Stand up atheists, agnostics, pagans and polytheists. Stand up for your rights to comment on beliefs, particularly those of self-assuming monotheists, as readily as they comment on yours.
Should the Prophet Mohamed be accorded more respect than Karl Marx? Christ more respect than Confucius? Jehovah more than Jupiter? And why do religions “of the book” seem to look down so freely on “pagans” – who number about half the world. Do certain religious people and ideas have to be treated with special sensitivity on account of their position not their actions?
Perceived insults to Islam have been much in the news. But when it comes to thin skins and self-regarding assumptions the vocal Muslims are not alone. Christians too often demand that unbelievers show “respect” for their beliefs, while showing little for belief systems outside the Judeo-Christian/Islam fold.
There is every reason to be civil to those with different beliefs, religious, philosophical or political. Politeness, discretion is especially important in societies with large belief and behavioral divides. But the expectations of many believers and much of the media often go beyond civility, expecting subservience to those claiming to be spiritually guided – claims which seldom seem to reflect the actual lives of the teachers and prophets.
Is it not time that skeptics, materialists, spiritualists, animists, plus all those whose belief in god as a creator or in an afterlife but subscribe to no defined religion, were given equal space to the exclusivist monotheists with their books of certainties? After all, most of the world from India to Japan has limited time for exclusivist dogmatic religion, mixing different belief systems in ways that meet perceived personal or social needs.
Buddhism is common to both India and China, having been born in one and surviving in the other. Buddhism is a guide to living, to harmony, not a religion in the western and monotheistic sense. Buddha is a teacher not a god. As for China, its predominant though by no means sole ideological influence has been Confucius, a philosopher entirely concerned with achieving order and harmony in the temporal world.
For many Confucianism, can co-exist with Buddhism, though one may seem more concerned with power and the other with wisdom. China has also spawned Daoism, a hard-to-define mix of philosophy, folk religion and the harnessing of life forces through medicine, exercise etc. As for many Buddhists, time is circular not linear and involves rebirth.
None of these Chinese belief systems come close to Christianity or Islam concepts so it is no great surprise that neither of the dogmatic faiths has established more than minority roots in China – or in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. As for modern China, it has been almost aggressively secular whether ruled by nominal Christians or avid materialists. Mao attacked Confucianism not because it was a faith but because he saw in it rigid stratification the source of China’s backwardness. Confucianism at least is now back in favor because of his focus on good order, and Buddhism is acceptable because it is mostly apolitical and un-dogmatic.
India is often seen as an intensely religious society. But, as Amartya Sen has so eloquently pointed out in his book “The Argumentative Indian” its society thrives on diversity, on Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Parsees, Jews and non-believers arguing among each other but not trying too hard to convert each to “the truth”. Indeed, Sen points out that in the great Hindu epic the Ramayana there is much room for skepticism about whether god really exists and whether Rama was a god or a human hero.
Nor is atheism and agnosticism a modern phenomenon in India. Its Carvaka school of atheistic rationalism dates back more than 2,000 years. In the 16th century it was accorded equal status with religions in the dialogues organized by the (Muslim) Emperor Akbar.
Even the world’s most populous Muslim majority country, Indonesia, has a tradition not of atheism but of syncretism. Its “Pancasila” principles of the state are an attempt to create a unifying factor, a tent to include all faiths, secular nationalists and Communists. Indeed its first President, the nominally Muslim Sukarno, declared himself to be “the meeting place of all trends and ideologies.” The danger for Indonesia today is that it is being infected by intolerant attitudes of Middle East Muslims and western Christians.
Of course, throwing deliberately provocative insults at another’s religion is not in the interests of harmony anywhere. But much of Asia has lessons to teach in the peaceful interaction of belief system spiritual and temporal, theistic and atheistic.
That is not to say that, for example, Thai and Cambodian Buddhists are inherently more peace-loving than Polish Catholics, Saudi Muslims or American Jews. Clearly that is not the case. Yet Asia’s wars have seldom been about religion unless it has been captured and put to nationalist uses such as the concept of the god-king, the semi-divine monarch of Japanese and Thai history.
The half or more of the world that does not follow one of the doctrines or book-bound monotheistic religions has lessons for the other half. Islam and Christianity are no more or less sacred than cows to non-Hindus.