We’ve been having some discussion about fundamentalism. As a member of a religious order, it is a problem of great concern for me. I genuinely believe that humanity’s religious heritage is its finest flower, yet it seems to fall so easily to the depths.
In the last few days I’ve also been thinking about pornography. Not, one might imagine, the most usual topic for a celibate monk to engage, except, of course, to morally condemn. My own experience is limited; but I was once a teenage boy. ‘Nuff said.
This train of thought was stimulated a few weeks ago, when I did a gig on happiness with a local philosopher, Caroline West. I did a little background research, and one of her most accessible articles online happened to be on “Pornography and Censorship” for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It’s an excellent article, do yourself a favor.
She starts with the famous quote by Justice Stewart: “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” I feel kind of the same about fundamentalism. And I wonder whether the similarities might go deeper.
The use of “porn” as a derogatory adjective has spread beyond its use for sexually explicit material. A recent Guardian review, for example, called the movie 2012 “disaster porn”. I wonder whether such an unconscious extension of the word might not reveal something of the associations of the word that more formal approaches might miss.
I haven’t seen the film, so this is just speculative. But I think what it’s getting at is that the depiction of disaster is so explicit that the mechanics of the thing overwhelm the rest of what makes a good film – story, character, theme, and so on.
Good art is always integrative. It shows human activities, choices, and feelings, and puts it in a nuanced, complex context that enhances a sense of fullness and humanity.
Pornography, on the other hand, is reductive and dis-integrative. Rather than depicting sex as a part of life, in the midst of relationship, emotion, human developments, successes, dangers, and failings, it focuses on the mere mechanics: genitals in motion. Sexual desire always spins around and moves towards this; having sex is a key desired outcome of any intimate relationship. But in pornography this becomes the only thing. People, and especially women, become nothing more than life support for sex organs. Relationship, emotion, consequences, are all stripped away to create a dissociative fantasy.
It might seem as if there’s nothing in common between pornography and fundamentalism. After all, fundamentalists are always arch-moralizers, intent on telling everybody else what they should do. But there are some similarities even on the surface. Both groups are obsessed with sex. Christian & Islamic fundamentalists spend inordinate effort railing against homosexuality, promiscuity, pre-marital sex, or indeed anything that doesn’t fit their own tiny imagined version of human possibility. Buddhists opposed to bhikkhuni ordination are likewise caught up on the shape of genital organs as the defining factor in ordained life.
But it seems to me that there are more, err, fundamental similarities. Just as pornography strips away all complexity and nuance to focus obsessively on the one object of desire, fundamentalism does the same thing to religion.
Fundamentalists ignore context, history, nuance. They imagine an eternal, changeless religion that is dissociated from anything that has actually happened in the real world.
In real human relationships, sex is an intense, central part of a far more complex situation. Porn strips that away and focuses on the sheer physical locus of desire.
In genuine spirituality, too, the central beliefs of a devotee function in a complex nuanced way in relation to the devotee’s entire life.
The fundamentalist shares with many more typical devotees a belief in naive, literal doctrinal assertions, like ‘the Bible is the word of God’, or ‘the Tipitaka was spoken in its entireity by the Buddha’. But for most people these beliefs form a background part of a complex, changing relationship with their spiritual tradition. A fundamentalist focuses obsessively on these unprovable and implausible doctrinal assertions, as a pornographer focuses obsessively on ‘genitals in motion’.
Just as pornography depicts the highest happiness as a mechanical stimulus of physical parts, with no genuine human involvement, fundamentalism sees the spiritual life as the conformity with a set of defined beliefs, with no genuine concern for the well being of people. While true practitioners practice their religion because it makes themselves and others genuinely happy, fundamentalists want to prove they are happy so that they can convert others to their beliefs. It is immaterial to fundamentalism whether people are reasonable, sane, or happy, as long as they subscribe to the right set of beliefs.
I have mentioned many times that I have no answer to the problem, that I believe fundamentalism to be extremely dangerous, and yet I have despaired at being able to seriously communicate with fundamentalists. In the wake of the recent scandal with Pastor Rory, who was hauled up by the Singapore authorities for criticizing Buddhism, Ven. Dhammika has said that he thinks interfaith dialogue is of little use in dealing with fundamentalism. I would agree, the fundamentalists just don’t show. That doesn’t mean interfaith work is no use; there are plenty of other good reasons for doing it. We just shouldn’t expect to have any direct impact on the fundamentalists.
Dhammika suggests using government-sponsored initiatives to reward healthy spiritual groups. This is a fine idea, but it will not solve the problem. Fundamentalists thrive in seeing themselves as the ‘other’, a persecuted minority under siege from the secular encroachments of modernity. They would love nothing more than to ‘prove’ how disadvantaged they are by the way the government only supports other groups. Martyrdom does wonders for a religion’s popularity.
The other day we had an Australian Religious Response to Climate Change meeting. We all felt a little depressed after the debacle at Copenhagen, and the ascension of prominent skeptic Tony Abbott to opposition leader. We discussed holding a faith and climate change forum in Canberra and inviting the PM and Mr. Abbott. But I was worried about this: why should we give the skeptics a platform, as if they were presenting an actual reasonable interpretation of the science? It’s like allowing the Creationists to teach their myths next to Darwin in the science class.
As I was pondering these things, it occurred to me that the Buddha laid down a specific punishment for the incorrigible Channa. Called the brahmadaṇḍa, it is effectively the silent treatment. Whatever he says, ignore him.
This cuts to the heart of a genuine human need to be heard. We need to express ourselves, to believe that what we think and feel is worthy of others’ attention and response. I think we just shouldn’t talk to the fundamentalists. If anyone is engaging in ‘religious pornography’, trying to force on you their own narrow-minded, uncompassionate, literal dogmas, don’t grant them the dignity of a reasonable response.
Some time ago I posted a powerful statement by Bishop Spong where he said much the same thing: he was not going to waste his time talking to bigots and fundamentalists as if they were reasonable human beings. There’s simply not enough time in our short lives.
If we adopt this policy, not as a mark of failure or uncertainty, not as a lack of compassion but as an expression of it, we will free our own minds and time for positive work. And as the example of Channa shows, it can be an effective policy. Channa was so mortified he apologized, asked to be taught, and became an arahant.
A couple of days ago I was sent a file called How_to_convert_Buddhist_to_Christianity, which is a lesson for Christian children, evidently from Singapore, on how to convert their Buddhist friends. There’s no need to detail the breathtaking stupidity, error, hypocrisy, and arrogance in this approach. I would agree with Richard Dawkins that inculcating children with this rubbish is a form of child abuse which may well be more damaging than physical abuse. Even their own children are not treated as real humans in need of genuine spiritual sustenance from their chosen religion, but as tools in a propaganda war. Their children’s “Buddhist friends” are no more than targets for conversion.
Mums and dads: tell your kids not to put up with this! Show them this document and explain why it is wrong. If anyone comes to your kids with this kind of propaganda, ask your kids to just say no. Don’t engage. Don’t respond as if this were a genuine way of relating between people of different faiths. Explain to your children that this is not a respectful way of relating to people of different faiths. Peddlers of fundamentalism to schoolchildren should be treated like peddlers of drugs or pornography. Write a letter, send it to the school board, and cc as many people as possible: the teacher, headmaster, Department of Education, local Churches, media…
It is not easy to tell the difference between a fundamentalist conversion attempt and a genuine dialogue. Just as in the article I’ve uploaded, the fundamentalist will always hide their true motives under the guise of dialogue. They practice this and train themselves.
It’s crucial that parents don’t just tell their kids about the wrong kind of dialogue. Children must be shown the right kind. If your children go to a Sunday school or other Buddhist class, find out where there’s a local open-minded mosque, church, temple, or synagogue. Take the Buddhist kids there, talk with the priest or whoever, and, if possible, with other children. Encourage them to ask, find out, and learn about each others’ religions, and see what this can do to improve their own practice.
Fundamentalism is to religion what pornography is to relationship. As long as it does not cause clear and immediate harm, it should be tolerated within its legal boundaries. But, just as a pornography has no place in a discussion on genuine human relationships, fundamentalism has no place in a genuine dialogue on spirituality.