An Interview with Ray Zhong — Translator, Amsterdam Declaration

Image: Ray Zhong.

You live in Taipei, Taiwan and attended the Taipei Municipal Daan Vocational High School. What is the personal background in humanism for you?

I became a humanist because of three things: my father’s religiosity, Isaac Asimov’s writings, and my English. All of them influenced me, one by one, in that order.

My father is a very pious Buddhist who often preaches about reincarnation and reciting Buddha’s name. In his view, those who do not undertake all the Five Precepts (no killing, no stealing, no adultery, no false speech, and no alcohol) will not reincarnate as humans in next life. Instead, they will be reborn as animals, ghosts, and so on. However, there is a way out: reciting Buddha’s name. Do it as often as you can and, after death, you will be led to Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss and freed from karma. Following my father, I bowed to Buddha’s figure and recited Buddha’s name, but I somehow remained unconvinced. This unsubstantiated skepticism followed me into adolescence. Then I met Isaac Asimov, in his works.

Isaac Asimov was an extremely prolific and prescient sci-fi author. He wrote more than 500 books in his lifetime. His most famous work is the Foundation series, which I read in junior high school. Fascinated by his novels, I moved on to reading his nonfiction works, of which there were a great many. In one of his essay collections, I came across a piece titled The “Threat” of Creationism. In that piece, he argued against teaching creationism in public schools by dismantling the creationist arguments, such as the watchmaker analogy. That was my moment of enlightenment. Not only was it the moment I became aware of the threat religion possessed to the society, but it was also the moment I understood the clash between religion and science, or rather religion and reason. Asimov ignited my enthusiasm for science and introduced me to atheism. Then, I started to learn English.

I am a graduate from Department of English in National Kaohsiung First University of Science and Technology. As a tool, English broadened my scope and granted me access to resources I had no been able to reach. I started from watching Matt Dillahunty debating the callers on his show Atheist Experience, and then I switched to watching the Four Horsemen’s lectures and debates. I was so impressed by Christopher Hitchens’s wit and style that I made Chinese subtitles for some of his videos on YouTube. To gain more views, I posted it on the Facebook pages of a few Taiwan atheist groups (there were very few.) This led to my friendship with Feng Ching-wen, an extremely erudite and resourceful humanist who was the founder and head of Taiwan Humanism Studio. He contacted me and invited me to attend the lectures held by his humanist club at National Sun Yat-sen University. That was when I first learned about humanism. Later that year, Asian Humanist Conference was to be held in Taipei. I had the honor to work as an interpreter at the conference and meet many great humanists, some from other countries. Then, I became a humanist.

Any family interest in it?

My father is still a Buddhist and my sister a Christian. There were some quarrels between them when my father learned about my sister’s religion. I want no quarrels, so I have never told my father how I feel about his religious views. I remain silent whenever he preaches. He knows I do not believe it, but he never gives up trying to convince me.

How do some of the principles play out in real life for you?

I want to talk about a decision I made a few years ago: I may have sent my mother to hell.

It was the summer vacation during my second year in university. My mother had been ill with cancer and suffering for five years. She was bedridden in the palliative care. My father, sister, and I took turns to look after her. One afternoon during my watch, a young lady, no elder than me, entered the ward with a Bible in her hand and wished to save my mother from eternal hell fire. I stopped her and walked her out to the corridor. I thanked her for her kindness and told her that my parents were Buddhists and, maybe out of arrogance, that I was an atheist. She had the audacity to say that Buddha could not save my mother but Jesus could. Provoked by this comment, I retorted, “Then don’t save her at all!” She left, fuming.

The compunction haunted me for the rest of the day. I could almost hear the French mathematician Blaise Pascal whispering in my ear, “what if you’re wrong?” What if my atheism was not the right position and, because of my reckless defiance, my mother, who had already been in agony for years, was condemned to endless suffering in hell? What had I done? Wasn’t it safer for my mother to be a believer? Questions like these filled my mind as fear and doubts took over me. Then, reason kicked in.

The counterargument to Pascal’s wager occurred to me: what if the lady was wrong? What if my father was right? How should I determine who was right? Since neither side was supported by evidence, I figured what mattered here was my mother’s feelings. There was a portrait of Buddha on the curtain around my mother’s bed. My father had put it there to remind my mother of reciting Buddha’s name. What would my mother have thought if I had let the lady talk to her? Hitchens captured this very well in a discussion with Sam Harris and two rabbis:

I mean, If Sam [Harris] and I were to go around religious hospitals — which is what happens in reverse — and say to people who were lying in pain: ‘Sorry, did you say you were a Catholic? Well, you may only have a few days left, but you don’t have to live them as a serf, you know. Just accept that was all bullshit, the priests have been cheating you, and I guarantee you’ll feel better…’ I don’t think that would be very ethical. In fact, I think it would be something of a breach of taste. But if it’s in the name of God it has a social license; well, fuck that, is what I say.

In hindsight, I saved my mother from needless concern, so she could have some peace of mind in her last moments. That was all it mattered, and that was good.

You are a translator for the Amsterdam Declaration. What languages will the declaration have translation into by you — and others if you know?

I cannot take all the credits for the translation, because it was a group work. Half of it was translated by Ted Yang, a very talented translator in our team. Back to the question, I learned Japanese and German at my university, because we had to take at least one second foreign language. But neither is good enough for doing translation yet. I might do a Japanese translation in the remote future. For now, I have to keep on learning.

Is this part of a larger translation effort — of more IHEU and IHEYO, and humanist, relevant documents?

I also help translate some short video clips and quotes about humanism or atheism for Taiwan Humanism Studio. I look forward to working for IHEYO again.

Thank you for your time, Ray.

Thank you for having me.