The Buddha’s eggs

In his excellent little book Against All Gods1, A.C. Grayling sets out the view that the claimed “resurgence” of religion around the world is no such thing but is, rather, the last kicks of a dying organism. In support of his argument, he quotes statistics, such as declining church attendance levels in the UK, and draws parallels between the progress of religion today and the decline of other once firmly held belief systems.

Why, then, are we having so much trouble with religion and, in particular, religious protest? Not only do we have Islamic terrorism but we even have Sikhs in Britain closing down a theatrical performance they regard as critical of their beliefs. How does this harmonize with the idea that religion is, to put it bluntly, on the way out?

Professor Grayling points out that the existence of protest and of movements to bring about some sort of amelioration of society exist precisely because those organizing them feel under pressure from those things that they are opposing. For example, what we call the “extremism” of religious communities is a response to the pressure those communities feel is being put on them by the spread of Western ideologies and values.

Once one religious group begins to protest, says Prof. Grayling, others will join in. They don’t see why they should be left behind and they desire the rewards that they see other protesters obtaining. This exerts a “radicalizing” effect right across the board in which all religions, even the most peaceful, feel the need to make their opinions known.

Most people would probably regard Buddhism as one of the more sensible and rational religions. It is, after all, an atheist2 belief system though by no means entirely free from enough supernatural baggage to make a rationalist baulk. Buddhists, so we tend to think, are placid and balanced folk who wear their religion lightly.

If you believe this (and overlook such facts as the origin of Zen as a religious philosophy for Samurai swordsmen) you might have been surprised by a BBC news item today. It concerns a work in an art gallery depicting the Buddha displaying his genitals.

If you thought that Buddhists regarded symbols as merely symbols and therefore not worthy of the religious awe with which, say Christians, imbue religious symbols, you would be right: “In Buddhism, no symbol is absolute and all symbols are a means to an end, not an end themselves,” says Tom Llewellyn, a member of Norwich’s Buddhist community. Er, no, wait a minute, I think you were wrong: “It’s an inappropriate use of the central symbol in Buddhism,” he said.

Oh so, symbols do require religious respect, after all, then? And if used “wrongly”, should be defended by protest? Isn’t this rather reminiscent of the “offence” that religious people of all stripes claim to feel when their beloved symbols are criticized or made fun of?

But don’t worry. There will be no violence. Tom Llewellyn again: “We tend to go beyond anger and hatred, so there would be no threat of anger and violence, as might happen with some other religions or believers.” Well, that’s a relief. Apart from the self-preening complacency of the remark, we note the side-swipe at “some other religions or believers”. How often have we heard claims that “We’re not like the others” from religious groups who are exactly like the others?

You will be glad to hear that this painful dispute has reached a happy solution: the statue has been turned around so that the Buddha’s genitals are no longer visible from the street, thus protecting the sensibilities of passing Buddhists. (Presumably no Buddhist ever sets foot in an art gallery.)

What this illustrates is that while our society is awash with cartoons, criticisms, caricatures, polemics, jokes and insults levelled at every possible subject, religion alone enjoys a privileged position where its adherents are protected from being “offended” by these. As a vegetarian and animal lover, I am offended by many things. I am offended by the appalling cruelty meted out to farm animals, to animals in vivisection laboratories, to wild animals killed for entertainment by “hunters”. Nobody gives a damn. But if I say I am offended by a statue depicting my religion in a less than respectful light, then the authorities will rush to my protection. The paradox is surely clear to everyone.

1 A.C. Grayling, Against All Gods, Oberon Books, ISBN 1840027282.

2 Buddhism, of course, does not deny the existence of gods, as is often mistakenly claimed, only of a creator god who determines human destiny.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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9 Responses to The Buddha’s eggs

  1. athinkingman says:

    I agree that the paradox is clear, and that the response of the Buddhists is misguided.

    Words and symbols only have meaning because the person viewing them interprets a particular meaning. In a lot of the religious offence cases, particular religious groups have not only interpreted a meaning for the words or symbols themselves, but have also gone on to presume to interpret a motive for the creator of the words or symbols. This is, of course, foolish and arrogant.

    As you point out in your posting, even if the religious groups were right in both their interpretation of the meaning and in their understanding of the creator’s motives, they shouldn’t have their unique right not to be offended protected in law. The law doesn’t protect an atheist from being offended by religious practice, and I, personally, would never want it to do so.

  2. SilverTiger says:

    All the more misguided, one might think, given that the genitals in question were not “real” genitals but a banana and a couple of eggs.

    I also agree that the sensibilities of the atheist are not taken into account in a society where the assumption is that you are religious.

    I tagged the article “Buddhism” on the off-chance that a Buddhist or Buddhists might be tempted to offer a comment.

  3. baralbion says:

    I haven’t noticed any Hindus causing much trouble.

  4. SilverTiger says:

    baralbion said: I haven’t noticed any Hindus causing much trouble.

    Really? Apart from Hindu-Muslim violence (e.g. Sectarian violence breaks out between Hindus and Muslims), examples of Hindu sectarian violence are not exactly rare, as we see here: 2 killed in violence over India Hindu god row and here: Attack on Christians condemned.

    Like most religions, Hinduism preaches peace but its adherents do not always follow the precepts.

  5. baralbion says:

    I suppose I was thinking about events in this country and the absence of any international Hindu terrorist network.

    Confucianism doesn’t seem particularly violent, but I’m not sure it’s a religion. At least, Chinese communities in Britain don’t seem half as sensitive about their beliefs as some others.

  6. SilverTiger says:

    Nor have we had any trouble in the UK with Buddhists before (assuming one calls this episode “trouble”). I think what is happening is that all religions are tending to become more aggressive. It’s the bandwaggon effect: one starts getting uppity and the others follow suit. Whether Hindus and others will follow the same trail and start protesting against supposed “offence” remains to be seen.

    If the archetypally peaceful and broadminded cult that is Buddhism starts getting stroppy, I wouldn’t like to forecast what could happen.

  7. yogaboy says:

    @Silvertiger – you get your wish, I am a “follower” of the buddha’s teachings.
    What I do find strange is that you’ve had to find a very trivial instance to make a weak point stronger (and thus, failed because of it). Lets examine this a bit more:

    1. Zen did not originate as a philosophy for Samurai swordsmen. That is just complete, erm, bollocks (how pertinent). Did you get that from a comic book or something? That is really poor.
    2. Faulty logic: Because something is regarded as “merely” a symbol means it will not cause offence. Erm, how shall I put this – symbols *symbolise* things. They are supposed to communicate something. By taking an image of somebody respected by a particular group of people do you not think they could be offended? If I take a symbol of, oooh, your mother – in the form of a photograph – performing fellatio on a monkey and place it in public gallery, do you think you would ask for it to be removed? Do you think most people would ask for it to be removed?? Well, that majority (and we know it would be) are just like some sort of religious zealot. Pffft.
    3. Does anyone really believe that the artist was *not* trying to cause a stir in order to bring publicity their way? And the gallery, were they unaware this would not cause offence and thus, publicity? Yeah, right.
    4. Is this the extent of buddhism’s ire? Should we be scared because they made a complaint (gasp). Was anyone stabbed/bombed/shot/stoned/decapitated/shunned? Oh no, they complained, something that rates up there with getting the wrong dish in a restaurant and something that should happen more frequently at train stations.

    Oh dear, it turns out to be a fatuous argument with bad referencing and bad logic. Tsk tsk.
    Pick on the muslims, they are generally a bit more violent and a tad more stupid (inherent existence and all that). You’ll get a bit more mileage out of them and you can talk pseudo-intellectual, sub-intelligent rubbish amongst yourselves about it.

  8. SilverTiger says:

    Thank you for pointing out the error about the origin of Zen. It would be more accurate to say that there was a relationship between Zen and the Samurai as explained, for example, here.

    As for the rest, well, that’s your opinion and you have a right to it as I have a right to mine.

    Forgive me for not responding to your points in detail but the style and ad hominem tone of your text persuades me that this would be a waste of time.

  9. yogaboy says:

    I think you’ll find that the 4 points given would hold their own as arguments regardless of the person on the opposite side of the argument – therefore, they are not ad hominem.

    A good read through Wikipedia’s logic section, (and maybe the buddhism section) and you might realise my tone is reserved for those who proselytise and pontificate in intellectual tones while actually providing a poorly formed, poorly thought out argument. Buddhist or atheist, but so many atheists make it so easy with their arrogance.

    Destroy the ego! 😉

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