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Lions Roar : January 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2008 15 Editorial: The Proof is in the People IN A WORLD FULL of religious violence, we saw an example this fall of religious practice at its best. And we saw, yet again, how powerful guns and armies can be. It was a moment both inspiring and saddening. In this issue of the Shambhala Sun, we consider both sides of the religious coin. The monks and nuns of Burma rose with great courage against the brutal mili- tary oligarchy that has ruled their country for almost half a century. They joined the pantheon of spiritual practitioners—Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., the young German resistors of the White Rose—who fought oppression and violence with selflessness and nonviolence. (And how tragic it is to note that every one was martyred. What does that say about our world and how it reacts to goodness?) Novelist Karen Connelly has spent more than a decade observing the Burmese democracy move- ment and in this issue, she gives us a unique inside look at the Buddhist monastics who are now the van- guard of the resistance. You’ll see a lot of similarity to the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the fall of communism in Poland, and Connelly gives us reason to hope that the unbreakable spirit of Burma’s monks and nuns will ultimately triumph too. Yet there are now powerful voices arguing that religion’s influence in the world is overwhelmingly negative, and that the very basis of religion is irratio- nal and archaic. As Barry Boyce notes in his excellent examination of the so-called new atheists in this is- sue, we have to consider their arguments seriously. Personally, reading Sam Harris, Christopher Hitch- ens et al has made me less tolerant—in a good way, I think. They’ve opened my eyes to the many absurd, oppressive, and dangerous beliefs propounded by the world’s religions. And to my own role as a liberal en- abler unwilling to call it insanity because of some mis- placed idea of tolerance. In today’s world, religion is too important—and dangerous—to get a free pass. The new atheists pose two challenges to those of us who have a spiritual practice but also believe in rationality and openness. Most spiritual practitio- ners I know, including most readers of this magazine, probably agree with 90% of what these writers say. Who can deny religion’s role as a cause of war, di- vision, and injustice, particularly its central place in the oppression of women around the world? Where we differ is over their purely materialistic view (Sam Harris excepted), and their blanket condemnation of religion’s role. Who can calculate whether religion has been good for the world? Who can balance the crusades and jihads against the charity and decency inspired by spiritual practice? I think all we can say is that religion does a lot better job at the inner work of personal virtue than the outer work of imposing itself on others. (And lest anyone think I’m favoring Buddhism in this discus- sion, we should note that the Burmese generals and their soldiers are Buddhists too.) Yet is religion wholly negative, as the new atheists claim? The monks and nuns of Burma tell us no. We can all benefit from the loving-kindness taught by Sylvia Boorstein. Working with fear in the ways pre- scribed by five Buddhist teachers in this issue would reduce conflict in society and in the world. This is true for the comparable practices of every religion. One could argue that these virtues reflect human nature, not religion. Precisely. Religion at its best brings true human nature to the fore, offering us methods to realize our basic goodness. So is this good- ness, this human nature, purely material, the product of genes or social pressures? I don’t think anybody, no matter what they argue intellectually, actually be- lieves their subjective experience doesn’t have some nonmaterial basis, whether it’s called mind, spirit, or soul. You don’t have to believe in God to think you’re more than just cells. Ken Wilber argues that we can’t lump together pre-rational religion, with all the baggage of its prim- itive origins, and trans-rational spiritual practice that respects reason but accesses the nonmaterial reality beyond it. Wilber also proposes a scientific way to test religions: by observing their outcome in human behavior. If particular spiritual traditions have for centuries consistently produced people who are kind, selfless, and wise, that’s all the proof we need of both their benefit and their validity. And the converse is of course true, if instead they have produced greed, op- pression, and narrow-mindedness. It’s the best stan- dard to judge religions—and the secular philosophies that oppose them. — ME LVIN MCLEOD