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Response to the Dalai Lama

The May 24 NY Times has an OP-ED by Tenzin Gyatso addressing the “unity of faiths.”  You can find the article HERE.

Gyatso begins by expressing his own personal epiphany and personal growth as he has been exposed to different religions:

WHEN I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best — and that other faiths were somehow inferior. Now I see how naïve I was, and how dangerous the extremes of religious intolerance can be today.

No doubt that religious intolerance is a dangerous thing, but let’s be careful that we don’t fall victim to an implied point in this first paragraph.  Gyatso is trying to get us to assume that the “natural” progression is from intolerance to tolerance.  Naivety is associated with extremism.

This is a distinctly arguable point.  There’s a dead horse that still needs beating, and his name is Pope Benedict XVI.  Let’s not call him naive.  He is many things — a protector of child abusers, a conscript in the Hitler Youth, a war veteran, a former P.O.W., a professor, and a savvy political climber within the highest ranks of the Catholic Church.  He’s also an intolerant son-of-a-bitch.

I could list many other religious leaders who are quite worldly and quite intolerant.  For that matter, I could list journalists, radio personalities, politicians, pastors, writers, and dozens of others who are far from naive.  If anything, I’d suggest that perhaps Tenzin Gyatso is a bit naive to believe that religion is “properly” an exercise in plurality.  

Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.

Well… yes.  That’s because intolerance is an inherent part of many religions.  Two of the world’s most popular religions have as a central tenet that there is one true religion.  We can sugar coat this as much as we like, but so long as this “truth” is spelled out in the dogma, it’s naive to expect that nobody will notice.  Why would we expect every believer to cherry pick the nice things in the Bible and the Qur’an?

We run into problems when we start preaching plurality.  Who among us has the spiritual “proof” that coexistence is what god wants?  The proof for tolerance is as subjective as the proof for intolerance.  All we can do is appeal to people’s conscience — their personal sense of morality — and hope that they agree with us “deep in their spiritual selves.”  And I’m sorry to put it this bluntly, but anyone who hasn’t noticed that humans have an instinctive drive towards intolerance of “the other” is… you guessed it… naive.

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

Internal contradiction, anyone?  Exclusivity and mutual understanding are opposites.  It is irrational and unreasonable to expect someone to respect false faiths.

In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

And in my readings, I find intolerance and dispassionate condemnation:

  • “… the brother shall deliver up his brother to death, and the father his child, … children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.”  Mt 10:21
  • Some will spend eternity burning in Hell. There will be weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. MT 3:128:1210:2113:304222:1324:5125:30LK 13:28JN 5:24
  • “For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law a man’s enemies will be the members of his own family.”  MT 10:35-36
  • 21Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.22But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.23And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.24But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.  MT: 11:21-24

The point is not that one or the other of these readings is the “correct” one.  Rather, it is that if you give the Bible to a hundred people who’ve somehow never heard of Christianity before, you’re going to get upwards of 99 different interpretations.

I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

The thing is, Tenzin, that there are entire populations of people who do NOT believe in the power of personal contact.  And their religion encourages separatism.  “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2.

And at the risk of hammering the point too vigorously, your interpretation of their religion is just as subjective and unprovable than theirs.

Compassion is equally important in Islam

Horse shit.

Pardon me, but where are the compassionate Muslims?  I have yet to hear one significant Muslim leader stand up against the extremists who run half of the Middle East, demanding plurality and respect for Christianity.  There are no movements of moderate American Muslims bombarding the blogosphere with compassion.  We could argue that the moderates in the Middle East are afraid for their lives, but not here in America.  It would be really nice if lots of Muslims stood up in defiance of the extremists.  But they’re nowhere to be found.

Let me tell you about the Islam I know. Tibet has had an Islamic community for around 400 years, although my richest contacts with Islam have been in India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. An imam in Ladakh once told me that a true Muslim should love and respect all of Allah’s creatures. And in my understanding, Islam enshrines compassion as a core spiritual principle, reflected in the very name of God, the “Compassionate and Merciful,” that appears at the beginning of virtually each chapter of the Koran.

Sell it to me when it becomes obvious to even the Republicans that there’s no need for the Department of Homeland Security.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists, anymore than I’d say that all Christians are abortion bombers.  But I am suggesting that for all the talk of peace, there’s precious little practice of it.  I’d be — you guessed it — naive if I was to close my eyes to the world full of violence, death, terror, and intolerance perpetrated by large numbers of Muslims.  And gee.  I’ve got to say it again.  The Qur’an justifies it.  Over and over.  And there’s no way to prove one interpretation over the other.

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

I hate to break it to you, but there is only common ground when there’s common ground.  You can’t just wish it into existence.  Islam and Christianity are enemies.  Their common belief is that anyone on the other side is an infidel and an abomination in the eyes of the One True God of the Entire Universe™.

If you really want to promote peace between religions, you’re going to have to promote, nay demand, an end to the tolerance of intolerant religious dogma.  I know it sounds contradictory, but the fact remains, as long as all the moderates believe in tolerating intolerance, there will be intolerance.

But then, how are you going to do that when your interpretation of religious texts is just as unprovable as theirs?  Might it be that the real answer lies in embracing the science of humanity, which provides us with real, empirically verifiable truths about what it means to be human?



3 thoughts on “Response to the Dalai Lama

  1. On a similar note, I had a few unkind words to say about the naive and generally kindly Dalai Lama’s unthinking bigotry towards the non-religious at B&W:

    Posted by G Felis | May 25, 2010, 7:30 pm
  2. There is a lot of ignorance and anger in your interpretation of his words. You are criticising a far wiser man than yourself and making a fool of yourself at the same time. I hope you reconsider your views but more importantly I hope you give yourself a chance to reconsider them. Please continue to read and expand your knowledge of Buddhist and Islamic philosophies. I hope you can trust me to some extent in suggesting this.

    Posted by Jerome | May 7, 2011, 2:36 pm
  3. Thanks for the comment, Jerome.

    I can’t say that there’s much I can take from it, though. Can you explain how I’m misinterpreting his words? Can you point me to some evidence that your interpretation is correct and mine incorrect?

    Your comment amounts to: Hey, dude… I think you’re wrong.

    Ok… so… um…

    Thanks. Sorry you don’t agree with me, but without an actual argument, I am not feeling compelled to change my position.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | May 7, 2011, 2:41 pm

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