Putting The BBS In Its Place

“‘Religion is based . . . mainly upon fear . . . fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand . . . . My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.'”

– Bertrand Russell

So here I am, writing something again after a hiatus of a few years. I’ve been busy but all the recent events surrounding the BBS has forced me to start writing again about these issues with a renewed sense of vigour. I’ve written about the problem of Sri Lankan Buddhism before. It’s intimate link to nationalist politics is undeniable. I’ve talked about the inherent problems of the Buddhist philosophy from a purely academic standpoint. I have talked about Islam and it’s inherent problems. However I do think that this is the time that the non religious of our country and secularists turn an academic exercise into political action.

The BBS has all the dimensions and attributes of a religious nationalist force capable of militant action against the Muslims/followers of Islam. As such we need to ensure that they are put in their rightful place. If there are any sensible people left in this country I urge you to consider the following steps:

1. The hate speech of the BBS and their leadership must be swiftly dealt with. I fear that much damage has already been done. Explore legal provisions to prosecute the BBS to the full extent of the law. The government must take action in this regard. It is also unclear if the government supports the BBS tacitly, although from the vitriol the BBS is spewing these days I highly doubt it:

2. The so called silent majority of religious moderates on both sides must condemn the actions of the BBS vehemently and take practical steps within their respective congregations to curb the activities of the BBS. This is no easy task as a mjority of Sri Lankan temples have been hijacked by the BBS.

3. Secular groups of the country must step up and engage the BBS at every turn, destroying every vitriolic argument with a renewed sense of vigour using the power of logic and reason.

4. Members of civil society must turn to their brothers and sisters, examine the beliefs of their neighbours and stem the hatred and vitriol at the point of origin. Engage, engage, engage at every turn and do not give up.

5. Protest the public display of religious symbolism. The Buddhisification of the country is in full swing. Every Poya day is used as an excuse to demonstrate the militant power of the BBS. Secularists and non believers, however small a community they be, should voice their disapproval. Symbolism is a powerful thing. The Buddhist flag has turned into a rallying call for militant nationalists. Take their precious symbols away from them.

6. The BBS is not a religious organization. They are a nationalist political group that uses notions of  religious and racial identity for their political gain. Do not respect a monk who supports the BBS. Do not offer alms to monks from the BBS. Do not invite them to events.

7. Do not use violence to attack the BBS. Use logic and reason. I know that this is tough, but fight them effectively, not on their terms but on yours and endure you shall.

8. Put aside whatever differences you may have, your personal opinions on the Halal issue, Qazi courts, Sharia law, whatever. Address the issue at hand, namely the militant force hell bent on pushing their nationalist agenda. Defeat this first and then we can discuss the broader issues related to secularization. Unite against the common enemy.

That sums up my first proper post for this year. What have you done personally to put the BBS in their place? scroll down and let me know, tweet at me when you can and together let’s make sure that the BBS is put in it’s rightful place – six feet under the ground.

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Politics Power and Buddhism On The Eve Of The Buddha Jayanthi 2011

Sri Lankan hypocrisy at it’s best – A “gossip” site celebrates the Buddha Jayanthi (in style)

Buddha Jayanthi, Sambuddhathwa Jayanthi call it whatever you want according to the establishment it has been 2600 years since Buddha achieved his ultimate goal. We are the kind of people that gives its politicians and leaders a lot of latitude. Thus we should not be surprised and shocked to witness much silliness – and this is the only way to describe what has transpired- leading up to the Buddha Jayanthi.

Mr Champika Ranawaka and Co. shaved their heads and started meditating. “Observing” the Buddha Jayanthi was what the media called it. I see it as a farcical display of arrogance and inanity on their part. There are no half measures when it comes to “observing” Buddhist principles and teaching, you go all the way or you don’t. Buddhism demands that you sever all attachments and lead a life of ascetic contemplation and meditation. This display of pious “observance” is thus nothing but a farce.

This is nothing but a PR move to lend a veil of respectability to a dangerous and flawed ideology and the sheep-like masses of this country will give these people the respect they so desperately yearn. It really is a pathetic state of affairs. Spewing hatred and acting like cavemen 6 days a week and then observing sil on the last day does not make you a Buddhist.

Former monk and ex-speaker of the house Mr Lokubandara declared today that…ah well see for yourself.  Boggles the mind doesn’t it?  the news has rendered me speechless.

Ah the UNP. Considered by many a “liberal” in this country to be a ration… ah screw it. You see what we have to work with here?

Vesak has morphed into quite a strange event during recent times (more so this year than the recent past). While the monks and the politicians claim that the theme for this year is “the observance of the principles of Buddhism”. They claim that we should create an atmosphere of reverence however the atmosphere on the streets is anything but. The commercialization of Vesak is in full swing. Street vendors will sell you a picture of the Buddha and a Buddhist flag (and throw in a tacky mask from the scream movie series) for a few bucks. Where oh where is the pious mob that protested against the Buddha bikinis and Akon? So commercialization, capitalist consumption and greed is fine while free expression (and that by ignorant foreigners) is a tantamount to “blasphemy”?  They seem to be busy banning the consumption of meat and alcohol in a country containing people of many faiths who differ in opinion regarding how best to spend a long holiday weekend. If you are a Buddhist and want to observe the teachings please go ahead. Don’t eat any meat and stay the hell away from bars and liquor stores but don’t force your bullshit down my throat. In some sense it is a pathetic development that the government has to step in every Vesak to ban the consumption of meat and alcohol in this so called pious land of the Buddha. They seem to have little or no confidence in the Buddhist population when it comes to observing the teachings of the Buddha during the holiest period of their religion.

I claim that this silliness is a direct result of our tolerance of the actions of our politicians and the powers that be. Perhaps you have tolerated these actions out of apathy and indifference or perhaps out of fear but it is high time that we raised our voices against this injustice and cruelty.

I claim that the powers that be are in bed with an asinine evil and diabolical theocracy. Evil not in a biblical sense but a kind of evil that forces its doctrine on the rest of the populace who may not want anything to do with it and belong to a silent minority. It is the stifling of our liberties (what little we have) that annoys me the most while the politicians and monks descend into farcical silliness more and more. Who says we have to do what the majority decrees us to do? Just ask Henry David Thoreau. If you like me feel that this has gone far too far and things are really getting quite silly in Sri Lanka, PLEASE for God’s sake SPEAK UP and SAY SO.

On an unrelated note: Made a comment here. Quite an interesting discussion. 

The Problem With Buddhism

Sri Lankan blogs that criticize Buddhism and Islam have been under attack during the last couple of weeks. In light of these recent developments I realized that I have a huge problem with Buddhism (not that I’m okay with Islam but lets get to that in due course). I’m outraged at the spiteful behavior of the Sri Lankan Buddhist. This is not the first time that they have tried to stifle the criticism leveled against their dogma and practices. 1992 was historical year. In 1992 Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, a notable Sri Lankan anthropologist wrote up a series of essays and published a book called Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka. I’m outraged that this book is still banned in Sri Lanka. Forget the politics and the ethnic hyperbole for a moment. Banning an academic monograph is disgusting and vile and we should be ashamed of it. Dr Tambiah must be applauded for fearlessly pursuing the publication of this book during such a volatile period of our history. This inanity that equates criticism with “blasphemy” must end. Does Buddhism even consider “blasphemy” as some sort of offense or affront? I think not.  I have not read this book, it is currently unavailable in libraries and most people my age are unaware that such a book even exists. This is truly a sad state of affairs. Google books does provide a small excerpt here. In and age where one cannot even examine an academic publication in order to agree/disagree with the authors claims, building a movement that actively engages the religious becomes a pointless exercise.

Okay so I have a lot of problems and in order to get a hold of what I’m dealing with here I’d like to examine two aspects of Buddhism, break it down and analyze each aspect:

1. The original dogma as preached by Buddha

2.  The Theravada Buddhist philosophy as practiced by a majority of Sri Lankans. Something we shall refer to as “Mainstream Buddhism”

Having a background in Science and Mathematics it is natural that I analyze these issues using the lens of Science and I think this is justified. It is justified because Buddhism claims to be an examination of human existence (what are we here for? what is our place in the universe?) such a claim must be scrutinized carefully for it provides an all  encompassing world view which essentially tells one how one should live one’s life. The danger with such a complete and all encompassing world view is that any new knowledge which contradicts portions of this world view is met with the utmost of hostility from the adherents of said philosophy.

Such strong claims must be subjected to testing and verification and the truth value of these claims must be examined. In short Buddhism must first be able to be falsified. Falsifiability means that a particular statement could be shown to be false by providing a counter example, often physical and experimental in nature. If a statement cannot be falsified it has no value with regard to the seeking of knowledge and truth. The statement may be comforting from a psychological standpoint but has no value for someone seeking knowledge about said system of knowledge. Karl Popper had the same view with regard to scientific assertions. He was of the opinion that scientific claims must be falsifiable (that is provide an inherent condition so that it can be disproved), he also believed that such standards should not be applied to religious and metaphysical systems of knowledge. This division troubles me. Buddhism (metaphysical and religious) claims to have the answers to our existence and to our ultimate liberation. I would like to know if this system of knowledge really does deliver before say I devote my whole life to practicing Buddhist preaching and doctrine. Is that too much to ask?

I don’t think that this is an unreasonable request on my part. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and I must agree with Carl Sagan. One does not call it the burden of proof for nothing. If you present to me “the path to liberation” you better damn well be sure it is true and that it works. How better to test for truth utility and effectiveness than falsification? My next post will consider several aspects of the foundation of Buddhism and question the nature of their falsifiability. The samsaric cycle, reincarnation and karma will the subject of the next post.

Related – Review of  The Work of Kings: The New Buddhism In Sri Lanka, By H. L. Seneviratne, written 7 years after Buddhism Betrayed, it picks up the trail from Dr Tambiah

CONSIDER HUMANISM – The AHA launches its biggest advertisement campaign yet!

The American Humanist Association launched their most ambitious ad campaign to date titled CONSIDER HUMANISM. The campaign gained a lot of attention during last years holiday season and seems to have angered a lot of Catholic and Christian fundamentalist groups (If you followed the BHAs “Atheist Bus” campaign closely you’ll know what I mean!).

Here is Richard Dawkins making an appeal for humanism:

Consider Humanism – Richard Dawkins from American Humanist Association on Vimeo.

 

Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design – Alive and well in Sri Lanka?

Creationism is the belief that the universe and hence life on earth was created by some sort of supreme being. Seems harmless enough right? Christians, Muslims and Jews have maintained this belief for centuries and it is their central explanation and world-view as to why things are the way they are, all their other beliefs are derivative of this central belief. “God created everything we see around us and he has a plan for all of us…”  this pretty much sums up all three of the so called “great monotheistic” religions.

The creation myths of these religions are documented in their respective holy texts and thus is one of the main sources cited by priests and believers. All three versions of the creation myth are quite similar and basically talk about Adam and Eve and the fall from grace.

Mistranslations and confusion aside believing in  the Abrahamic creation myth will lead you to some alarming conclusions like:

(a) The “world” and everything in it (the universe ?) was created in 7 days

(b) The world as we know it is about 6000 years old

(c) Snakes can communicate with humans

(d) Men and women don’t have the same number of ribs… etc

You see my point. The problem with the myth is that (aside from being written thousands of years ago by some contemporary scribe who translated into the written word, a series myths carried down through many generations by word of mouth), well its quite vague. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The “mainstream” view – at least amongst Christians and Catholics was that these  myths are merely metaphorical and should not be interpreted as being a literal account of creation (This position has always been called the “moderate” position, however Richard Dawkins provides an excellent analysis of this position and points out that religion as practiced by the masses indeed does not operate this way).

Serious scientists have always maintained that these are nothing more than creation myths, seen in many cultures around the world from the ancient African tribes to the Polynesians, and thus the Abrhamic myth is nothing “special” and is just another creation myth. The influence of the Abrahamic religions (at least on the educated general public) has been falling over the years (see the British social attitudes survey of 2007)

Thus we get a spectrum of beliefs amongst the religious with regard to how the universe came to be, from the fundamentalist position to the so called “moderate position”.

Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection which he claimed to be an explanation of the empirically determinable fact of evolution (Gregor Mendel established the fact that species evolve over time by careful observation of several generations of fast growing varieties of pea plants) was undoubtedly the final nail on the coffin of the Abrahmic creation myths. Physics and Astronomy had rendered the creation myths obsolete several centuries ago but when life itself (often thought to be mysterious and possessing some ethereal quality) came under the scrutiny of science and could henceforth be explained to some degree by a set of laws, the educated public were made fully aware that the Abrahmic myths were nothing but a feeble (but albeit important in a historical context) account of how the universe came to be and that these myths were constructed based on many superstitious claims and assumptions.

Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (notably in the United States) were somewhat threatened by these enlightened claims made by men of science and learning and sought to disrupt the advancement of scientific inquiry into domains traditionally believed to be the domains in which religion was considered to be the supreme authority. Thus the modern “creationist” movement and the “anti-evolutionist” (yes, they somehow seem to deny that evolution, an observable phenomenon  happens at all!) was born. The movement took off in the 1920’s  in – yes you guessed it – the American midwest.

Modern day creationist have attempted to gain some sort of credibility by doing three things:

(a) Engaging serious scientists/intellectuals in public debates and forums

(b) Trying to sound more “scientific” by proposing a “theory” called Intelligent Design

(c) Influencing government policy (especially with regard to policies on education)

As Richard Dawkins points out in the Devil’s Chaplain :

What they [creationists] seek is the oxygen of respectability, [we] give them this oxygen by the mere act of engaging with them at all.   Creationists don’t mind being beaten in an argument. What matters is that we give them recognition by bothering to argue with them in public.

The claims of “young earth creationists” (they interpret the book of Genesis quite literally and believe that the earth is 6000 years old) have been met and challenged by many great scientists and public intellectuals over the years and I won’t go into detail with regard to “the debate” between creationists claims and science. What concerns me is that there have been a number of attempts to bring this kind of pseudoscience to Sri Lanka. The Jehovahs Witness Church (watchtower.org) and the Assembly Of God church in Sri Lanka have been instrumental in spreading creationist nonsense by way of pamphlets, magazines and public events for over a decade now.

Amidst a rapidly declining congregation the Methodist Church (which I erroneously considered to be a little more enlightened than its modern counterparts) has now joined the chorus.

Dr Lalith Mendis (MD) has been visiting schools around Colombo on the pretext of talking about “sexuality and the modern teenager” and has been lecturing students on creationism and intelligent design. He makes all the standard claims made by fundamentalist evangelical Christians (evolution is false – Darwin was wrong, dinosaurs coexisted with humans, homosexuality is a sin etc ).

How does a professional who practices and teaches medicine (yes shocking) reconcile the infantile claims of the creationists and his scientific education? perhaps the late Stephen J. Gould was wrong. Science and religion may not be “non overlapping magisteria”  or perhaps this is a classic case of cognitive dissonance? One could also point out that the inherent weakness in the local education system with regard to teaching science (memorizing facts as opposed to thinking critically) might possibly be to blame. Perhaps it is a result of all of these factors, but my bet is that the education system had a large role to play. A colleague of mind had the opportunity to speak to Dr Mendis and when his creationist claims were challenged by my colleague Dr Mendis resorted to a the classic albeit base and disgusting tactic of reductio ad ridiculum (“are you a medical professional? what authority do you have?”). It may seem counter intuitive but having contradictory viewpoints is not that uncommon amongst professionals and scientists (the vast majority however do not believe in creationism or God for that matter). For example, Bill Lear Jr. (son of Bill Lear – the inventor of the Lear jet ) maintained that the US government researched on “alien technology” until his death and spoke of “anti gravity drives” and the like despite being a pioneer test pilot for the US Air Force. John Polkinghorne – the famous quantum physicist is also a priest, and we all know that Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy!

The lesson to take away from all of this is that the era of engaging creationists is over and done with. When a serious scientist/person engages a creationist he lends undue credibility to a belief system that died (for all practical purposes) many centuries ago. As Christopher Hitchens eloquently puts it:

I am generally tolerant, I love to take part in arguments and teach  but in this case there is no argument – creationism vs evolution, it [the debate] is OVER

I leave you with some Mark Twain and a motivational poster I just cooked up:

Further Reading

1.  With regard to the mistranslations of the Bible from Hebrew to Greek , Latin, English and related questions I refer you to an excellent and thoroughly researched book called “The Uncensored Bible” – however the authors are quite apologetic

2. The creationist museum – makes the extraordinary claim that dinosaurs coexisted with humans – worth a visit!

3. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free – an excellent book examining how the most powerful nation in the world  is being hijacked by crackpots and crazies, deals with creationism and has an interesting take on how so called “experts” in pseudo scientific fields (astrologers,  healers  etc)  come to gain instant  notoriety and how the checks and balances that kept these individuals in check have eroded over time. Quite relevant in the Sri Lankan context. In the same vein perhaps someone could analyze “Idiot Sr Lanka” ?

4. The First Three Minutes by Nobel Laureate Professor Steven Weinberg – One of the chief architects of the successful electroweak theory, Professor Weinberg turns his attention to examine the early big bang universe.  While much has changed since the 1970s (the first appearance of the book) this remains a modern classic and a good starting point if you’re interested in learning more about the current theories on the origin and evolution of the universe. The book starts off with a Norse creation myth and then quickly moves onto examine how far we’ve come since the ancients in establishing how the universe came to be. This book gave me a much more thorough appreciation of the laws of thermodynamics and how they relate to cosmology than all the textbooks on thermodynamics I read during my first year!

The Status of Islamic Law in Sri Lanka

Emory University has a brief outline of the Sri Lankan legal system and its relationship to Islamic Law.

The article gives a historical overview and a description of the current state of this strange relationship between a supposedly secular legal system and Islamic Law. Note that the article in question is a draft.

While I don’t necessarily agree with the author, this article also gives some insight into the matter and  points out that the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF) has in fact attempted to reform the existing system (to some extent).

MWRAF strives to empower women to realize their full potential, locating itself in the local as well as the larger socio-political context, challenging given ‘codes and norms’, while addressing emerging issues that directly affect people’s lives.

Its a start 🙂

An excellent overview of how the legal system of Sri Lanka functions can be found here. The role of Islamic Law is touched upon in brief. This is great reading if you need a quick primer on the components of the legal system and how the system works.

 

This is a response to those of you who requested a little more information on the establishment of  58 Qazi courts in Sri Lanka and the questions posed on the rise of wahabism in the island.

The rise in electric utility charges will NOT be extended to religious insitutions says Champika

Minister of Buddhist Affairs and Religious Intolerance Power & Energy Champika Ranawaka outlined his plan for the proposed hike in electricity charges at a press conference and forum (aimed at educating the public) this afternoon . It’s no secret that Sri Lanka enjoys one of the highest electricity tariffs in the region.

I was not surprised when he announced that the proposed 8% hike would not apply to swanky hotels for pedos religious institutions but would be extended to hardworking taxpaying citizens who consume more than 90 CEB units (I dare you to calculate that in kWh, go on DO IT, 90 units is a trifle)

This is an outrageous farce.  If the CEB is in the red why would they have a double standard? sure I understand why the government decided NOT to to extend the hike to public schools, hospitals and small business, the argument being that not extending the tariff hike is some sort of investment and that these institutions somehow deserve a lower rate as they contribute positively to society.

But religious institutions and buildings? really?  the total output of all the religious institutions in this country amount to nothing more than the cultivation and harbouring of pedophiles, the spread of religious intolerance AND noise pollution by way of cheap AHUJA PA systems. Take note taxpayers, your cash goes back into the system so that THEY can have the (free) resources to irritate YOU with their chanting! ridiculous! why should we continue to support these institutions by literally paying for their sins by acquiescing to an outrageous pay hike?

To the CEB and the Public Utilities Comission: if you want to get the CEB out of the red why not charge these freeloaders clerics ? they consume but don’t pay? hell they don’t even contribute to society!  why not charge them a little extra? GOD knows (no pun intended) the Vatican can afford it and most rajamavihara  have enough cash, loot and land to support themselves.

WAIT! aren’t Buddhist monks supposed to be living an ascetic lifestyle? what do they need electricity (and well the INTERNET) for? shouldn’t they be in some cave in the middle of the forest meditating?

Oh I see.. 😉

Religious institutions don’t deserve these benefits. I don’t mind paying extra if the argument is reasonable but this is a silly little tale these spin doctors are spinning. What say you?