Religious Offences

Thursday December 21, 2006

Poseidon

It seems these days that every time I pick up a newspaper or read the news, I come across some story about one religious group or another claiming that they have been offended by this or that behaviour of their fellow citizens. Recently, for example, the Berlin Opera house cancelled its performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo after protests from religious groups. The opera performance was to feature the severed heads of Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha and Poseidon. I had no idea that there were so many devotees of Poseidon in Germany, nor that they were so vocal, but when the opera re-opened a few days ago, it was with airport style security just in case any of the outraged devotees of the sea-god were moved to acts of violence.

This kind of story is now depressingly familiar. We have had Muslims outraged by a bunch of cartoons, Christians outraged by Jerry Springer, the Opera, Buddhists outraged by bikinis, Sikhs outraged by theatre productions in Birmingham… and the list goes on. It is possible to see these as isolated events, but I don’t think that they are. Instead they seem to be part of a culture in which such religious outrage is considered, if not justified, then at least justifiable; and this in turn seems to be part of a wider tendency to grant religious claims a privileged status, placing them beyond the kind of legitimate criticism we may make of other claims.

This growing tendency to exempt religious claims from the kind of examination and debate to which we might wish to subject all other claims is a perilous one, I think. For there is, as Dan Dennett has pointed out, a real and urgent need to investigate the claims that religious adherents make on behalf of their faiths. And if these claims are solid, then there is no need at all for religious adherents to fear such investigation. Religion, as I have said here before, should not need protecting.

Of course, the perspective drawn from Buddhist psychology is uncompromising: if you are angry, then the anger is your problem. If you are outraged, then the outrage is yours to deal with. To rail against the world – which is, after all, big and way beyond any individual’s control – does not lead to happiness, simply because we can never fix it, we can never arrange the world so as to meet all our requirements. As Shantideva asks, what is easier: to cover the entire world with leather so that it is soft to walk upon, or to put on a pair of shoes? And sometimes, when I see the latest religious or community “spokesperson” ranting away and saying “We will not stand for this outrage!”, I think to myself, “OK, then. Don’t be outraged.

Having said this, we live in dangerous times. Given that there are those who will be easily outraged, it is necessary to proceed with caution: the deliberate provoking of others is an act that is lacking in wisdom. If I poke a stick into a hornet’s nest, I can hardly feel self-righteous when I am stung. And the sad fact is that many religious folks these days are increasingly hornet-like. Given that this is the case, it is necessary to find a way forward that does not further inflame the heat of religious passions, but that also does not shrink from legitimate criticism.

To frame the current situation as a conflict between the right to free speech and the rights of the religious to be protected from offence seems to me to give us a fatally narrow picture. If we set up the situation in terms of two conflicting rights, we are never going to see things clearly. Instead what is needed is a more cautious approach. Firstly, we need to break with the superstitious awe that surrounds religion and the a priori assumption that religion is a good thing. Secondly, having done so, we should refuse to give religion a privileged status in public life, for its value is insufficiently established. Then we need to commence the work of careful investigation.

Two and a half thousand years ago, the Buddha advised the Kalamas thus:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them…
Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

Image: CarbonNYC

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