Monday, October 25, 2010

Does Religion Make People Better?

I have just read for the umpteenth time that ‘morality only become meaningful with religion’ and that ‘without religion anything becomes permissible’, and of course the word ‘religion’ is almost always used to mean belief one or another deity or god. I have long had trouble with these claims, not because I dislike religion but because I like and take an interest in history. I know of few historical facts demonstrating that religious devotion made people better or that being non-religious made people worse. I have just read parts of Nelson Mandela’s Conversations With Myself – letters he wrote and notes he made during his long incarceration. Some parts are this absorbing book are painful to read. The loneliness, the separation from his family, the isolation and the physical hardship caused him, as you would expect, terrible distress. That he didn’t give in to despair as the long years, the slow decades, rolled by says something about his incredible conviction. But it also made me question even more the often-repeated and widely accepted claims mentioned above.
Just a few facts. Apartheid, one of the more wicked and inhuman ideologies of the 20th century, was the brainchild of a group of deeply religious people, the Afrikaans. According to Wikipedia, and I’ve read the same claim elsewhere, Afrikaans have long had the highest rate of consistent churchgoing of any group of people in the world. D. F. Malan who set up the apartheid system in 1948 had studied theology and was an ordained Protestant minister. His successor Hendrick Verwoerd had doctorates in and theology and psychology cum laude and was likewise a conspicuously pious man. Even those Afrikaans who had no part in establishing apartheid were happy to benefit from it, endorse it and vote for those who implemented it – as they regularly attended church – churches that were racially segregated after the Churches Native Laws Amendment Act of 1957. And as apartheid met with more and more resistance from people like Nelson Mandela, pious Afrikaans lied, bribed, fixed elections and stacked courts in their favor; they beat, tortured and murdered their opponents to keep apartheid going. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission even established that P. W Botha, another deeply religious man, had ordered the bombing of the South African Council of Churches headquarters in Johannesburg.
To dismiss Malan’s, Verwoerd’s and the others’ piety as insincere and self-serving would be to ignore facts. Even their most bitter opponants acknowledged that they were staunchly religious men who prayed and read the Bible regulary. In fact, it was probably their firm, albeit it misguided, belief that they were doing what God had ordained that made them so determined to uphold apartheid. Oh, and just so one particular religion doesn’t get all the thumping, it is equally true that other South African Christians opposed apartheid with a similar determination, and   I know of deeply religious Sinhalese Buddhists who excused and justified some of the worst cruelty of Sri Lanka's civil war.
Nelson Mandela on the other hand, who is quite irreligious, stood up to apartheid long before it was popular to do so, endured decades of cruel imprisonment (and they really were cruel to him) and emerged from this martyrdom seemingly without any  rancor or ill-will and with a readiness to engage with and forgive his former tormentors. So does ‘morality only become meaningful with religion’ and is it true that ‘without religion everything becomes permissible?' I see no evidence for this. People can be deeply and devotedly religious and commit great evil. Likewise, someone could be without any conventional religious conviction and yet have the highest standards of morality and integrity. So it’s not just religious conviction that makes the difference but something or some things else. What?


Terasi said...

I'd like to think that religions do have their use for a nation (or at least to groups of people), mostly to the moderate/mild tempered ones. The examples Bhante put there are extraordinary individuals and a group of Afrikaans who are led by extraordinary individuals (their leaders, who happened to be jerks...), but for the common people religions do colour their behaviour and way of thinking. I grew up in the largest Moslem country in the world - but moderate ones! I looked at people around me and thought that without religion (even if they are not really knowledgeable about their own faith), they would have been a different kind of people.

‘Morality only become meaningful with religion’ and ‘without religion everything becomes permissible’ are not valid, but people's morality does have something to do with the group's religion.

Anonymous said...

Just a slight correction: the ethnic group referred to in your post are Afrikaners - Afrikaans refers to the language they speak.

I have to agree with Terasi's comment. There will always be extreme examples of individuals who are "deeply" religious and yet patently immoral, if not outright evil. Religious people will often cite Stalin or Pol Pot as counterexamples of atheist leaders who were equally wicked, if not more so, claiming that their régimes are merely the logical end result of a completely secularised society. This is just as absurd and unfair, in my opinion.

I think for the common person, however, religious belief does provide a sort of moral compass that that person would not otherwise have. Here in the West, which is increasingly secular and where religion has all but completely lost its influence in our daily lives, we have a very superficial culture of decadence and instant gratification, where self-restraint is actually seen as a bad thing! I blame this in large part to the loss of religious practice and belief.

Joe Lim said...

man created religions.
just like how we created words like buddhism and buddhist.
i dun think gotama buddha wanted an organised religion we see today.

Anonymous said...

This seems to be a "glass half empty" or "glass half full" subject. On the one hand we have bigots, murderers, thieves, "evil" people. On the other hand we have loving, truthful, benevolent, "good" people.
What is it that makes the difference? It can not be the "religion", or the "culture". There is the mixture of nurturing ( or the lack there of ) or nature... (genetics ). No one yet has the answer, and therapy and incarceration does not guarantee a positive result. Someone once said to me something that made a lot of since, and I have remembered and followed it's advice. "Clean your own rice bowl."

dmkorman said...

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

Steven Weinberg, quoted in The New York Times, April 20, 1999 (winner of Nobel Prize in Physics)

Soe am i said...

About coloring people's behavior, it is also true of groups that are non-religious. Basically it is the company we keep. I learnt this Chinese phrase back in school when i was younger and it has been stuck in me ever since. Translated, it goes like: "Near Vermilion, One Gets Stained Red; Near Ink, One Gets Stained Black".

I view it like this. Every group, be it a religion, denomination, sect, political party or fan-club has a set of certain set of "higher values" that are promoted above others.

There will be religions that promote good morals and others that don't(cults?). There will be people who claim to belong to a certain religion but they could not care less about upholding basic moral tenets of their religion. So not all religions or religious groups will color the common man in more spiritually vibrant hues or equip him with a working moral compass.

Imagine if there were no groups to exist in? Or no urge for us to belong to a group. Making our own effort to figure out our lives. Learning from others and with others and also our own experiences. Many of us have been blessed with the means to do it.

I recall Bhante's story of a fellow monk who was learning from a famous mediation teacher in Burma. Without much attachment to others' pleasant or even unpleasant qualities, we will free ourselves to be able to learn what is truly worthwhile.

I'd say, for good people to do evil, it takes ignorance. Stupidity is a close second because being good and being stupid are not mutually exclusive.)

fred said...

I would be interested to read about the Sri Lankhan civil war which you refer to. I believe the Tamils killed all the monks and novices, leaving only a single novice who fled into the jungle for forty years.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Fred,
Sri Lanka’s civil war started in the early 80s and came to a bloody end earlier this year. The news papers regularly reported on it and I am rather surprised that you have never heard about it. I lived in the country for much of that time and I can assure you that of its approx 22,000 monks, several dozen were killed in the fighting while all the rest were, and I believe, still are, very much alive. As for the lone novice living in the forest, that’s news to me. Could it be that you have been living in the forest for 40 years?

fred said...

Sorry....i got mixed up. I was reffering to the time about the year 2100 E, when Portugese Christians and their accompanying soldiers were causing havok, destroying temples etc. and perhaps the Tamils took the opportunity to try and wipe Buddhism from Sri Lankha. All the monks and novices were herded into a temple and killed..... over ten thousand I believe.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Fred,
Ah! Now I understand what you were asking about. But of course that was not a civil war, but one against a foreign invader. Also, your understanding of the situation during that grim period of Sri Lankan history needs a lot of clarification. Portuguese domination went from the 1550s to 1761, not ‘2100 E’. They only conquered the maritime provinces and Buddhism and Buddhist monks continued to exist in the Kandyian Kingdom. Many monks were killed but most were expelled or left for the Kandyan Kingdom. There is no records I know of from that time or in earlier or later periods of the Tamils ‘taking the opportunity to try to wipe out Buddhism’. And again, I have never heard of this ‘lone surviving novice’ scenario. There are many good books on the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka during this period. I bit of reading should give you a less confused, more accurate understanding of the Buddhist history of Sri Lanka. Happy reading.

peace said...

i enjoy reading your reflections Bhante. my view is that the idea of morality is fundamental to human existence and is founded on survival of one's own kind. call it love if you may, for that matter, compassionate love (and if i may, in Buddhist term, Buddha-nature). the concept of religion, however, is a human construct and vary depending on culture, customs and so on. from this perspective, one need not be religious or have a religion in order to be moral.

thank you for your constant sharing.

Lee Yue Heng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee Yue Heng said...

Venerable Dhammika:

This is not really on-topic, but your writing about religion and morality reminded me of a recent incident at the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society, during Venerable Thubten Chodron's talk about desires. During the Q and A session, you read out a question from an anonymous person. The wording was less than grammatically perfect and you rather sarcastically advised the person to go for English classes.

I don't think that was very nice. One would expect more tact from a Buddhist monk with years of training in meditation.

ricoBaby said...

religion can bring out the best and worst from people

ricoBaby said...

PS: this is me,Richard by the way

Soe am i said...

Yueheng's comment brought this question to mind: what is the relationship between empathy and morality? I was not present to witness bhante's sarcasm but I believe more often than not he does so in jest. I do not know if years of monkhood and meditation would wash away one's personality quirks. Bhante probably won't conform to the social norm of trying to please everyone but if intended to benefit, i'm sure bhante would welcome suggestions. Right bhante?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Mmmm. Interesting. So was it sarcasm mistaken for humor, humor mistaken for sarcasm or humorous sarcasm?

Lee Yue Heng said...

I recorded part of the talk and here's what happened. Venerable Dhammika was reading out a written query from one of the audience: "Does it mean that we should always be happy even...we have or do not have the things that we desire or (indistinct)...not how we (indistinct)..." Venerable Dhammika then said : "I would say, first of all, visit an English class and learn more ok English." Some members of the audience laughed, but I did not find it amusing.

One of my friends - a non-Buddhist- who came for the talk was taken aback and thought the "joke" was rude and uncalled for.

If a moderator at a secular event had done something like that, it would certainly be considered discourteous. But should the moderator get a free pass just because he wears the robes of a Buddhist monk?

Soe am i said...

A translation of verse in the dhammapada goes "Should one find a man who points out faults and who reproves, let him follow such a wise and sagacious person as one would a guide to hidden treasure. It is always better, and never worse, to cultivate such an association."

So no one should get a free pass and the buddhist concept of kamma does not differentiate based on occupation, popularity, age, sexual orientation, sense of humor, IQ, wealth, health etc.

On a lighter note here's quote i came across "Opportunity knocks.
Karma hunts you down" author unknown