "Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. (2) So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. (3) But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, (4) so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mt. 6:1-4)

A passage in Luke is most often quoted for its strong commitment to social justice. Liberation theologians have used the story of Jesus reading from the Jewish prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth as a key text in their struggle for justice:
 [Jesus] unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was
 written:

 (18) "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
 because he has anointed me
 to bring good news to the poor.

 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
 and recovery of sight to the blind,
 to let the oppressed go free,

 (19) to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."

 2 (Luke 4:17b-18)


In the Hebrew Bible, rewards given by God for justice and punishments for injustice tend to be firmly located within this life. There is little belief in an after-life and none in re-birth. The chapter in Isaiah preceding the one Jesus quotes in Luke, contrasts God's justice in this world with the injustice of humanity. It is God who is just and human beings who are unjust. It is God who acts as judge -- punishing the unjust and rewarding the just (in this world):
 14 Justice is turned back,
 and righteousness stands at a distance;
 for truth stumbles in the public square,
 and uprightness cannot enter.

 15 Truth is lacking,
 and whoever turns from evil is despoiled.

 The LORD saw it, and it displeased him
 that there was no justice.

 16 He saw that there was no one,
 and was appalled that there was no one to intervene;

 so his own arm brought him victory,
 and his righteousness upheld him.

 17 (Is. 59:14-16)


A strong emphasis upon justice can also be found in many of the Psalms and within the Torah. This is summarized succinctly: "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land" (Deut. 15:11).

The priorities of the Nikayas are quite different. Monks are expected to show compassion or sympathy towards others, to be friendly and considerate towards other monks, and to live by receiving alms. However, their priority is enlightenment, letting go, or giving up longing for the world and bodily existence. Monks can best help other people by showing them this path:
 When [the monk] has returned from collecting alms food and eaten
 his meal, he sits down crossing his legs, straightens his body, and
 establishes mindfulness in front of him. Giving up longing for the
 world, he lives with a mind that is free of longing; he purifies
 his mind of longing. Giving up hostility and hatred, he lives with
 a mind that is without hostility; sympathetic and well disposed
 towards all creatures and being, he purifies his mind of hostility
 and hatred. Giving up dullness and lethargy, he lives with a mind
 that is free of dullness and lethargy; with his consciousness
 bright, he is mindful and fully aware, and purifies his mind of
 dullness and lethargy. (13)


Religious Virtues in the Public Forum

Recently, in public discussions of bioethics, for example, a number of key religious virtues have begun to be used. This is conscious borrowing from religious traditions which add something significant to secular social ethics. The concepts of "covenant" and "stewardship" are increasingly borrowed from Judaism, the concepts of "solidarity" and "the common good" from Catholic social ethics, and occasionally the concept of ubuntu from African traditional ethics.

Covenant and stewardship are interrelated within the Torah. God establishes a covenant first with Noah, then with Abraham and finally with Moses. This covenant promises God's blessing upon the people of Israel, protection from their enemies and an assurance of land and food security. In turn, the people must use the land responsibly (i.e., act as good stewards), care for the poor and worship God alone. The two concepts thus link both human justice and protection of the environment with faithful and obedient worship of God:

If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, (4) will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. (5) Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and the vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and live securely in your land. (6) And I will grant peace in the land ... (9) I will look with favour upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you (10) (Lev. 26:3-6a,9).

This link between land and justice makes an important contribution to the debate about the environment. In many parts of the developing world it is the poor who suffer most from environmental destruction and climate change. The notion of covenant has contributed in areas such as doctor- patient relationships: instead of viewing these relationships as impersonal contracts, it is argued that they should instead be seen more as covenants with mutual duties and responsibilities.

The concepts of solidarity and the common good have been particularly developed within Catholic social ethics, although other religious traditions use them as well. Solidarity is the idea that we are all fellow-travellers and that we have duties to support and help each other, particularly those who cannot readily support themselves. It directs ethical attention to the most vulnerable within societies. Justice, which is at the root of solidarity, is often defined as a fair distribution of benefits and burdens, particularly in connection with misfortunes for which we cannot be held personally responsible. At a social level, the concept of solidarity requires countries to ensure that benefits are shared fairly and that burdens are not laid upon the most vulnerable in society. Solidarity reminds us that we have a shared humanity, a shared life. Quite appropriately, solidarity was the name given to the workers' movement in Poland that challenged the former totalitarian regime there. A number of its leaders were committed Catholics, with a strong sense of social justice.

The ethical concept of the common good goes back at least to Aristotle, who argued that a good life is oriented to goods shared with others -- the common good of the larger society of which we are a part. In Nicomachean Ethics he argued that individual goods and the common good are linked, but that the latter is finally more important: "The attainment of the good for one person alone is, to be sure, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation or for city-states is nobler" (109b). It was Thomas Aquinas who borrowed this concept from Aristotle and then developed it further in Catholic social thought.

There are several important features of this ethical concept:

* Some global issues (such as world peace, climate change and indeed AIDS) raise ethical issues that cannot adequately be addressed using more individualistic ethical concepts; * Even stewardship and solidarity are often concerned with the inter-dependence within societies rather than inter-dependence across societies and across generations;

* Common good arguments require us to identify goods that we believe all should share equitably (including those in developing countries), whatever society they live in or whether or not they have yet been born;

* Common good arguments often assume that there is a common ownership of or right to use essential resources;

* Common good arguments might require all living now to reduce their demands for the sake of future generations (for developed countries, this could mean some restrictions on lifestyle; for developing countries, this could mean reducing their expectation of achieving the same lifestyle currently prevalent in developed countries);

* Common good arguments do not, therefore, depend upon simply balancing the self-interests of those living now;

* Rather, common good arguments (like stewardship and solidarity arguments) explicitly seek to evoke altruism, especially among those who at present are most privileged.

Global issues such as AIDS suggest that an account of the common good as understood in these points is still important. A common good perspective encourages scienfists, politicians and religious leaders to strive for effective measures that protect these common social goods across societies and generations.

The fifth concept is ubuntu. This is a Bantu word from South Africa but many people argue that it has resonances in other parts of black Africa as well. It emphasises the interconnectedness of people, in contrast to Western individualism. Ubuntu assumes that the identity of individuals is located in their relationships with other people: human beings cannot function adequately in isolation - we need each other and should be responsible for each other. Ubuntu expects people to be generous to each other and to be good neighbours. It is part of the cross-generational African concept: the living, the unborn and ancestors, all in an ongoing mutual relationship. Ubuntu encourages people to see themselves as always part of a greater whole, which includes their family, their neighbours, their kinspeople and others in their language group. People should offer hospitality when it is required by others and can expect to receive hospitality themselves when they require it.

Compassion is another concept from religious ethics that is currently influencing ethical discussion in the public forum. This can be seen, for example, when looking at the present debate about legalising euthanasia or assisted dying. It is now quite common for all sides in the debate to appeal to compassion. Yet searching leading textbooks in secular bioethics suggests that in the recent past, compassion has been relatively ignored or even dismissed by some as it was in the classical world, for being too emotional and passionate. Yet a type of compassion (although not always identified as such) is found in many different sacred texts. In the Qur'an every chapter (sura) except one starts with an appeal to God who is merciful or compassionate. The Dalai Lama speaks for many across Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions: "Love and compassion are most important, most precious, and most sacred ... They are the basic elements supporting our life and happiness." (14) From roots within different religious traditions, compassion seems to be increasingly important in bioethics today.

There are obvious overlaps between these different concepts. Both solidarity and ubuntu emphasise the importance of people working together and helping each other. Both stewardship and the common good encourage people to look carefully at the wider world or environment. Yet it can be seen that each also has a distinctive focus. What is interesting here is that each has made a significant contribution to wider ethical debate within pluralistic settings. Each brings a particular wisdom that can be recognised even by those who do not share the beliefs and practices of the religious tradition from which it comes.

In Conclusion

By taking these religiously-based virtues together -- righteous sexual/personal lives and a passionate moral duty to others -- a positive contribution can be made in the context of global AIDS. These virtues may be required if a change in sexual behaviour really is to be achieved. A major factor is promiscuous, unprotected sexual intercourse -whether that of young people mutually disregarding the risk of HIV infection or older men using sex workers and then infecting their wives who, in turn, infect their babies. Of course, given the bodily desires and pleasures involved in human sexuality, it will be enormously difficult to persuade enough people to act otherwise. But this might be possible if they develop a passionate moral duty to others.

Despite a considerable baggage of patriarchy and intolerance, religious traditions still carry this distinctive double commitment to righteous sexual/personal lives and a passionate moral duty to others. Typically righteous sexual/personal lives involve: personal responsibility

* self control

* commitment within marriage

* restraint outside marriage.

In turn, passionate moral duty to others typically involves:

* faithfulness in relationships

* responsibility towards others

* solidarity with the vulnerable

* commitment to the common good.

This combination of virtues in tension, within religious traditions, could make a distinctive and positive contribution to a vexing global dilemma.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-6623.2011.00134.x

(1) Robin Gill, ed., Reflecting Theologically on AIDS: A Global Challenge, SCM, London (2007), pp. 19-20.

(2) John Cottingham, Why Believe? Continuum, New York (2009), p. 41.

(3) M.A.S. Haleem, trans., The Qur'an, Oxford University, Oxford (2005), 4:135.

(4) Rupert Gethin, trans., Nikayas: Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford University, Oxford (2008), pp. 19-20.

(5) Ibid., p. 198.

(6) Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium, Riverhead/Penguin, New York (1999), p. 4.

(7) W.J. Johnson, trans., The Bhagavad Gita, Oxford University, Oxford (2004), 17:14-17.

(8) Gavin Flood, Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University, Cambridge (1996), p. 160.

(9) Haleem, 2:222.

(10) Ibid., 4:58-59.

(11) Ibid., 2:261-2.

(12) Johnson, 17:20.

(13) Gethin, trans., Nikayas p. 26.

(14) Dalai Lama, How to Expand Love: Widening the Circle of Loving Relationships, Atria, New York/London (2005), p. 209.

Robin Gill is Professor of Applied Theology, University of Kent, UK His extensive publications in the areas of social theology and Christian ethics include, most recently, Health Care and Christian Ethics (2006).
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