Religion & religiosity

Some interesting news in international religions today. Perhaps the most astonishing event over Christmas was that the Pope chose his Christmas message, the one directed inwards for the officials of the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church’s central administrative offices at the Vatican, to attack same sex marriage.

Yes, this is the same man who, the week before, gave a special blessing to Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of the House in Uganda’s Parliament, who in an interview with Reuters said that she would ensure that the gaol-the-gays bill (formerly known as the “kill-the-gays bill”) would be passed, as a “Christmas gift” for the Ugandan people.

The Pope’s message repeated the dualistic determinism theory of human nature: we are created man & woman and there can therefore be no other form of marriage. He denies that marriage is about a social construct, but is inherent in human nature. Apparently without irony, the celibate Pope said that as the commitment to traditional family declines, “essential elements of the experience of being human are lost”.

Meanwhile, in unrelated news, people around the world continue to turn away from religion. In striking confirmation of Marx, there is a strong positive correlation between religious belief and poverty, lack of education, and violence. A recent WIN-Gallup meta-study confirms these long term trends.

The study does not cover all countries, and, presumably through accident rather than design, it omits Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia: all of the Theravada countries. Most of what it says about religion, therefore, cannot be extrapolated to Theravada. It is still the case that the phrasing of the questions leave Buddhists out in the cold: are you religious or atheist? All Buddhists are atheists in the sense of not believing in a Creator God. Until those doing the surveys get a better methodology we may never really know how Buddhism fits with these worldwide trends.

The only interesting snippet regarding Buddhism in the survey was that Buddhists rank by far the highest in the answer to the question, “Do you regard yourself as a religious person” 97% of Buddhists agreed with this, as opposed to around 80% for most Christian denominations, 74% for Muslims, and 38% for Jews. Given the problems with the survey as far as Buddhists are concerned, I wouldn’t want to read too much into this, however.


12 thoughts on “Religion & religiosity

  1. Was that the same survey that found a correlation between poor mental health and lack of religion, with many of those people identifying themselves as ‘spiritual’ instead?

    Although a comment on that struck me “Religion is for those who fear hell, spirituality is for those who have been there”. I think that would strike a chord in many of us who have turned to Buddhism.

  2. “People around the world continue to turn away from religion”

    “This tragedy would not have happened if she had chanted God’s name and fallen at the feet of the attackers. The error was not committed by just one side,”

    Sure yeah….. might have worked who knows.

    What is the answer to the abuse of women in Indian….so far it seems to be bringing back the death penalty or “falling at the feet of the attackers and chanting God’s name”

    Both seem a little extreme!

    Outrage as Indian guru blames Delhi rape victimABC
    Updated January 8, 2013, 11:27 pm tweet2
    A popular Indian spiritual guru has sparked a backlash after saying a 23-year-old student could have averted a murderous gang-rape by begging for mercy from her attackers.

    Self-styled godman Asharam, known to his followers as Bapu, or father, told his devotees on Tuesday that blame for the assault on a moving bus in New Delhi on December 16 should not just rest with her attackers.

    “This tragedy would not have happened if she had chanted God’s name and fallen at the feet of the attackers. The error was not committed by just one side,” he said in video footage which has been widely circulated on the internet.

    The 71-year-old’s remarks – the latest in a series of gaffes by public figures blaming women for the country’s rape epidemic – drew a chorus of condemnation.

    Ravi Shankar Prasad, spokesman for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said the statement was “deeply disturbing and painful”.

    “For him to make the statement in relation to a crime which has shocked the conscience of the country is not only unfortunate but deeply regrettable,” he told reporters.

    The Hindu newspaper said it was “a disgrace when a man of religion stoops so low”.

    “Asharam deserves to be condemned in the strongest words,” the daily added in an editorial.

    The editorial also criticised politicians from the ruling Congress party as well as the BJP for their sexist commentary on the Delhi rape and the need for Indian women to stay home and make traditional choices.

    “Their notions of … an ideal society appear rooted in the very prejudices that have engendered a culture of violence against women, the Delhi incident being its most recent and horrific manifestation,” the newspaper said.

    Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of India’s president and who is a Congress politician, landed himself in hot water last month after comparing women who took part in protests over the gang-rape to patched up second-hand cars.

    Five men have been charged with rape and murder in the December 16 attack on the young student.

    A sixth accused, who is 17, is to be tried in a separate court for juveniles.

  3. Dear Bhante Sujato,

    In response to the above, I’d like to share the First of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings we commit to when we take refuge in the Triple Gem, through Thich Nhat Hanh’s Sangha.

    It reads,
    “The First Mindfulness Training: Openness
    Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. We are committed to seeing the Buddhist teachings as a guiding means that help us learn to look deeply and develop understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for. We understand that fanaticism in its many forms is the result is the result of perceiving things in a dualistic or discriminative manner. We will train ourselves to look at everything with openness and the insight of interbeing in order to transform dogmatism and violence in ourselves and the world.”

    In the data and reflections above, are we speaking about being religious or being more driven to clinging to something, an identity, the raft the Buddha advises us to leave at the edge of the shore once we have crossed; superstition? When the human being is impoverished, illiterate and vulnerable to the daily fear of being raped, robbed, imprisoned without trial, tortured, going hungry, dying in childbirth, being a refugee, being trafficked, gettng beaten to death by gangs, by your husband, etc…are we more vulnerable to cling to an identity construct – a sense of self- as the self is being clawed away or brutalised by destructive forces….

    I guess what I am asking is whether any causality has been established between the high rate of religiosity and violence, or is it more the clinging to doctrines, ideologies, which we can see in “left and right” politic and in all of our clinging to views. There is ample evidence to link poverty and illiteracy, and poverty and violence, and poverty, illiteracy and religiosity. It is logical that the less we are educated, the higher the illiteracy, the more susceptible we are to believe those sources available to us: word of mouth, gossip, superstition, rumour, television, myths, legends and stereotypes. The harsher our human conditions, the more likely we are to cling, or to cave in on sila, as per the Buddha’s discourse on dana.

    I would have to be blind not to see how identity constructs – such as clinging to this doctrine or that doctrine becomes an accelerator for human conflict, especially when other factors are present such as poverty, illiteracy, desperation, a prevalent arms trade and a faction or neighbour who commits to igniting the flames.

    It is so obvious in so many conflicts, when push comes to shove, someone places a bomb in a church or a mosque or a synagogue – perhaps once – or as many times as necessary – until that fire is lit into full blown conflict. But is it because they are religious or is it a more complex combination of causes and conditions and a greater potential for reaction based on religious identity construct? Often we see conflict arising around religious identity in areas where different religions have lived side by side for a long time – like New Delhi, a city that swings between a coexisting melting pot and a bloody graveyard age over age over age. But I am not seeing the causality between being religious and being violent – I am seeing rather this set of causes and conditions that can produce identity-fuelled conflict.

    The Buddha taught us to see fluidity in identity, and if we are truly Buddhist, we commit to this in every aspect of thought word action, as difficult as that may be. I bow to the Buddha who taught us to see social constructs and their seeds in the five khandas, and how the world we live in is a collective production of these. I remain astonished that there are so many adherents to Buddhism who miss this teaching, and how the head of a Christian sect can miss similar teachings of Jesus meant to free us from these constructs. There is no doubt, it can be a difficult one to realize, but the signs, the teachings are everywhere so manifest in our personal and collective experiences.

    As for the Theravada countries, we do know that they remain the worst perpetrators of trafficking of little girls as young as 3, 4 or 5 up to women of all ages for a life of violent sexual slavery, and that people in these societies rest on the social construct of female as lower birth, a total misconstruction of the very essence of the Buddha’s teachings, to justify not doing anything about it and even to justify doing it. This is a sinister violence rather than open conflict, but it involves weapons and systems, failures of justice, and perpetuates the impoverishment of these countries, economically and spiritually. I can see the direct causality more precisely here, perhaps because it is more specific…(if still to general!)

    Could I keep this first Mindfulness Training if I were that poor, hadnt travelled and read as I have, if conflict broke out in my part of the world, small arms were judiciously distributed by profiteers and had my family been harmed while attending a religious ceremony of some kind…or are these seeds in me just as they are in someone in a far away country which identifies itself as religious? I already break it from time to time under far less dramatic conditions! Perhaps what I am doing is trying not to let us create another identity construct while we are in the process of trying to understand them, unless a specific causality has been established…

    Reflections offered in passing… _/\_

    • Thank you so much, Lisa, some beautifu reflections there.

      I agree with all you say, and it is certainly not religion as such that is the source of violence. Religion is shaped more than it shapes; so it reflects our humanity, for good or for ill. There are some areas, though, where religion has a special disposition to contribute to these problems. One is the inherent conservatism of religion. While it is no bad thing to keep the memory of humanity’s best alive, unfortunately most religions have a mixture of the best and worst, and are not very discriminating in what they keep and what they dispose of. And there is also something more basic in the very notion of a religion, I think. I wrote about this some time ago as the “Tyranny of Transcendence”. Religion orients our life towards a sense of the hisghest good; but in doing so it can have the sad effect of hardening our compassion for the lesser goods, like the lives and sufferings of thse who our actions affect. This is very evident in the horrific prevalence of slavery of women in some Theravadin countries, as you mentioned, a practice that is rationalized by those who say, “It’s their kamma.”

  4. Dear Venerable Sujato,
    Thank you for your kind reply.
    On an unrelated note, I was just listening to one of your talks from 2008 – which indicated that it was your 15th year in the robes. Does that mean 2013 marks your 20th year? There are many of us who would wish to celebrate, even if you would keep it quiet, then again, I may have missed the boat entirely, which I would sincerely regret. In any case, if you are amenable to sharing this info., can you tell us, is this your 20th year?

  5. Hi there, (first timer).
    Fantastic to have this blog.
    Was just reflecting on lack of stats, regarding Buddhists. I dont think that the world is ready to understand the Buddhist way.
    And as Buddhism isnt a ‘Religion’ I personally dont think there is a catagory? We are just truly blessed I guess.
    Blessings to you.

  6. I like to believe there was a human named Jesus Christ who went around trying to spread Peace. Christianity became however as a way to control people. I believe Jesus Christ when he said he was the son of God.. simply meant we are all the daughters & sons of the Universe. (and should live in Peace)

    I became formally an Agnostic at 17 (I am 51 now). I went to Catholic School and was ‘forced’ to go to church for 17 years until I lived on my own. I felt that the Catholic Church made their ‘God’ sound like a SADISTIC with stories of Noah’s Ark (and all dying except for a few); and the horrible story of Abraham and his wife Sara who did not have a child until they were very old (and then God had to ‘test’ his faith/loyalty by asking Abraham to sacrifice his own young son. And then it just a PRANK.. that God was just testing him. I felt as a child the whole thing sounded ‘immature’ and and that this God sounded pretty sick. (I did not know the word Sadistic until I was older)

    I hold no MAN on a pedestal but I admire certain individuals that stand for Peace like Ajahn Brahm; Christ the Man; Gandhi; and 14th Dalai Lama; etc… and also YOU. I love your YouTube talk.

    I meditate on World Peace to all. I come across people that have experience so much DUKKA when they were young children; and they have become the most peaceful and kind adults .. with hope of Peace and Serenity for all.

    Please keep spreading your ‘words of peace’ in all manners.


    Betty Ann of NYC
    Buddhist the last 3 years which is not a religion to me but a simply common sense and a way of life. 🙂

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