Thursday, 27 September 2007

Bunting on Buddhism and Burma

Madeleine Bunting suggests that events in Burma might 'help challenge the generalisation that religious belief can never play a positive role in politics'. She writes:

It's a welcome and inspiring contrast to the last few years of religiously inspired violence. After several years in which we have seen faith used to justify and legitimise violence across the globe, this offers the other side of the story - how faith can be a powerfully positive force in political life.

And then the inevitable twisting of the knife:

So one cannot help but wonder quite how the batch of critics of religion will interpret the role of the Buddhist monks. Christopher Hitchens has recently argued that religion poisons everything and goes on to insist that no progressive political movement has had any religious influence. He insists that a figure like Martin Luther King Jr was in no real sense a Christian. How will he explain the Burmese monks? Will Richard Dawkins accuse these monks of child abuse for encouraging young boys to join their monasteries?

Actually, Dawkins is on record as believing that Buddhism is better regarded as an ethical system or philosophy of life than as a religion: but Bunting has anticipated him there, declaring this to be 'an old and tired debate'. But is it? Buddhism is qualitatively different from the religions that Dawkins attacks in The God Delusion, because it isn't based on belief in a personal, creator god - which for Dawkins, is the root of religion's problems.

Not that Buddhism doesn't have a less attractive, superstitious side. In a footnote to his book, Dawkins quotes a report by Julia Sweeney of her conversation with a woman caring for a disabled boy in Thailand, in which the latter suggests that sympathy for the child is uncalled for since 'he must have done something terrible in a past life to be born this way'. As for Bunting's throwaway line about boy monks and child abuse: surely it's at least debatable whether removing children from their parents at a very young age and raising them in a closed institutional environment is entirely a good thing?

And without denying the bravery of the Burmese protestors, let's not get all starry-eyed about the political role played by Buddhist monks. As Sunny reported here, some Buddhist monks are non-violent, others violent and pro-war. And the support of Zen Buddhist monks for Japanese militarism and imperialism is a matter of record.

But hang on: hasn't Bunting used a straw man to trick us into arguing on her own ground? Who has ever denied that religion can sometimes play a positive role in politics? Far from being the 'generalisation' that Bunting claims, this is surely a minority view, even among secularists and atheists. As is usual with straw man arguments, there are no quotes to back it up, no references for us to check.

In fact, what secularists and atheists like Dawkins argue is not that religion has no role to play in political or public life (unlike many religious believers, secularists tend to be rather passionate about freedom of expression). Rather, they maintain that religion should not be accorded a privileged role - of the kind that it enjoys in Britain, where bishops sit in the upper legislative chamber, schools inculcating belief (but not those promoting secular openmindedness) enjoy government funding, religious representatives are routinely invited onto policy commissions, and religious commentators have guaranteed slots on TV and radio.

As one commenter at CiF has pointed out, being on the right side in a political struggle doesn't make a movement intrinsically virtuous (apparently even drug barons have opposed the regime in Burma), and it certainly doesn't give it a monopoly on virtue. There are believers and unbelievers on both sides in most political contests (another commenter reminds us that Burma is officially Buddhist and therefore it's likely that some regime members are as 'religious' as those who oppose them). Nor does a single virtuous action necessarily mean that the entire religion is, of itself, a good thing. It certainly doesn't make its beliefs 'true' - and as I've argued before, when it comes to religion, this (rather than whether it is positive, useful, life-enhancing, etc) is the only question that ultimately matters.

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