Hindu Vivek Kendra
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Global hazards of zealotry

Global hazards of zealotry

Author: Leo Panthera
Publication: The Island, Colombo
Date: March 14, 2001

There are two distinct aspects of religiosity (the condition of being religious) that are conflated in popular thinking and which makes a serious study of the natural history of religion difficult. When the laudatory epithet 'religious' is applied to a person ('X is a very religious chap') it may be that we are impressed by his unswerving devotion to the Great One in his Empyrean Abode and by his punctilious performance of the rite and ritual that this Being has laid out as mandatory in the canonical texts that he holds sacred.

This is the Salvationist and Eschatological face of religion that holds many a supplicant in a numbing state of devotion and that can spill over into deviance. There is a contrasting 'Gandhian' manifestation of religiosity that has 'benevolence' in its most general sense as its behavioural highlight - the charging of the soul (for those who believe in such things) with generosity, love and compassion for the distraught fellow-beings that crowd the surface of this little rocky planet we call our own. In popular (and unreflective ) thinking, the strong correlation between these two aspects of religiosity is taken for granted and the zealot is confused with the saint.

The great genius of Scotland - the empiricist philosopher David Hume - was among the first to point out the lack of such ironclad correlation. He spoke of the 'religious passion' as a morally equivocal thing - it can fire up a person to deeds of great moral worth that fittingly bestow on the subject an aura of resplendent spirituality - such worthies are usually called 'saints'. In strong contrast, the hypertrophy of religion is a base character can result in the extraordinary emergence of a prayerful psalm-singing scoundrel killing in the name of God. The monotheistic faiths of Judaeo-Christian extraction are notoriously prone to this brand of moral deviance - one has only to think of Ayatolla Khomeni - a God-fearing man if ever there was one - who was consumed with the notion that the Great One loved destruction by proxy. This Iranian monster had many siblings in the centuries past and the blood-drenched history of Buddhist Asia is an object-lesson for those investigating the power of religious evil on the concourse of human events in this sorrow-filled abode of our species.

The Humean thesis goes well beyond what has been briefly referred to above. Benevolence (Buddhists call this 'mettha') according to the Scottish philosopher, is a rare human virtue that can be wondrously manifest in humans of all faiths and indeed. in 'unbelievers - the old-fashioned word for those who reject the notion of an All-Powerful Deity. This reflection based on the 'natural history of belief' led Hume to posit that 'religion' is not the exclusive - indeed, not the best - route for the achievement of that transforming vision that makes base humans paragons of kindly virtue. The Noble Savage is a better exemplar of holiness than the weaklings who prostrate themselves before a Jealous God and are religiously impelled to slay the infidel to uphold the honour of the Great One. He found 'Monotheism' - the supposition that there is an absolute dictatorship 'upstairs' - inferior to 'Polytheism' inasmuch as power-sharing at the highest level promotes concordance in the human sphere by luminous example. When the Big One is demanding, intolerant and vengeful, it is no surprise that his 'golayas' on Planet Earth try to match the derring-do of the Lord of the Empyrean with bloody and sordid acts against those they perceive as outside the fold.

Dear readers, there is a serious purpose behind what many would regard as this light-hearted metaphysical banter. An alien watching from afar would be perplexed to find a global increase in religiosity among the two-legged kind - churches and mosques are being 'planted' at a rate that would have astonished the skeptics of yesteryear who believed that the God-Business would become bankrupt before the dawn of the New Millennium. There were wrong - the only Superpower (The Land of Bush, Clinton and Ronald Regan) is also a religious powerhouse with Christian Fundamentalism sweeping everything before it. About three-fourths of the denizens of this great nation are Biblical Literalists who believe in a Young Earth (a mere 6000 years) and recoil in horror when confronted with the Monkey Theory of Charles Darwin. The Islamic world has awoken from its torpor and a feisty, blood-curdling version of the faith has great attractions for the young and dispossessed in that volatile region of the globe. Even in staid Great Britain - the land of Russell and Hume - there is a burgeoning religiosity that is astonishing. It is epitomized by that phenomenon called Tony Blair - a Church Going and Bible-Clutching Servant of God who thinks nothing of delivering explosive messages of death to the hapless citizens of Baghdad and Belgrade. This 'socialist' has an insatiable penchant for killing the 'wicked' and causing 'collateral damage' that sends women and babes pell-mell into the great unknown.

Back to the critical issue - the Humean distinction between zealotry and benevolence. The great question to be asked is this: is the kind of religion that is sweeping across the world that which is life-enhancing, healing to divisions and promoting goodwill among the inhabitants of this small planet? On the contrary, is it a kind of pernicious fanaticism that creates an ' Army of God' hell-bent on sweeping away rival creeds even if this task involves a descent into barbarism that is well exemplified in the Taliban of Afghanistan? Is it life-enhancing for ex- Buddhists from Korea to spend limitless dollars to convert the poor and the destitute of Sri Lanka into the votaries of a Cult that thinks nothing of destroying the priceless heritage left by their distinguished ancestors? If it is this naked and evil zealotry that is making waves in this gloomy age, our world will be better served if is bereft of religion. Let us hasten to add that the other kind - the religion that is life enhancing - is not entirely absent nor is it impotent.

The Christian World has given us men and women of extraordinary spiritual gifts and the world is a better place for their sterling efforts to improve the love of mankind. No doubt the same could be said of the Islamists even if their record of butchery and conquest vis-a-vis the Buddhists of lndia makes it difficult for a Sri Lankan Buddhist (such as myself) to be sanguine on this score. What of the future? We head into a world that will be increasingly riven with strife due to overpopulation, the catastrophic depletion of resources and the break-down of the life- sustaining eco-systems that makes our planet habitable. Islands of great affluence will co-exist with widespread destitution - the ideal pabulum for the spread of zealotry and saviour-cults. This human chaos will not prevent the development of extraordinarily effective means of mass killing based on advances in nuclear technology and our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of life. Sooner or later a Talibanic Messiah will command a robotic army of zealots that will be ready to destroy the world at his bidding if he gets the nod from the Big-Boss upstairs.

Such is our plight - but we in Sri Lanka ought to be attuned to such earth-shattering contingencies. Do we not have a zealot - albeit of a maverick kind - living in the North-Eastern fastness of our fabled Isle who would welcome an opportunity to use 'weapons of mass destruction' on the hated Sinhala people? He used trucks and a supply of RDX in his attempt to blow to smithereens the hallowed citadel of Sinhala-Buddhism. What if this monster had a nugget of plutonium? I leave you with this mind-blowing thought-experiment.

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