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.