Scourge of global religious fundamentalism: An expression of ‘amazement – and perhaps a little hope’

The establishment of a nonreligious ethical system, essentially through secular moral education, which will replace harmful, divisive, and primitive beliefs in meeting a person's social and emotional needs will be the answer.

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A Palestinian woman looks on as Israeli bulldozers demolish a Palestinian house in the occupied West Bank area of Masafer Yatta [File: Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA-EFE]

To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used. – Richard Dawkins, ‘Science in the Soul’, Penguin, Random House, UK, 2017. 

This is an expanded and updated version of an article that I wrote in 2020 under the above title, which nevertheless has remained unpublished to date for some reason, which has slipped my memory. My decision to publish it now was prompted, not by this grim reminder of Richard Dawkins’ bleak prophecy, the harrowing TV footages of the horrific atrocities committed in Israel on innocent unarmed civilians including children, men and women, old and young: cold blooded murder, rape and torture by Hamas members shouting God is Great and images of the eerie smokefilled skies over the Gaza Strip where ferocious retaliatory Israeli strikes are flattening human dwellings to the ground with countless innocents of all ages trapped and pulped within, but  by the news of Indika Thotawatta’s arrest by the CID on the basis of complaints filed against him by a number of certain religious groups. However, this is absolutely without prejudice to ongoing legal proceedings concerning Thotawatta.

It’s only that the well known phenomenon of global religious fundamentalism that he raises in a number of his YouTube video discussions reminded me of this forgotten article of mine that I think still has topical relevance.    

The Sri Lanka based ‘News Centre’ YouTube channel reported that Astrologer Indika Thotawatte was arrested by the Computer Crimes Investigation Division of  Sri Lanka Police on October 6, 2023 and was remanded till October 10 (another source said till 20), allegedly for making statements on a YouTube Channel that were deemed harmful to social and religious harmony in the country. He had arrived at the Criminal Investigation Department in com[pliance with summons delivered on him previously.

The arrest was in response to complaints made against Thotawatta by some twelve (presumably, Muslim) groups. Just before he went in, he spoke to the media and explained why he had to report to the CID that day: They wanted to question him about a video that he had made about the Islamic religion. Then he touched on what he believes to be forms of harmful extremism associated with all the island’s major religions with equal passion: doctrinal and ethical shortcomings of Theravada Buddhism, Christianity/Catholicism, Hinduism, and Islam. He said: “Remember that Article 14.1 of our country’s Constitution gives the follower of one religion the ‘sacred right’ to speak about or criticise another religion. This, Thotawatta asserted, was confirmed by Judge Aditya Patabendi when he released Natasha (Edirisuriya, accused of insulting Buddhist beliefs through her stand-up comedy gig) on bail. He also recalled how he supported Ali Sabry’s appointment (by president Gotabaya Rajapaksa) as Justice Minister when certain Buddhist monks opposed it. His fight, Thotawatta insisted, was for pursuing truth and the protection of the democratic right of free speech.     

For Sri Lanka, it seems, it never rains, but it pours! Indika Thotawatta’s arrest and detention has made some stir particularly in the social media. For a considerable time now I have felt that Thotawatta was overdoing his outspokenness in his frank but relentless criticism of what he considers to be purblind religiosity and mindless extremism that, in his opinion, has lately begun afflicting all the major faiths in Sri Lanka, and that is impeding the forward march of the country in both political and economic terms; most of all, it will retard the intellectual growth of the young generation.

I think that the assertion of the rule of law by the authorities in this instance is very welcome in these critical times. But it should not be forgotten that the Thotawatta case could be used as  a convenient red herring by hardpressed politicians to divert public attention from more pressing problems. It is up to the law enforcement agencies to decide whether there is a serious issue to be resolved here or not.

In the present context, we may be hopeful that the responsible civil authorities, religious leaders and people’s representatives in parliament will do the needful to nip it in the bud if the episode harbingers a potentially dangerous trend affecting the prevailing religious harmony in the country. 

Thotawatta believes that he is fulfilling an essential obligation he owes to society by attacking the local manifestations of the global menace of religious fundamentalism (sometimes murderous) that is based on ideological fallacies. Good intentions alone are not  enough. Ends and means must form a blameless continuity. Thotawatta’s simplistic approach threatens to be a disservice to the global anti fundamentalist cause as well as to his own personal one man crusade.

Diminutive Indika Thotawatta, described in many social and several mainstream electronic media, as a professional astrologer, has in addition made a name for himself as a self-taught free thinker, especially active in the field of religious ideologies. Indika has been in the limelight from around 2015, as far as I can remember. He should be around 35 years of age, if not younger, but looks may be deceptive. Though almost totally blind from birth, he displays remarkable intellectual powers, including a good retentive memory and an incisive analytical faculty. Over the years, he has become increasingly provocative as a passionate critic of dangerous religious fundamentalism, which, he believes, is fast undermining the hitherto prevalent peaceful religious coexistence and social harmony in multicultural Sri Lanka. He also attacks not only what he thinks are ‘weak points’ in each of the four main religious doctrines followed in the island and, sometimes, even questions the morality of religious masters, which obviously doesn’t go down well with devout followers of those religions.  

What you are going to read from this point onwards is the updated version of my original essay composed in 2020.

Whatever religious faith we belong to, or whether or not we profess any such faith, we are all being threatened by a virulent kind of global religious fundamentalism that is undermining the very foundation of human civilization. The fount of this mindless religious extremism is America itself, the only superpower in the world today.  Neuroscientist Dr Sam Harris’s slim volume, New York Times bestseller, “Letter to a Christian Nation” (Bantam Press/Transworld Publishers, London, 2007) dealt with what he described as “a moral and intellectual emergency” facing  his nation (America) in the form of a potentially self-destructive and violent religious fanaticism resulting from blind faith in religious dogma. He was careful to tell us that though the book was addressed to Christians in the United States, it was intended for people of all faiths around the world. It presented a well argued case against all forms of doctrinaire religion. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, well-known for his active involvement in an educational moral crusade against irrational religious faith, wrote a persuasive foreword to the book, which he ended by urging readers to read it: ‘Whether it stirs you to defensive or offensive action, it will not leave you unchanged. Read it if it is the last thing you do…’. Though published sixteen years ago, it still remains relevant to the world (and is still available as a classic). 

Harris identifies “the respect we accord religious faith” as an impediment to any intellectually honest, rational discourse on morals, spirituality, and the problem of human suffering:

“One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns – about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering – in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.” (p.87)

We like to believe that all religions propagate the same message to humanity without contradiction: love your neighbour, avoid violence, don’t kill, don’t steal, practise sensual restraint, in short, live a moral life. But the truth is that strict adherence to the articles of faith found in one religion often alienates a person from fellow human beings who happen to profess a different religion. This estrangement can take a violent turn unless checked by what is known as religious tolerance. The problem is that tolerance could be incompatible with being faithful to one’s own religion if it insists on being “fundamentalist” (in the sense in which the word was originally used in America around the beginning of the twentieth century). This once innocuous coinage shed its original harmless associations of scriptural authenticity, purity, etc at least some forty or fifty years ago (about the time of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 led by Ruhollah Khomeini, that overthrew the America-friendly Iranian monarchy) and has now acquired very negative connotations. Today ‘fundamentalism’ is a heavily loaded word in both religious and secular contexts. Any movement that is prone to violent ideologies and practices tends to be dubbed ‘fundamentalist’.

Yet religions are not usually accused of deliberately preaching violence even by the faithful of rival (i.e. other) religions. A discrete silence is always maintained on this point (as it has to be, because the same allegation can be levelled against any religion, in addition to the fact that respect for religious beliefs demands such silence). Sectarianism in the interpretation of the dogmas often divides people of the same faith against one another, and this leads to internecine conflicts. Examples would be redundant as this is an obvious fact often encountered in the Christian and Muslim worlds. Unprecedentedly, even the Sri Lankan Buddhist establishment is getting riven by non-traditional sectarian divisions based on new doctrinal interpretations of the accepted sacred texts, that are propagated by self-proclaimed Arhants, Buddha was born in Sri Lanka theorists, all religions preach the same message propagandists in yellow robes posing as Buddhist monks, and so on. One of the last mentioned category, one Somaloka Thera, was heard telling a congregation of Buddhists that Islam is the best religion in the world (showing his ignorance of the basic fact that Buddhism is not a deistic, but a Dharmic, religion) for which he drew a sharp response from Thotawatta.

Non-religionists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who genuinely care for the future of humanity, for the survival of human civilization, and for general human wellbeing, have begun to speak out before it is too late. Though they are still in a minority, they are a compelling presence in the media including cyberspace, and they are making an impact on the collective conscience of humanity. Their passionate call for the exercise of rational thought in matters of the deepest personal concern for us must be heeded before we blindly allow ourselves to be devoured by the monster of irrationality in the guise of the sacred in religious ideology and practice. 

Sam Harris, an American born and bred in a Christian culture, argues that the central dogmas of its religion are nothing but meaningless fiction, finding evidence for his conclusions in core religious texts. As Richard Dawkins says in his foreword to the book, “Sam Harris doesn’t mess about.” He is direct and blunt. He acknowledges his Christian reader as a serious believer, and puts himself on level ground with the latter at the beginning, and challenges them to prove him wrong if that is the case, but through rational debate. Obviously, this is not a face-to-face argument with the author. Christian (and other) believers are invited to take him on and try to survive his onslaught. Considering the gravity of the situation we are facing under the global hegemony of America whose government is being dominated by a narrow, virulent type of Christian orthodoxy as Harris explains, reading the book and taking follow-up action if necessary will not be a waste of time, to put it in the form of an understatement. It must be emphasised that this is not an attack on or a rejection of the truly valuable ethical content of the central Christian text, if the ethics is based on rational grounds. 

We have an exemplar of Christian morality in Mother Teresa. Following is what Harris says about her:

“Mother Theresa is a perfect example of the way in which a good person, moved to help others, can have her moral institutions deranged by religious faith. British American columnist and author the late Christopher Hitchens put it with characteristic bluntness:

[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”

Harris agrees with the substance of what Hitchens is saying here. But he doesn’t deny that

 “Mother Teresa was a great force for compassion. Clearly, she was moved by the suffering of her fellow human beings, and she did much to awaken others to the reality of that suffering. The problem, however, was that her compassion was channelled within the rather steep walls of her religious dogmatism…”

Presumably, I need not remind the reader, Hitchens above is alluding  to Mother Teresa’s absolute opposition to abortion, regarding which Harris writes:

“……. Mother Teresa’s compassion was very badly calibrated if the killing of first-trimester foetuses disturbed her more than all the other suffering she witnessed on this earth. While abortion is an ugly reality, and we should all hope for breakthroughs in contraception that reduce the need for it, one can reasonably wonder whether most aborted fetuses suffer their destruction on any level. One cannot reasonably wonder this about the millions of men, women, and children who must endure the torments of war, famine, political torture, or mental illness. At this very moment, millions of sentient people are suffering unimaginable physical and mental afflictions, in circumstances where the compassion of God is nowhere to be seen, and the compassion of human beings is often hobbled by preposterous ideas about sin and salvation. If you are worried about human suffering, abortion should rank very low on your list of concerns.”

(pp. 35-36)

 Incidentally, this quote about Mother Teresa is from an article by the aforementioned Christopher Hitchens in the magazine Vanity Fair in 2003. It is available on the internet. There are also many videos on YouTube that reveal the truth about ‘holy’ characters such as Mother Teresa and Sai Baba. No wonder it is said that religions come to the Internet to die. Of course, there are systems of spiritual belief such as Jainism and Buddhism that are not religions in the sense I am using the term here and are not prone to murderously violent fundamentalism, although they are also traditionally put under the category of religion.

Harris says that religion in fact is a biological phenomenon. It is a product of cognitive processes with deep roots in our evolutionary past. Religion probably served a useful purpose at a certain stage of our evolution by serving to create social cohesion among large groups of prehistoric humans. But it has outlived its usefulness in that sense. The normal belief among the religious is that there cannot be any morality without the existence of a law-giving God. And the believers of each particular religion are sure that no morality can exist outside their own faith. But this is a misconception as Dr Harris argues. (Here, I think, Harris is implicitly drawing on evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ concept of the ‘meme’ (a neologism that the latter coined). Dawkins elaborated what he meant by meme in his classic The Selfish Gene (1976). A meme refers to a notion, belief, tune, behaviour, or practice, etc that gets culturally transmitted down generations in the brains of individuals in a particular society (Ref. Chapter 11/ Memes: The New Replicators/pp 189-201/The Selfish Gene/30th anniversary edition/Oxford University Press/New Delhi/2006). The God idea is such a meme. This knowledge was not available to our classic euro-centric anthropologists, colonial clones of native origin, who could not do better than mislead and alienate, through their poorly educated blind followers, the present generation of the Sinhalese Buddhist community about the immanent Buddhist values that define their unique cultural identity, heritage, and predict the trajectory of their future as a nation with a civilised past. This may be seen as a digression, but I think it is relevant in the current context. (Incidentally, Sam Harris does not explicitly refer to Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” as a source, but he mentions the latter’s “The God Delusion”.)

There is no agreement about ethics among different religious communities, which does not make for harmonious existence. But the truth is that there are objective sources of moral order that do not require any divine law-giver. As morality is about problems of human happiness and suffering, there need only be better and worse ways to secure the first and eliminate the second. There are psychological laws that govern human wellbeing, and a knowledge of these, according to Harris, would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. Though we have not arrived at anything like a final scientific understanding of human morality we are sure that killing and rape cannot be part of it; we also know that love, rather than hate, is one of the greatest sources of our own happiness, and that it involves a deep concern for the happiness and suffering of those we love. Our own quest for happiness, therefore, provides a rationale for altruism and self-denial. The important thing is that we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to lead a moral life.

What socially concerned people like Sam Harris look forward to is a religion-less society with good morals. They acknowledge that their wish for a complete elimination of religion (religious belief based on assumptions about reality unsupported by evidence) is not likely to be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. But Sam Harris draws an analogy between religion and slavery in America in this regard. Slavery was so entrenched in that society that it was a waste of time, a dangerous waste of time, to talk with confidence about eradicating it in the year 1775; but it was completely abolished some eighty years later. Religion is probably moving towards such a fate already, despite wishful claims to the contrary that we hear. We today are more confident of this trend than Dr Harris was in 2007.

As we have seen, Sam Harris includes all religions in his criticism. He warns against the spread of a very militant form of Islam in Europe, which he finds as obnoxious as Christian fundamentalism. Addressing his compatriot Christians (and by implication, people of all faiths everywhere) he says in conclusion:

“Non-believers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we are dumb struck by you as well – by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God. This letter has been an expression of that amazement – and perhaps a little hope.”

The establishment of a nonreligious ethical system, essentially through secular moral education, which will replace harmful, divisive, and primitive beliefs in meeting a person’s social and emotional needs will be the answer. With proper guidance and education provided by the enlightened in every community, with their differing cultures, it is possible to usher in such a society. That the ethical teachings of major religions (in a neutral sense) have much in common is a source of hope and consolation for all humanity. That is the only hope against religious fundamentalism that exists today. However, education will not be able to banish religion overnight. It is likely to take several generations of intellectually emancipated parents for humanity to put an end to irrational  religious faith. The reason for this is that religious belief transmission down generations of human beings takes place usually through childhood indoctrination, which could  cause even the greatest scientist alive  to give up their science in favour of a false religion.

Rohana R. Wasala

Rohana R. Wasala is a freelance journalist and regular columnist for Sri Lanka Guardian, with a background in academia.

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