Religious institutions as a counterweight to the state

It’s very clear that the Burmese people are no longer afraid of the Burmese military. The violence and killing of Buddhist monks have taken away their fear of confrontation.
(Aung Naing Oo, activist.)

 
Burmese monks take to the streets

(Photo: AFP/Getty; originated with the Mizzima News website; taken 24 September, 2007. I picked it up from Andrew Sullivan‘s blog.)

Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris see religion as the enemy of freedom. They ought to know better; their position reveals extraordinary shortsightedness.

No institution presents a greater threat to freedom than the modern, technologically sophisticated state. Religion, in its institutionalized form — church, synagogue, monastery — is a crucially important counterweight to the state.

The protests in Burma (Myanmar) began late last month after the government sharply raised fuel prices. Guardian Unlimited reports:

Arrests and intimidation kept the demonstrations small and scattered until the monks entered the fray. On Sunday, around 20,000 people — including thousands of monks — filled the streets of Rangoon. …

Monks have played an important role in protests, first against British colonialism and later against the military junta, taking a big part in the failed 1988 pro-democracy rebellion.

From Channel 4 news:

We saw buses crammed with saffron-robed monks spilling out of the doors and windows, heading to Shwedagon pagoda. People cheered them as they went; some bowed admiringly, their hands held out in supplication.

But when we reached the Shwedagon pagoda just as the latest demonstration was gathering, we knew something was up. We saw plain-clothes government thugs threatening the monks. And we knew then that something had changed. One of them was standing above a group of monks, hanging off a railing and screaming at them. He shouted: “Do you want death? If you want death, try walking down this street.”

Just a few metres further along the road that runs in front of the gold-domed pagoda, other thugs wielding chunks of wood had surrounded about eight monks and were threatening them menacingly, almost girding them to take them on. …

When we came back to the pagoda the police and soldiers had sealed it off. Troops in crisp uniforms had taken up positions around the pagoda. There was a strong whiff of impending danger, and when the monks tried to begin their march, the troops moved in. The exuberance of recent days received a sharp reality check.

First came the tear gas, clouds of it hanging in the air as they tried to force the monks to disperse. But many stood their ground, some covering their faces with scarves and shouting defiantly. Then we heard the first crackles of gunfire. Here it was, what people had feared. The riot police and soldiers were moving in, and ready to spill blood.

Later, as the clashes intensified, so did the defiance. … The monks who had made it past the police cordons and seen some of their friends beaten severely, were cheered like conquering heroes by civilians who lined the streets.

For another such example, remember the defeat of communism in Poland. The popular revolution relied heavily on two institutions:  labour unions and the Roman Catholic Church.

Hitchens, Dawkins, and their ilk need to sit up and pay attention. Close the churches; open the door to totalitarianism.

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22 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michael (a.k.a. snaars)
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 20:22:07

    Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris see religion as the enemy of freedom.

    If they value freedom as you say – and I believe that they do – then they are certainly against totalitarian regimes. What in the world would cause you to think that these prominent atheists would be supportive of violent oppression – or oppression in any form?

    As an atheist, I’m a little bit hurt by your implication that we are the sorts of people who stand impassively content to watch the suffering of others.

    Of the three accused – Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris – I have only read Dawkins. I have indirect knowledge of the other two from reviews I’ve read. I hold Dawkins in high esteem, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he deplores the situation that exists today in Burma.

    What Dawkins has suggested is that there is no positive, healthy, useful role, currently fulfilled by a religious institution, that cannot be fulfilled by a secular institution in principle.

    Perhaps you are not aware that most sects of Buddhism are nontheistic.

    In Burma, Theravadan Buddhism is predominant. This buddhism is critical of “blind faith” and emphasizes reasoning, critical thinking, closeness with nature, and respect for the wisdom and experience that comes with age. They do not seem to have any doctrine concerning a god or gods.

    Cetereis parabis, I’d say any given monk is more likely to be an atheist than a committed theist.

    Reply

  2. Stephen
    Sep 29, 2007 @ 07:51:14

    What in the world would cause you to think that these prominent atheists would be supportive of violent oppression – or oppression in any form?

    I didn’t say that — not at all. You quoted me: I asserted that Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris regard religion as the enemy of freedom. Current events in Burma are a clear example of religion as a friend of freedom. Similarly, events in Poland in the 1980s.

    I’ve discussed Harris on this blog before. Harris maintains that even moderate faith is bad, because it provides cover for fundamentalism. So he wants faith to be eliminated entirely — all churches, synagogues, and monasteries.

    My point is, if Harris got his way, we would lose an extremely important counterweight to the secular state. The door would be opened wide for totalitarianism.

    Of course Harris doesn’t directly support totalitarianism. But that is a likely outcome of his position. It is extremely shortsighted of him (and Hitchens and Dawkins) to regard religion as the enemy of freedom.

    Perhaps you are not aware that most sects of Buddhism are nontheistic.

    Yes, I know that. The Buddhist monks don’t illustrate the significance of theism. They illustrate the significance of religion, which is the word I used throughout this post.

    Nor does my argument demonstrate any support for the truth of theism — only that religion performs an extremely important social function.

    I’m surprised you had such a negative reaction to this post. You haven’t grasped my point at all.

    Reply

  3. Snaars
    Sep 29, 2007 @ 13:26:02

    My apologies if I misunderstood your point. I’m sure you won’t be surprised a whit if I still disagree even after you’ve clarified. B)

    The Buddhist monks don’t illustrate the significance of theism. They illustrate the significance of religion, which is the word I used throughout this post.

    “Religion” is a term that can be used very loosely, or it can be used narrowly. I think the atheists’ arrows are aimed at a slightly narrower definition of religion – specifically, institutions that promote discrimination, dogmatism, bigotry, credulousness, anti-science, and magical thinking. To the extent that Buddhism is conducive to these things, atheists would not support it. Insofar as Buddhism works toward fee-thinking, freedom, public good, etc., I think most atheists would be in favor of it.

    You are more familiar with the view of Hitchens and Harris – and maybe even Dawkins – than I am. If those activists were in favor of tearing down religious institutions and erecting nothing in their place, then I would be in full agreement with you. But I doubt that they advocate any such thing.

    Rather, they are fighting against the casting of atheists as sterile, robotic, passionless personalities. They are suggesting that meaningfulness can be found apart from superstition and dogmatism. They are suggesting that atheism is liberalizing and conducive to fairness in ways that religion, sometimes, is not.

    These suggestions are provocative and contestable and it is only fair that they be viewed with suspicion and scepticism from the religious community.

    Reply

  4. Stephen
    Sep 30, 2007 @ 07:39:04

    If those activists were in favor of tearing down religious institutions and erecting nothing in their place, then I would be in full agreement with you. But I doubt that they advocate any such thing.

    I think you would do well to pay closer attention to the three authors I’ve mentioned in this post. They represent a new atheist militancy.

    The more nuanced view you put forward (“Rather … they are suggesting that atheism is liberalizing and conducive to fairness in ways that religion, sometimes, is not”) doesn’t trouble me. In fact, I share it. I have much in common with Jewish Atheist, for example, because we are both liberal on most social issues. (Occasionally, I take a more conservative position than he does: e.g. on abortion.) Like him, I have little patience with fundamentalists.

    But Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris attack all religion indescriminately. Hitchens devoted a whole book to slinging mud at Mother Teresa! As for Harris, you can see my summary of one of his articles here. He divides Christians into Dominionists, fundamentalists, moderates, and liberals. Then he says that each position shields the more extreme position next to it from criticism. Thus all religion needs to be eliminated: not just fundamentalism, but the liberal Christianity I espouse, too.

    What you have described is your own kinder, gentler strain of atheism. It speaks well of you that you’re able to see good in worldviews that you disagree with. I’m sure that many atheists are like you (though someone might conclude otherwise, judging only from what’s written in the blogosphere).

    On the other hand, many atheists are not like you. The subtitle of Hitchens’s book is, “How religion poisons everything”. And these authors have struck a chord, so that publishers are scrambling to publish more books from Hitchens’s point of view. There is a new militancy among atheists, people who are “Amen”ing this message that religion is a great social evil that must be eliminated in its entirety.

    One day, you may find yourself in a position mirroring mine. The public face of atheism may soon be a fundamentalist face. You will have to train your critical guns on your fellow atheists, and spend half your time attacking the folks who are supposed to be in your camp.

    Reply

  5. Michael (a.k.a. snaars)
    Sep 30, 2007 @ 11:18:42

    I’m not disagreeing that the authors are attacking religion. I’m only taking the view that they are not so single-minded in their zeal as to be blind to the foolishness of leaving no institutions left to keep government in check.

    (Did I really write that convoluted sentence? I had to read back over it to make sure it said what I wanted. LOL :O )

    One day, you may find yourself in a position mirroring mine. The public face of atheism may soon be a fundamentalist face. You will have to train your critical guns on your fellow atheists, and spend half your time attacking the folks who are supposed to be in your camp.

    Wise words truly spoken, Stephen. My fear is that humans will always find ways to be intolerant of one another.

    Reply

  6. Stephen
    Sep 30, 2007 @ 16:13:29

    They are not so single-minded in their zeal as to be blind to the foolishness of leaving no institutions left to keep government in check.

    The question then becomes, What institutions will assume that function from institutionalized religion?

    I mentioned that labour unions played a significant role in Poland. Thus I’m aware that there can be institutions other than the Church that perform that function.

    But it takes an institution that is able to unite people on the basis of some common trait — i.e., motivate them to bond tightly with one another despite other areas of difference between them. And it has to motivate them powerfully enough to stick together and resist the state even under threat of death.

    If the Church (synagogue, monastery) were done away with, we shouldn’t assume that a replacement institution will spontaneously appear. Mostly modernity has left confusion and incoherence in its wake. What unites atheists, for example, apart from their negative conviction that there is no God?

    Reply

  7. Snaars
    Oct 01, 2007 @ 18:37:59

    This is all based on the assumption (highly questionable) that religion really will disappear – or be reduced to a political fringe element. Should that occur, it will most likely take generations to get there.

    Whatever amount of time it takes, people will still need a sense of belonging and community, and of being a part of something bigger than themselves. They will need places to gather to celebrate life events, such as birth, coming-of-age, marriage, and death. They may want to share time with people of like mindset, who perform like activities, and discuss what is meaningful in their lives, and give and receive counsel. They will need to discuss ways of giving back to their communities, and taking care of people who need help.

    In short, they will still need the community that religious institutions provide – but without the religious element. They will need a social network that government cannot provide.

    Three things will happen (again, this is only IF religion really disappears):

    1) Religious organizations will adapt themselves to fill the same social functions, but without the religious/superstitious element.

    2) Clubs and professional organizations, and schools will adapt themselves to fit the vacuum left by religion.

    3) Some new thirds category of organization will spring up to fit the vacuum left by religion.

    we shouldn’t assume that a replacement institution will spontaneously appear.

    No, it won’t be spontaneous, it will take work – but the fact that we are discussing it shows me that people see the necessity, and in a free society I have no doubt that someone will find a way to fulfill it.

    Reply

  8. Stephen (aka Q)
    Oct 01, 2007 @ 19:12:10

    I admire your optimism, Snaars, but I don’t share it. People bond when they have a shared worldview, shared values and experiences. Increasingly, in Western society, we lack those things.

    Everybody makes his or her own meaning — or so my atheist correspondents tell me. Which may be true and may be legitimate, but it doesn’t lend itself to social cohesion.

    More broadly, I will say this. When you change society to gain something, you also lose something. For every gain there is a concomitant loss.

    In essence, you’re saying is that we can eliminate religion, gain something by so doing, but lose nothing in the process.

    In my view, that’s naive.

    Reply

  9. juggling mother
    Oct 02, 2007 @ 13:19:53

    There are states where religion has virtually no political voice. most have some kind of institutions that play the same role. unions, community groups, fringe political parties, the press, pressure groups, even the internet can fulfill the same role.

    it is not the fact that religion provides the counter to political tyranny, just that the ability for someone to speak for the non-powerful can assist against tyranny. That voiced can come from any number of institutions. I would certainly say that the british media has a FAR louder voice than the church when it comes to saying what the people think – and when it comes to telling the people what they should think;-)

    Reply

  10. Stephen
    Oct 03, 2007 @ 08:14:11

    It might help the dialogue along if you would provide specifics.

    I certainly agree that the internet has allowed people to coordinate protests. I also concede that religious institutions aren’t the only counterweight to the state: unions and student groups come to mind.

    Nonetheless, you need to acknowledge the photos of those Buddhist monks marching in Burma. How ideological must an atheist be to deny the evidence, and argue against the point I’m making in this post?

    I think I’ll invent a new term: ostrich-atheism. Duck your heads in the sand and keep repeating, “Religion serves no useful social purpose and is therefore expendable.” Amen, amen.

    Reply

  11. Juggling mother
    Oct 03, 2007 @ 09:37:41

    I was not arguing against the idea that religion can be a counter to state tyranny, just that it is the only possible, the best or even the most likely counter. I try not to be an Ostrich, but I also try not to see general trends from single issues. The situation in Burma does not necessarily apply to the rest of the world.

    The opposite situation exists in Turkey, where the military have been known to rise up against the religious powers to keep the state democratic and secular. Does that mean that the military is the best counter to theocratic dictatorships? I hope not!

    Reply

  12. Stephen
    Oct 03, 2007 @ 11:51:37

    Like you, I’m no fan of theocratic governments. I think the state and the Church (mosque, synagogue, monastery) should be kept separate. That’s the only way that religious institutions can fulfill a role as a counterweight to the state.

    At the same time, the state is counterbalancing the Church! And that’s a good thing, in my books. Checks and balances as protection against totalitarianism.

    It’s sad if military force is necessary to keep theocrats from seizing control of the government. But it’s not a mark against my point here; it’s an illustration of the same principle from the other side of the fence.

    Reply

  13. Michael (a.k.a. snaars)
    Oct 04, 2007 @ 20:07:38

    it’s not a mark against my point here; it’s an illustration of the same principle from the other side of the fence.

    Just what is your point? I’m genuinely confused now. You said:

    Nonetheless, you need to acknowledge the photos of those Buddhist monks marching in Burma. How ideological must an atheist be to deny the evidence, and argue against the point I’m making in this post? … I think I’ll invent a new term: ostrich-atheism. Duck your heads in the sand and keep repeating, “Religion serves no useful social purpose and is therefore expendable.”

    First I thought your point was that the atheists would never stand up to totalitarian regimes the way religious people sometimes do.

    You corrected me and said that no, it was just that certain atheist authors do not acknowledge that religious organizations serve as a necessary counterbalance to the state.

    It has been suggested that aforementioned atheist authors recognize the need for a counterbalance to the state. Speaking in proxy for said atheist authors, we do not deny that religion often functions as such a counterbalance. Maybe we would just prefer a non-religious counterbalance.

    Non-religious couterbalances can be found just about everywhere: unions, academic institutions, news media, lobbyists, professional organizations, militias, secular humanist organizations, environmental groups, and social groups, to characterize a few.

    You seem to resist this concept. You believe the photo of the Buddhist monks is proof that only religion can function in this regard.

    At the same time, you acknowledge counterexamples like Turkey and the fact that Buddhism can be – and quite often is – readily adapted to atheism.

    Any point you are trying to make is completely lost on me. No doubt you will interpret this as “snaars putting his head in the sand.”

    Reply

  14. Stephen
    Oct 05, 2007 @ 11:15:26

    I think it’s absurd that you and Juggling Mother both mention news media. News media report events, and typically make an effort to get the message of the state out there, along with any opposition message.

    News media do not lead marches against totalitarian governments.

    Lobbyists? Lobbyists curry favour with the state.

    I acknowledge — because I make a real effort to consider all of the evidence — that unions and student groups sometimes mount real protests against the state.

    Please understand, I’m not interested in what might happen — what atheists hope will someday happen. I’m looking for a historical track record of people putting their lives on the line to oppose a totalitarian state.

    With that, let me repeat my earlier comment (to which you did not respond):

    People bond when they have a shared worldview, shared values and experiences. Increasingly, in Western society, we lack those things.

    Everybody makes his or her own meaning — or so my atheist correspondents tell me. Which may be true and may be legitimate, but it doesn’t lend itself to social cohesion.

    More broadly, I will say this. When you change society to gain something, you also lose something. For every gain there is a concomitant loss.

    In essence, you’re saying is that we can eliminate religion, gain something by so doing, but lose nothing in the process.

    If you think that we will lose nothing positive by eliminating religion, then yes — I think snaars is ducking his head in the sand.

    When it comes to religion as a counterweight to the state: those are big shoes to fill, and I seriously doubt that secular humanist organizations and the rest will cut it.

    Reply

  15. Michael (a.k.a. snaars)
    Oct 05, 2007 @ 19:36:57

    Thanks for the frustrated-yet-still-listening, not-too-belligerent-yet-growing-impatient response. One thing I’ve always admired about you is your capacity for dialogue in the face of my long-winded opposition. 😆

    News media do not lead marches against totalitarian governments. Lobbyists? Lobbyists curry favour with the state.

    They are examples of counterbalances to the state. What are we talking about other than competing interests? Your view that there are only two interests that matter – and only one way to exert influence – is simplistic.

    I’m not interested in what might happen — what atheists hope will someday happen. I’m looking for a historical track record of people putting their lives on the line to oppose a totalitarian state.

    That’s like asking Einstein to provide a track record for the theory of special relativity using only Newtonian physics and euclidian geometry.

    It’s like asking for gays and lesbians to prove historically that they can be good parents using records from a time and place where gays and lesbians were not allowed to marry or have children.

    It’s like introducing a species into a brand-new environment and asking for an historical track record of the effect before it happens. We might have indicators, and that’s all.

    Your demand is unreasonable on several levels – one of which is that atheism is not a political stance.

    People bond when they have a shared worldview, shared values and experiences. Increasingly, in Western society, we lack those things.

    It seems to me that shared worldview, values, and experiences have little to do with it. What these people have in common isa shared community under a repressive totalitarian state. They are largely on their own. Whatever help they receive from the outside their own community is provided from people with a belief in universal human rights, not because of a shared worldview, values, and experiences. Do you empathize with the Buddhist monks and Burmese citizens because you share their worldview, values, and experiences? I share virtually none of these things with them, and yet I too feel strongly for these people. Are my feelings illegitimate?

    Everybody makes his or her own meaning — or so my atheist correspondents tell me. Which may be true and may be legitimate, but it doesn’t lend itself to social cohesion.

    The question of meaning is not pondered exclusively by people of religion. One need not be religious to believe that life is meaningful and valuable. I don’t think people regularly inquire of each other whether life’s meaning is intrinsic or invented, and if they do and disagree, I doubt it really affects personal relations very much. I don’t see how it affects social cohesion – unless you’re talking about people who don’t believe that life has any meaning at all – and these are few and far between, and can be found amongst all religious stripes, not just atheists.

    In essence, you’re saying is that we can eliminate religion, gain something by so doing, but lose nothing in the process.

    I don’t believe that deconversion – if it is possible – will come without a cost. Religious belief is deeply ingrained in the psyche of billions of people and involves their conception of themselves, their culture, and how they view outsiders.

    On the other hand, I don’t think a widespread deconversion from religious belief would be very much different from other social transformations that have occurred: the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the end of slavery, the liberation of women – they all came with a cost, too. 😕

    Reply

  16. Michael (a.k.a. snaars)
    Oct 05, 2007 @ 19:53:15

    I’ll grant you one thing, though. You haven’t said it, but I want to preempt you. 🙂

    If there is a flaw in the position of “the new atheist militancy” it is this: they want everyone to think in the same terms that they do. They should focus on achieving equal status, equal rights, and legitimacy for the atheistic worldview – they should not expect to convert everyone.

    What would have happened to the homosexual movement if they demanded that everyone else be homosexual, too?

    Atheism is a little different of course, since it’s not biologically ordained. Nevertheless, as a practical matter, it may not matter whether atheism is correct, if the proponents are going to alienate everyone in the process of trying to convince them.

    Reply

  17. juggling mother
    Oct 06, 2007 @ 13:27:36

    I’m looking for a historical track record of people putting their lives on the line to oppose a totalitarian state

    We-ell, Mussolini was deposed by communists. No religion involved there as far as I am aware. As I said previously, The Turkish military regularly steps in to stop a religious dictatorship and ensures secular democratic elections are held. If you want to look at it that way, the Iraqi dictatorship was toppled by economic or possibly political foriegn ideals, the religious opposition he had faced for decades `proving utterly ineffectual….

    And if you want to look at world history through the ages, I’m not sure that religion has often proven much of a resistance to the `state, preferring to work with it in Christian countries, become it in Muslim ones, and live separate from it in most `Eastern societies.

    I accept that in some cases, religious institutions can be an effective movement against the state. And the state can sometimes be an efvfective force against the “church”:-) but to say that means religion is the only, the main or the best way of controlling state excesses is simplistic at best.

    Reply

  18. stephen (aka Q)
    Oct 06, 2007 @ 13:54:56

    • Snaars, Juggling Mother:
    Thank you both for acknowledging at least some validity to my point of view. Most of my frustration was due to a failure to acknowledge even as much as Juggling Mother does above, “in some cases, religious institutions can be an effective movement against the state.”

    With that modest admission, we’ve probably come about as close to agreement as we will ever achieve on this topic. (Though obviously it isn’t very far!)

    I still think atheism is essentially a centrifugal force — that it flings people in all directions of the compass, rather than unifying them on the basis of shared values. But I take your point, Snaars, that people may also be united by what they oppose, when conditions get bad enough, without needing shared values beyond such general concerns as freedom.

    Still, it’s a hell of an experiment Dawkins & Co. would like us to run. I think the glib assumption that everything will work out OK is hugely risky. And I continue to believe that the events we’re seeing in Burma illustrate that we are in danger of losing something vitally important.

    But of course, the reader is free to disagree.

    Reply

  19. Snaars
    Oct 06, 2007 @ 14:19:01

    Here is a brief article about atheists who put their lives on the line, and the discrimination they face: Newsweek article: Beliefwatch:Foxholes
    A google search of “atheists in foxholes” will turn out more.

    The reason atheists haven’t organized against states is because they have been historically few in number.

    Faced with the choice of A) resist totalitarianism, B) waste time and precious lives converting everyone around to atheism, then resist totalitarianism, and C) give up and go home, we can make an educated guess that many atheists have quite rightly chosen A.

    We can guess further that most atheists that have chosen A have hidden their atheism rather than face discrimination.

    Reply

  20. Snaars
    Oct 06, 2007 @ 14:21:52

    😳
    Oops – There I go posting again without realizing that you added another comment. I would have been content to let you have the last word.

    Reply

  21. juggling mother
    Oct 07, 2007 @ 05:40:28

    I repeat my second comment:

    “i was not arguing against the idea that religion can be a counter to state tyranny

    I try to keep my eyes and opinion open and to acknowledge the truth in the opinions you offer. But debate is all about putting forward your opinion too:-)

    Reply

  22. Stephen
    Oct 07, 2007 @ 15:15:10

    I have responded with a follow-up post.

    Reply

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