(“They’ve all got imaginary deities and kill for their beliefs”… said one friend recently in her hasty critique of Buddhism, citing the Burmese oppression of the Rohingya people, as an example of the “long and bloody” history of Buddhists. “Buddhism is not a religion of peace” she protested.)
However, I beg to differ. Frankly, the notion that religious indoctrination is responsible for most of the heinous acts of political repression and violence in history, is short-sighted and misguided.
For one, it ignores the obvious truth that there have been many more wars and acts of genocide perpetuated due to territory disputes and economic and political power struggles, than due to religion.
And secondly, it ignores the fact that the genuine, original teachings by the founders of the major religions are usually completely distinguishable from the manifestation of the institutionalization of that religion. Why is this? This is because human beings appropriate ideologies and manipulate the tenants of religion to suit their very secular, political and economic interests. There is a very big difference between a religion authentically practiced by a devoted individual, and a religion usurped by political or military leaders, or terrorists, who simply bend the religion to whatever suits their agenda. The difference between the "religious" practice St Francis of Assisi and the Borgia Pope Alexander VI is gargantuan and one should not be judged by the other. Yes – religion has been used as an excuse to commit atrocities the world over. There is no denying that. But whether the religion in question actually advocates harm done to others in its name, is a totally separate question and should be treated as such, if we wish to avoid being bigoted and uninformed.
Thirdly, it ignores the greater political, socio-economic and historical factors that play a huge role in driving any kind of “religious” warfare. For instance, it would be careless not to consider the greater context influencing the Algerian gunmen brothers at Charlie Hebdo, such as the atrocious history of France’s oppressive relations with Algeria. It would be sloppy, not to take a moment to understand the greater context influencing many of the terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam – such as the deplorable treatment of Palestinians by Israel and the fact that the western world does nothing about innocent Muslim children being killed in their beds, yet with barefaced hypocrisy doesn’t hesitate to go to war in Iraq, when its oil interests are being threatened. Or the incredible disparity of wealth and power in the process of globalisation that leaves developing countries exploited and ravaged by poverty and famine, while the west squanders away the world’s resources and lives blithely at a level of luxury that is simply unsustainable and completely unsharable.
These factors (and many more) are key to understanding the brewing discontent and escalating violence that we are seeing from the Muslim world. The religious factor in this discontent provides a unifying force and a sense of identity and some sort of external justification, but is religion the real issue? Are the underlying historical (and secular), political and economic factors a more prominent cause? These are questions that we should be asking to understand the historical complexity of global cause and effect and to appreciate our role in the bigger picture. With this kind of perspective you might well ask yourself, the next time you go and buy a second laptop or another new car, could capitalism and global inequality be as much to blame for war and terrorism as religion?
The point is that any charismatic madman can take a perfectly good ideology, manipulate it until it is a mere shell (or even travesty) of itself, and use it to justify horrific violence in the process of achieving ultimate power, economic wealth, or the unchecked rampage of racial vendetta. Hitler did this. Jean Kambanda did this. Idi Amin did this. A number of catholic Popes did this. ISIS does this. George Bush did this. These are all men driven by greed, or megalomania, or unfettered sadism who would bend whatever ideology happened to be available to them, to manipulate the masses and carry out their own despicable agendas. These are not men acting from religious inspiration. These are men driven by very worldly, very human, and very secular motivations.
And an important thing to keep in mind is that the seed of those motivations is in all of us – religious folk or atheists alike. The capacity to be selfish, greedy, to enjoy power and wealth, to indulge an “us and them” kind of attitude, are all infinitely human characteristics. When these traits are left to grow unchecked and given an opportunity to express themselves in someone with a position of power, they can become tyrannical, cruel and bloodthirsty. That is what enables people to hate and harm and slaughter others who view the world differently from them; these same tendencies that we all have, but in an unrestrained context. The irony is that all of the major religions in the world were actually instigated by extraordinary pacifists who were trying specifically to address these tendencies in human beings and transform them.
Religions have their core values, their non-negotiable truths, but they also surround themselves with many stories not essential to the message. Any religion that exists over long eras absorbs many of the ideas and beliefs of the community in which it finds itself, and reflects those in its writings. Over time, thinkers and theologians reject or underplay those doctrines and texts that contradict the underlying principles of the faith as it develops.
Yes, Sharia law is sexist and violent compared with the European rule of law, yet sharia law has changed over time and has been largely shaped by changes in Islamic society. A patriarchal society with a history of bloody territorial conflicts. Is it any wonder that the interpretation of their religion is shaped by and reflects these (secular) factors?
The Bible also has some pretty violent sentiments in it, especially in the old testament. Yet the gist of Jesus’ teachings is uncontroversial - do good, love thy neighbor as thyself and to turn the other cheek. His creed was all about overcoming hatred and greed with love and charity and forgiveness. The fact that his words and actions have been institutionalized as various churches and at times used as an excuse to do the exact opposite of what he preached, is not Jesus’ fault. It is not the fault of Christianity per se, that Catholic priests enjoy sexually exploiting young boys. It is the fault of peoples’ tendency throughout history to turn everything into a grab for power, wealth and gratification at the cost of others, under the guise of religion or ideology or ethnic identity, or whatever it happens to be.
In fact, is quite astounding - our capacity to turn even the antidote into the problem. It is the one constant throughout history – in pre-Christian Roman times (see the Gracchi brothers for example), in post-Christian times, in the crusades (which were actually a political grab for trading routes and land and wealth and had very little to do with religion), during the reformation, and especially over the last 200 years. As the bard said long ago – “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Human beings have been violent, factional and blood thirsty since beginningless time, whether or not they believed in a god, or many gods, or no gods at all.
The Buddha taught different levels of teaching in accordance with the differing capacity of beings. This, and the differing cultural milieu of the time and place in which it flourished, has meant the kinds of Buddhism that exist in the world have different flavours and emphasies. In the Theravadin tradition the emphasis is on discipline, morality and meditation. In Mahayana Buddhism the emphasis is on Bodhicitta (compassion and selfless altruism) and recognizing the compounded nature of phenomena. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the emphasis is on an all-embracive approach to transform all of phenomena into a means for developing insight and loving kindness. Theravadin Buddhism has historically been quite sexist and strict and women are considered inferior to men. In Vajrayana Buddhism, by contrast, it is said that the women are superior to men in their capacity for enlightenment and there are numerous female Buddhas as inspiring examples. However these different kinds of “buddhism” manifest is entirely dependent on the nature of the culture it flourished in, and the time in history.