By Kasun Kamaladasa –
I decided to write on this subject despite the heavy criticism I may face from some people, because I remember a time when Buddhism was a philosophy that brought peace, calm and joy to me. It made me think about the world in a much broader sense, helped me understand and appreciate the differences in people at an age I did not have access to the world and its vast knowledge of many philosophies and sciences.
The temple was a place that accepted all people no matter what they wore (Black, White or another Color, dress, saree, shorts…. In theory even naked) or who they were (Devotee, Beggar or Stranger), it was a place of calm and quite, a place where one might get lost in his own thoughts. The huge open areas of sand would bring the feeling of a beach and a few lit lanterns would give an ambience of mystique. The simplicity Dharma preached was shown with a naked tree that gave shade and a padura to sit down and relax.
Today Buddhism has turned into religion that has no resemblance to its teachings. Temples are noisy places with judgmental people. People who completely ignore searching for self-enlightenment and instead concentrate on how to enlighten (control) others. Dictating how people should dress, demanding for undeserved respect, ordering people how to behave and endorsing politicians and the rich, presenting them as saints and saviors of the poor and mistreated.
The philosophy part of Buddhism is practically non existing with monks catering to a fearful society and its fear mongering politics, demonizing everything that is not agreeable to the devotees, who regularly donate time and money to them.
I don’t really know when exactly or how but I no longer identify myself with any religion. It could simply be that I was disgusted by the lack of empathy and understanding I saw in these groups. How they wrapped themselves in an “Egoistic attire”, myths and superstitions, how they would try to protect traditions and NOT people, how they arose in politics and forced/demanded everyone to respect them just because they wore some sort of special robe. I guess It might be a combination of all of that and also seeing how people who had no such religion (prior commitment to serve god or dharma) were much sincerer, truthful and abided the law.
Nonetheless almost all of my friends do identify with some religion so I do get asked one question form almost every single one of them.
“What is wrong with believing in something, if it makes you feel good and harms no one else?”
When I was young and thought monsters lived under my bed and was afraid to sleep, my mother taught me a Buddhist prayer and told me monsters cannot harm you if you say this before you sleep. I started saying the prayer and after that day both me and my parents could sleep without my monsters waking us up. Looking back, I know there were no monsters and that Buddhist prayer really didn’t do anything but make me feel like I had a tool powerful enough to ward the monsters away.
But what happens when these monsters are real and we are no longer 5 years old? What if the monster is your local politician who wants a commission of whatever you are making? If it is a thug who waits to take your money in the street? What if it is the local temple monk who thinks he has the right to do anything he pleases since the police will not punish him as they would to any other person who does same crime? A prayer (or hope of Karma) might ease our minds. but will keep us as constant victims of these monsters. We will also enable similar monsters to haunt our next generations.
It is a common misunderstanding that science is an alternate opinion just as valid or even less valid than religion, and that both explain the world in different ways and that both could be right.
Science isn’t really an explanation rather a continuous exploration and an endless reevaluation of our understanding, so comparing the two is like comparing a rock with a cow.
Science does have a certain amount of belief mixed into it, for example in a hospital a doctor should be able to trust (believe) a lab result. He or she should trust that the patient was obedient to the instructions, the nurse who took the sample was careful not to contaminate it, the lab it was used to test was adhering to all guidelines, heath care company that made the lab equipment have done so without error and of cause that the medical literature he had referred to understand the result was up-to-date.
But unlike religion, all these steps are repeated all around the world and we have roughly the same results, all of these steps will change with time when we find better solutions and most importantly all these steps are overseen and certified by independent companies, groups and ministries (I do realize for those of you who understand politics of healthcare in Sri Lanka, it isn’t the best example to give because we do have a religious attitude towards doctors, hence the problem of correcting its faults)
While all Religions evolve around a single persons’ idea, science is evolved with ideas of many such people. People who can be questioned, criticized, scrutinized and even ridiculed (because their ego isn’t threatened if they are wrong)
Harm of religion
Most people think religions are benign at worst and at best do more good than bad, while I cannot deny that there are good aspects of religion I do not think that just because there are positive aspects of something that we should ignore the negative. Because if a rapist has done so much good in his life and has been invaluable to society it does not justify the rape.
I cannot cover all harm that religion does in one article but I will try to explore a few negative aspects of it.
1. Education and Understanding
In current society the main foundation of any religion is that it contains the absolute truth. That it is ancient therefore sacred and should not be scrutinized. This is the absolute opposite of what science based education is where there are no absolute truths and where everything is supposed to be questioned over and over again. (Fun fact: there are 4000+ religions in the world with all of them claiming to be the absolute truth)
When people believe in absolute truths they will naturally lack understanding of other peoples’ interests, differences and histories. Trying to take away freedoms of other people so they too will follow absolute the truth that the religion believes in.
Today this has caused many problems. Lack of understanding basic biology has led to discrimination of LGBT groups, lack of understanding of history and society has led to discrimination of ethnic groups, lack of understanding of sex, embryology and circumstances lead to criminalizing abortions and criminalizing sexual fetishes and sex work, lack of understanding of political systems and history to rising support for death penalty, punishment and public humiliation. The list goes on.
2. Disrespecting the laws.
It has for a long time in history been so that clergy of all religions have had different set of rules and enjoyed comforts that only royalty would otherwise receive. This throughout history have given clergy a sense of power and righteousness to disobey the law to “protect” what they deem necessary. Dark ages were a prime example how Christian clergy succeeded in this, today we see Arabic countries with extremists doing the same thing and we fear it. Yet when it comes to Buddhist clergy doing the same everyone keeps silent or use cover-ups and ignore/delay. Classic example would be 119 calls for the Sri Lanka Police not being responded when the complaint is against a clergy/ temple, the law enforcing institutions too, trying to save an already fallen, vanishing and undeserved respect.
3. Political power for the corrupt.
One of the main reasons todays (Applied to Kings and Queens of the past as well) failing politicians remain in power is because of endorsements from corrupt clergy. As long as Dhaham Pasal are given better treatment, Temples are exempt from taxes, Donation boxes unregulated, Ample gifts are given, clergy will keep convincing uneducated people to vote for those corrupt politicians.
4. Attractiveness of Superstition
From rewards in afterlife (or Next life) for bribing Religious institutes to wearing trinkets that grant wealth and health; From women being made inferior and sinful to cows being more sacred than dogs, we have lots of superstition promoted from religion.
These things make us feel good about ourselves. I mean how great is it to be proud to be a man and think It’s great not to be a woman or to look at a different culture that eats dog meat and say we are better than you because we eat chicken or goat so we are more cultured than you.
How great is it not to work your ass off and be able to buy a golden trinket that will give you everything you wish for and deserve?
How great is it to think that all who harmed you will be harmed by Karma if not this life at least in the Next one? Maybe that is why when all of the world was rising against kings and were fighting for freedom, we were sacrificing our lives for them so that our kings could rule and their sons to follow, keep exploiting generations to follow. Because we believe a bad king will be punished by the Universe.
5. It’s real because it’s easy to make Sense.
Scientific pursuits are hard. they take time, they require funding, they require collaboration of thousands of people, they require years of studying subjects and sometimes decades of research to finally come up as something as simple as having connections with friends and family make you happy and live longer or something as complex as how evolution works.
But even today many people think that evolution is a hypothesis just as valid as god creating all living beings, because it’s so easy to understand how a magical being just imagined the world rather than reading thousands of research papers and books that you don’t really know how to make sense of.
6. Lack of searching for solutions.
Recently someone asked me what do you think if you met with an accident suddenly? Isn’t it your Karma? So maybe you should collect Positive Karma points to avoid an accident?
Maybe those were not his exact words but we can see the folly in this way of thinking. If I am to avoid accidents best way to do so is to learn the rules of the road, avoid drinking and driving, avoid drinking and wondering in the street, convince the police to enforce traffic rules, invest in road safety related policy making, do not use a motorbike till government actually takes action for motorbike safety, try to find new better ways to reduce accidents in community.
So instead of doing all that hard work of reducing accidents in society as a whole, we think that feeding a stray dog or using a loudspeaker to annoy our neighbors with all-night pirith round will give us positive Karma to have a longer life.
7. Lack of responsibility and accountability
One reason why temples are such devoted places for the corrupt is because temples have no accountability for what they do. If an individual or private company is responsible for a crime, it would take the police no time to report to the place stop the ongoing crime and give a warning, fine them or take them into custody.
But a temple has a protection for anyone who wishes to do a bad deed. A village full of blind devotees to lie for them, hide them or stand against the police that reports to the area. We also have monks who has made it a crime against religion to take action against them personally (Which is hilarious to anyone but blind religious person).
This kind of unchecked power has led to child abuse, rape, bribery and all sorts of problems that go under the radar.
8. Waste of Time and Money.
Most religious leaders preach about a simple minimalistic life yet if you visit a temple it is filled with statues that are worth millions, gold plated gates, tables full of fruits and flowers all to be thrown in garbage at the end of the day. We also have thousands and thousands of devotees spending half of their life praying for a better next life rather than improving the current one.
These millions that are spent on statues that I’m sure religious leaders would never condone could be used to build businesses or improve lives of the community. The gold wasted to gates that guard the simplicity could be better used in industries. Tables full of fruit could be given to the poor or animals that need them more than we do. Flowers left in trees that make them beautiful or at least used for some better purpose than rot.
The time people waste away praying for a better life could be spent actually working for a better one. It doesn’t have to be a job, it could just be for yourself by making a home garden for your needs, learning new things, cooking healthy meals, etc.
9. Jealousy when living a simple life
It’s easy to imagine a life without any responsibility as a fulfilling one, yet for many reason a simple life is not really as sweet as we imagine it to be. It is a life with many difficulties of its own sorts.
Imagine you were a man or woman living in an Island with no commitments what so ever and you want to have a simple meal. Even to eat a chicken curry is going to be tough, requiring you to find a chicken, feeding it and looking after it for a long time (Not to mention you might have to manufacture antibiotics first of all so it will grow large enough), after it grows you have to kill it without feeling sorry, remove all the feathers (which is a tedious task), Now provided you get someone to deliver the spices, you might need an hour or two to start a fire. For those of you who are going to say It’s simple I will not eat chicken, I’m just going to assume you have never been a farmer who grows multiple vegetables enough to feed himself every year.
If you really can understand how complex it is to live a simple humble life away from societies structures, you’d probably know why you’d feel jealous when someone who is just responsible bring you, your spices, gets to eat the same chicken every day he pleases by just going to a shop. Saving months of his life to do anything else.
If we move away from hypotheticals and talk about a real world scenario this same selling of simplicity was done by the Christian church of Germany before world war 2. They collected money from Christians for the church while Jews were spending money for businesses according to their religion and getting wealthy and powerful. This triggered jealousy of Germans (brainwashed by church with how to live simple and please the lord) they were easily convinced by Hitler; to March for war against the people who were having a better life than them in “their own lands”.
It wasn’t me
The typical response of a religious person is; “It wasn’t me so why blame me for the fault of others”. The truth is that this is what exactly we all say; as Doctors instead of speaking out against corrupt medical institutions and mafia groups of doctors, we just keep our heads down and say don’t blame me it wasn’t me. Teachers keep silent and look the other way against child abuse (of various sorts) and say teachers are good, it’s just the system and a few individuals. Politicians say the same, yes he is in my party, we gave him power but we can’t be responsible for all that he does…. So with this logic I guess none of us are really responsible for anything that happens.
A simple solution.
Please do understand I am not blaming anyone personally because I personally see everyone as simply humans and nothing more or less. Everyone has just cherry picked what they like about religion and ignored what they do not. No-one is really a Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu or a Christian. Under scrutiny no one will be able to say that they live by the values that their religion preaches. Simply because, there is no religion with such universal values that are the same across all the different sects they have.
We all have to accept at some point of time, these labels of religion have given power to some very corrupt human beings and institutions, who mislead us, lie to us, try to control us, they lack understanding of the modern world, they have taken us for fools for thousands of years, destroyed our humanity, self-worth and ability to do good just for the sake of doing good so that they can live comfortable lives at our cost.
Let’s stop giving power to those who corrupt the things we love. Whether our goal is to protect the teachings and deep philosophies of religion or to be free from institutionalized craziness, I believe the best option is to do away with labeling ourselves with names of religions and just be called a human.