By Jagath Asoka –
Only a very few people would contemplate on the eviternal source whence all pairs of opposite proceed: male and female, peace and strife, and creation and annihilation. Only a very few would think of God as a collective being, combining the characteristics of both sexes, transcending youth and age, birth and death, practically immortal, and exalted above all temporal change. If such a being existed, the present and the moment of creation that occurred some 15 billion years ago or the period before that would mean neither more nor less. If such a being existed, that being would be the dreamer of all dreams; we would have an eviternal conversation about that being, yet we would not be able to fully depict or describe that being; that being would be omniscient, omnipotent, and ubiquitous, not a troglodyte.
I feel like a troglodyte, who, now and then, would come out of his cave to be among fellow human beings. I am surrounded by the images of gods and goddesses from all over the world. My meditative state of mind is supported by these images in front of me, and my mind’s eye is focused eviternally on a human image that lines the margin of my soul. The Buddha and Jesus are among these images.
Can you imagine having a long evening around the fire with the Buddha, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed? I would love to sit in on that. If such a conversation occurred, I am certain that the Buddha that I have read about would not talk only about Buddhism, and Jesus would not talk only about Christianity. Each participant of these somewhat omniscient beings would talk about comparative religion. To listen to such a marvelous conversation would be truly blissful.
Why do we have to study comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization? The best answer that I have seen was given by the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark: “One’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”
Whether you live in New York City, New York, or in a hamlet called Athgalmulla in Sri Lanka, you need to know something about religion because without this knowledge—whether you are a theist, atheist, apathyist, or an agnostic—you cannot make sense of this world; you are not an educated person unless you know something about the world’s religions and something about the Bible, Koran, Tripitaka, and the Vedas and their role in life, death, spirituality, and politics. When you are illiterate in matters of religion, most unctuous politicians treat you like a rube and exploit your religious illiteracy to justify their views on birth, marriage, death, abortion, war, stem cell research, immigration, etc.
We can easily eliminate religious illiteracy by teaching comparative religion in schools. According to the Constitution of the United States, the government shall neither establish a religion nor interfere with the practice of any religion; even though here in the U.S. it is not allowed to pray, preach, or talk about any religion devotionally in public schools, a public school teacher can read from the Bible, Koran, or any other religious text as an example of literature or teach a course that compares the world’s religions.
Most people do not know about their own religion, let alone the religions of others. For example, most Christians do not know that the night of December 25, the night to which the Nativity of Christ was assigned, was the birthday of the Persian savior Mithra: an incarnation of eternal light; according to the old calendar, December 25 was the night of winter solstice—at midnight, the moment of the turn of the year from increasing darkness to light. Most Catholics do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion is not just a symbol but actually become the body and blood of Christ. Most Christians and Jews do not know that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not one of the Ten Commandments.
A few years ago, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked Americans some basic questions about Christianity, the Bible, and World Religions: most people flunked. Here is an interesting fact: Atheists and agnostics had the highest scores in this test! Doesn’t it seem paradoxical, since atheists and agnostics have very low levels of religious commitment, yet they scored very well?
We all know that America is among the most religious of the world’s developed nations. Nearly 60% U.S. adults say that religion is “very important” in their lives, and roughly 25% say they attend worship services at least once a week. Most Sri Lankans that I know have a very high level of religious commitment. Whether this display of commitment is just sanctimonious piety or a profound, life vivifying experience is a different matter. Does this commitment translate into living ethical lives, not filled with jealousy, hatred, malice, intolerance, bigotry, stupidity, stinginess, hypocrisy, and brutality? Does this deep religious commitment translate into having better scores on the comparative religion knowledge questions? Most Buddhists that I know have the audacity to say that they are apathyist: someone who considers the question of the existence of gods as neither meaningful nor relevant to his or her life; nor to human affairs, and they do not care about the existence of God. Do you really believe these hypocrites?
On world religions other than Christianity, 36% Americans correctly associated striving for nirvana with Buddhism. If you are a non-Christian, and if you can answer a few questions such as what is the first book of the Bible, which figure is associated with willingness to sacrifice his son for God, which figure is associated with leading the exodus from Egypt, what are the names of four Gospels, and where was Jesus born, your knowledge in comparative religion is good. It would be excellent if you could also answer questions such as what is the significance of bread and wine in Communion, which group traditionally teaches that salvation is through faith alone, whose writings and actions inspired the Reformation, and who was a preacher during the First Great Awakening? I think only a very few people would know about Maimonides. I doubt that most Buddhists who live here in the U.S. would know that Sabbath begins on Saturday. I do not expect people to know anything about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, or that the Mormon religion was founded after 1800 and the Book of Mormon tells of Jesus appearing to people in the Americas.
On the one hand, most Sri Lankans, unlike Americans, would know that Ramadan is the Islamic holy month; Dalai Lama is a Buddhist, Vishnu and Shiva are central figures in Hinduism, most people in India are Hindus, and people in Pakistan are Muslims. On the other hand, most Sri Lankans would not know that Zeus is the king of gods in Greek mythology. I do not think that Sri Lankan Buddhists would ever say that separation of State and Religion is good for Sri Lanka, and a school teacher should not promote Buddhism.
Even though the data from the survey indicate that how much schooling an individual has completed is the single best predictor of religious knowledge, I know a lot of PhDs who do not know anything about other peoples’ religions at all, because they are not interested or totally blinded by their own religion or faith. But even a blind person knows that religion plays an enormous role and is fully intertwined in everything that happens in all countries, from birth to death. Those who are highly educated in science and technology, yet have just a rudimentary knowledge in other peoples’ religion or religion as a subject have a tendency to be bigoted buffoons; often, they bloviate about uniqueness of their own religion: There is only one path to Salvation; Nirvana is the ultimate goal; we must all surrender to God.
The biggest challenge is to keep mum when listening to the mumbo jumbo of some religious doctors of your own congregation. If one’s identity is defined by the company that one keeps, then I am a bigoted buffoon, like the company that I keep.
A merry yuletide to all of you!