Protecting the freedoms of religious belief and rational thought
Posted on December 5th, 2014

By  Rohana R. Wasala

 (Fourth in the series of religion-related articles)

Articles 18 and 19 of The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights  guarantee to all common people ‘the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…. (and) …. ‘the right to freedom of opinion and expression ….’.  Though no clear definition of the term ‘religion’ is available in the context of the UN document, let me, for the purpose of this essay go by the following commonsense definition: ‘A religion is a system of devotional practice and ethical conduct based on a doctrine that advocates belief in a creator god’. Belief or faith requires no support of evidence unlike scientific knowledge. Under normal circumstances, there’s no way we can question the truth of a religion, because it is a matter of faith. When we consider the  generic sense of the word ‘religion’, we find nothing comparable to the uniform mode of knowledge that we call science. All the various sciences follow the same scientific conventions, principles and practices, and partake of the character of science. On the other hand, the different religions, each of which claims a monopoly over truth, cannot be regarded as different organic aspects of  something single called religion, for if one religion is true all the others must be untrue. This can be problematic unless the followers of each religion are content to remain true to their own faith until death completely ignoring the truth claims of other religions (which is what normally happens), and unless all those who want to join a new religion do so blindly accepting its dogmas.

However, it is the nature of modern humans (of the species of ‘homo sapiens’, ‘wise or rational humans’) to be guided by reason in whatever they do, unless made to behave otherwise through some such cause as force of circumstance, low intellectual inheritance, or indoctrination. Rational thought is a human characteristic. But religious faith is not compatible with rational thought. In fact, they are mutually exclusive. At the same time, we cannot forget the fact that the high level of civilization (i.e. collective material and moral advancement) that we have achieved we owe more to the triumph of reason over ignorance than to the mere advent of religion.

I know that it is unseemly to talk about religion in this manner; it is, in fact, not good manners. I know that the religious readers are likely to feel hurt by this. I am truly sorry about that. I kindly request them to bear with me. The existential truth is that all of us, whether religious or non-religious, are being threatened by forms of virulent religious fundamentalism. It is true that religious fundamentalists are a small minority in each mainstream faith. Yet we shouldn’t forget that in human history it took only a handful of maniacs to play havoc with the lives of innocent millions in the name of politics and religion.

 In my opinion as a citizen of the world, there has been no better time than the present to talk really seriously about religion, because we might soon lose the freedom to do so, considering the way mindless religious fundamentalism is sweeping across the world. The time has come for every rational human being to think carefully about the role that religion has played so far and is still playing in human affairs. This is in order to enhance the benefits if any that may have accrued to us through religions, while eliminating the evil that fundamentalist interpretations of religious dogmas invariably lead to. We can no longer be sure about our future while the behemoth of  religious fundamentalism is threatening to devour human civilization itself.

The large brain capacity that humans possess (the largest among the higher animals in the evolutionary ladder) gives them their uniquely advanced power of reasoning or rational thought; they also characteristically depend on the use of language and the invention and utilization of complicated implements. Free creative thinking is what fuels the historical process of civilization. Freedom of thought and freedom of expression where these are most important, that is, in matters that are vital to our emotional and spiritual wellbeing (which religion is traditionally taken to address), are denied us by certain murderously deranged religious zealots.  

However, we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater. Every religion has an ethical content which cannot be ignored, and which is at least partly valid. Probably it is one of the major reasons, apart from the emotional succour that religions are known to provide to some people, that account for the fact that religions have managed to survive the onslaught of reason for so long. But religion-based ethical systems are not perfect. For example, nearly all religions treat women as inferior to men; killing in the name of god is a moral thing to do for some fanatical believers of a particular religion. So religious morals may sometimes need to be humanized by an ethics based on a scientific understanding of the psychological principles that underlie the way one should behave so as to maximize the happiness and minimize the suffering of oneself and of others in a community.

In reality, though, there is no essential correlation between religion and morality. Though all religions preach moral virtues such as love, charity, compassion etc towards others the basic character trait that gets reinforced is inborn selfishness. Selfishness is the antithesis of the altruism implied in the terms love, compassion etc. Genuine love, charity,  compassion are selfless as demonstrated by spiritual leaders like the Buddha and Christ. What we find in practice in the name of religion is not exactly that selflessness, but the opposite. Of course, there are people who are inspired to be selfless in their behavior as expected by their religions, but they are only a few; the majority claim to ‘follow’ religions for the rewards that are promised. That is hypocrisy. Selfishness and hypocrisy characterize many who claim to be religious. This may not be the fault of religions. ‘No religion preaches evil’ is the general acceptance. However, in view of what is happening, and what happened in the past this claim needs examining.

Most religious parents think that they must pass on their religious beliefs to their children. Religious education of children is essentially indoctrination, which leads to attitudinal maladjustments in interpersonal relations such as superiority or inferiority complexes, discrimination , aloofness, condescension, or contempt towards fellow humans on account of differences in religious affiliation in any culturally heterogeneous society today that is the norm everywhere.  It is religious indoctrination in childhood that robs many grown up people of their ability to think rationally about religion and acquire the courage to give up irrational beliefs; they instead pass them on to their progeny in the same way that they were made to imbibe them from their parents. Even an otherwise sound education fails to wean some people from harmful forms of religious belief because of this vicious cycle.

False religious beliefs may be of limited harm by themselves. The problem is that the general tendency among believers is to equate their own belief with ultimate truth, while denouncing the beliefs of other religions as heresy. Even that may be ignored as harmless, if they stop at that. Their piety can sometimes kill others who subscribe to different religious beliefs with a similar degree of piety. Peaceful coexistence of adherents of different religions is usually advocated. But whether this is really achievable is a question. It’s a different matter when a particular religion claims an absolute monopoly over truth and wants to impose its values on all the others on pain of death. This is exactly the danger that we are facing today. When religious faith tries to kill freedom of thought, needless to say, it undermines our very civilization. That is why some serious dialogue about religion among thinking people is an absolute necessity at this juncture.

18 Responses to “Protecting the freedoms of religious belief and rational thought”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    The law and order status of the country! Silvas always get away with murder.

    “It has been informed to the courts that Malaka Silva should go abroad for treatment.

    He has informed that he will not be able to present himself for the next hearing on the 19th.

    This case is about assaulting a foreign couple at a night club in Bambalapitiya.

    The doctors have recommended that he should go overseas for treatment as his nose is damaged.”

    -lankacnews

  2. Vimutti Says:

    This author is clueless!

    First, ‘A religion is a system of devotional practice and ethical conduct based on a doctrine that advocates belief in a creator god’ is a WESTERN self-serving definition of religion that is God-centric and tends to negate Buddhism as a valid religion.

    Second, Buddhism is entirely compatible with science, and could even be said to fill in the blanks that modern science is just now discovering (e.g., what happened BEFORE the Big Bang?, how life evolved on Earth, where the life force energy comes from that gives life to a body at conception/quickening and where does it go after the death of the body?, etc.).

    Third, the idea that religions are inherently dogmatic and prone to conflict with each other is false. It is those who seek power in the NAME of religion that are causing all of the religious conflict in the world.

    The Soviet Union that took the world to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis were COMPLETELY secular and non-religious, and one could easily argue that if not for RELIGIOUS values there would actually be MORE war, not less, as those who simply seek power for its own sake or to gratify the ego inevitably come into conflict with others doing the same in a zero-sum King of the Hill game. This is precisely the situation we find ourselves in now, in which largely secular US-EU is trying play King of the Hill with China, Russia, India, Indonesia and other up and coming countries, and causing all kinds of havoc, conflict and war in the process. So when you hear American leaders openly discussing whether this century is going to be another American century or a China century, they are actually admitting that they are stuck in this King of the Hill, childish mentality.

    There is nothing RATIONAL about conquering other nations, as those whom you conquer (force into submission) will eventually rise up against you in an effort to free themselves from your oppression. At best, this is a temporary arrangement, and if we look at history there is not a single empire that has sustained itself over time.

    So if King of the Hill or Whomever has the Biggest Club or Bank Account rules is the best the RATIONAL world can offer, then they probably have a lot to learn from the religions they so easily dismiss. Getting MORE sense and ego gratification and pleasure in an ever ending chase is ultimately not permanently satisfying. This is what the Buddha taught, and every religion has some version of this teaching regardless of the form in which it is presented.

  3. Independent Says:

    One almighty God, with all encompassing compassion and love, yet punishing those who do not obey is obviously FALSE to any intelligent person.
    But that does not mean morality can be generated automatically in all human minds. This is very clear in this very forum that different people react differently to bad action depending on the situation.
    If one could keep quite and watch the mind letting thoughts come and go, one could clearly see desires, greed , hatred trying to creep in. Yet if this watching continues these thoughts will stop giving such tranquillity and joy. It will then be clear that the greed hatred and delusion comes naturally to all untrained minds. Depending on one’s spiritual maturity, a human being with certain level of moral values accepted as good will arise. But it is impossible to train humans to a race which respects good uniform moral norms level naturally and universally.

  4. Independent Says:

    Lorenzo,
    The government is promoting My3( loving kindness) to murderers , kudu importers, thugs who assault doctors go to Vatican to get the sin washed.
    Why our good friends disregard all these and bash up minor offenders to death ?

    Now the president is joking about the “files’ affair. He assumes people are fools.
    The problem is I doubt even My3 will do something about files. may be he will build a library of files.
    All these files should be opened up and offenders brought to Galle Face Green and punished with some My3.
    I am sure there is a very thick box file with the Yama King in hell.

  5. Wickrama Says:

    Vimutti Says:
    December 5th, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    ” ….. Buddhism is entirely compatible with science, …..” ??
    Not really. (Bad use of the word “entirely”)
    Karma, re-birth are hardly compatible with science. How Buddhism explains certain physica/materialistic aspects are not compatible with science either – eg, “Opapathika” method of birth.

    and, there is nothing “scientific” in what you call “the life force energy” !!

  6. Vimutti Says:

    Wickrama – I know this is difficult to understand but Science is TRAILING Buddhism, in that they are just now discovering many aspects of the Buddha’s teachings. The idea of a cyclical universe that expands and contracts continuously and that we are currently only able to see the expansion part of the cycle has only been theorized by modern scientists at Princeton in the last 6 years! Most of the scientific community is still looking backward with a TELESCOPE, which by definition can only see backward.

    The idea that science presents anywhere close to a complete picture of how the universe works and how beings come into existence and what is the essential nature of the energy that gives life to a physical body is totally false. Science is like in kindergarten prior to primary school and the Buddha has finished his Ph.D and has been making new discoveries and lecturing for 40 years. Maybe in 200 years or so, if we are lucky, science will catch up to ‘some’ of the teachings of the Buddha by ‘proving’ them with modern science.

    The fact that science has not proven something yet does NOT mean it is false. Prior to the discovery that the Earth was not flat and that gravitational forces act on objects on the Earth, those who espoused these ideas were ridiculed by so-called ‘scientists’ of that era. Eventually, travelling at the speed of consciousness will replace ridiculous ideas like traveling at the speed of light. Using the natural magnetic field of the Earth to travel locally rather than wasting energy on fossil fuel – the list is endless.

    The basic problem is that most people have not read even a fraction of the teachings of the Buddha as contained in the Pali suttas, including most Buddhists. When Einstein read them, he was in awe at how well the Buddha seemed to understand the nature of things that he was only ‘beginning’ to describe in mathematical terms.

  7. Lorenzo Says:

    SL broadcasting corporation’s popular MAITHREE BHAWA program’s name has been changed to METH BHAWANA since yesterday!!

    Why fear MAITHREE (loving kindness)?

  8. Independent Says:

    Yesterday I listened to a short talk by one American (white) monk, together with that senior Sri Lankan monk.

    His practice is entirely based on Maithree Bhavana. HE says he has investigated all the teaching methods in the world but Maithree is the best.

    He said he went to cancer hospitals in Malaysia. He did Maithree to terminal ill patients there. Most patients and their relatives were very sad and depressed initially but after some time, when Maithree reaches everyone all seems to be getting happier gradually.

    This is what we want too. Our country has this corruption, thuggery and family rule cancer. People are in a hopeless position.
    Hope Maithree will make our country men happy.

  9. Vimutti Says:

    Independent – Yeah, I met this American monk and his practice is similar to the practice of the Buddha in his PREVIOUS life before he was a Buddha, when he was called the Great Steward. The Buddha tells us directly in the suttas that while the practice of loving kindness is powerful and important in removing the hate/anger fetter, it nonetheless falls well short of the mark in terms of spiritual liberation from samsara. The Buddha tells us that his practice of loving kindness for seven years in his previous life led to life as a God in a Brahma realm but ultimately he was reborn as a human again after exhausting his good kamma, and suffered greatly because of not removing the other fetters associated with samsara.

    Many of the so-called monks and scholars who are pushing the metta-only practice are doing the bidding of Mara – the evil one – that wants to keep beings trapped in samsara. There is no argument that the world would be a better place without hate/anger, but it would be even better without attachment to sense objects, the promotion of the ego through the “I am” delusion”, skeptical doubt regarding the Buddha’s teachings, and attachment to the realms of form. It is these persistent fetters that keeps one suffering in samsara. A sex addict or one chasing more money, more power. fame, or more material objects can still be a wonderful example of loving kindness toward others, but they are still suffering because they have not dealt with the other fetters that bind them to samsara. In fact, if you study the past lives of Mara – the evil one – he was not able to overcome these fetters at all despite being very kind to others in his previous life.

  10. Independent Says:

    Vimutti,

    True. This monk cannot get rid of his habit of smoking cigar, I think.

    Anyway, according to karaniyametta Sutta, if you practice every second spreading Metta it says, ” ….dittincha anupagamma seelva , dassanena sampanno, kamsuneyya gedham nahijatu gabba seyyang …” meaning you will get sammaditthi and the vision of the path. Surely one should come to vipassana at this stage but according to karaniya sutta you can reach the final goal. So he is not wrong.

    I have practiced this way in 1997 -1998 when I was alone and got great results.
    But most important thing is you have to be alert and watching the mind all the time. This is identical to Sati Sampajanna. Then. bad thoughts will be noticed and discarded.

    My3 to you.

  11. Vimutti Says:

    Independent – I understand the theory, but as you said, in practice it is the vipassana insight of anicca that may lead to liberation in some people depending upon whether they have removed the fetters that bind them to samsara or whether this one insight pushes them over the hump. In the vast majority of cases, the insight is not enough, and specific meditation thought to remove each of he ten fetters is required (e.g., 32-parts of the body meditation for lust for the body fetter).

  12. Independent Says:

    I think, one should not worry about individual fetters. The yogavachara who follow the Noble 8 fold path will surely reach the destination.
    kalayamittas are required to set one up in the correct path. Gradually, ignorance will fade away and wisdom arise. Even reading with an open mind can reduce ignorance.
    Those who have too much lust ( when meditating one can see it) should practice Asubha Bhavana ( what you mentioned).

    But the problem is one should have the urgency. How many people in this world agree that there is suffering much more than enjoyment ? But when you contemplate on suffering properly , the hair will stand up. It is very scary.

  13. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    NOT A SINGLE SRILANKA DOCTOR CAN GIVE MEDICAL ATTENTION TO AN INJURED NOSE. THIS MUST BE A SPECIAL KIND OF NOSE EH ? PROBABLY MUST BE GOING TO BUY SPARE PARTS. THE RIDGE OF THE NOSE IS NOT A BONE. IT IS AKIN TO A TENDON. I FORGET THE CORRECT TERM. SORRY ! WE ARE TERRIBLY SHORT OF NOSE DOCTORS.

  14. Ananda-USA Says:

    Vimutti,

    Agree with your comments on the cyclical nature of the universe, and that science is mostly TRAILING Buddhism.

    “The Long Discourses of the Buddha”, a translation of the Digha Nikaya, by Maurice Walshe, Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, MA, USA 1995, ISBN 0-86171-103-3 will be of great value to those interested in this aspect of Buddhism.

  15. Independent Says:

    Susantha,
    There was one man came from USA who is good for noses. But he killed his doctor patient by injecting expired chemicals as reported in the media. He was released on bail and now practicing. He has qualifications to treat this patient, his father, and many others who lack body parts to run the country.

  16. AnuD Says:

    Buddhism is the only religion which says it existed even before bodhosathwa Prince Siddhartha was born. All these present religions came after the buddhism and Even Judaism should had had some buddhist thought in it. for example, indigenous or native peoples’ beliefs are similar to those of buddhists. They talk about protecting animals and the environment.

    Particles whether they one inch apart or trillion miles apart they know their positions and where the other one is. Buddhism says that every one is made up from the whole. According to quantum Dynamics, every thing has influence every other thing.

    Kama may be complicated to explain. but some one can approach it.

    Buddha was the King for whole three worlds. So, when buddha talked it was relevant to whole group of worlds, human, Deva and Brahma. OPAPATHIKA exists only in Deva and Brahma worlds.

    Even science now says that thoughts affect DNA. So, one day they have to modify the De VRIES theory of how mutations produce new species.

    It is right to say that Buddhism is entirely compatible with Science in that sense that Science has not yet disproved anything in Buddhism.

  17. AnuD Says:

    The rational thought is NOT relevant to religions which believe in the Creator because, certain things are explained by god’s creation. There is no rationality there.

    Islam is notorious in that perspective, because Allah can not be questioned and every one should be submitted to him unconditionally.

    Sorry: In the earlier comment it is KARMA and not KAMA.

  18. Wickrama Says:

    Anu D,

    “OPAPATHIKA exists only in Deva and Brahma worlds.”

    Not exactly ! According to Buddhist literature – somewhere- AMBAPALI was supposed to be born a girl under or near a mango tree, opapathika. There was another example of a brahmin born opapathika – I cannot remember the details.

    “Particles whether they one inch apart or trillion miles apart they know their positions and where the other one is.”

    This is ridiculous ! Where in Buddhism -or science – do you find this? Are you suggesting the these “particles” have minds of their own? What do they do with this information? These “particles” are not at STANDSTILL ? Aren’t they moving at great speeds in 3 or 4 dimensions?? So “knowing” the “position” at any particular micro-nano-second is absolutely useless !

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