Preventing holy wars, by consensus

Religious conflicts tend to be particularly nasty: whether holy wars that kill millions or flame wars on Buddhist internet forums.

When you have The One Whole Holy Truth, anyone with a different view must be absolutely wrong and wicked, and should be punished severely.

So, this is not news… The question is what to do about it.

One popular approach is to insist that all religions are essentially the same. To parody slightly:

“Religious differences are merely variations in cultural customs. Such differences are arbitrary and irrelevant; no one goes to war based on which side of the road you drive on. What really matters in all religions—their core values—are shared equally among all of them. When we recognize this, we can all join hands as one big happy family and sit in a circle singing Om Kumbaya.”

This is very nice. In fact, it is the essence of “niceness”: pretending that conflict does not exist, in order to pursue a hidden agenda.

Consensus Buddhism” is founded on this principle. According to the Consensus, all Buddhisms are essentially the same. Their seeming conflicts are merely differences in Asian cultural customs, which are irrelevant to the West.

“Therefore, there is no need for disagreement among Buddhists. This idea that we can, and should, and maybe have, achieved consensus about what all Buddhisms teach, is one of the reasons I describe the current Western mainstream as “Consensus Buddhism.”

Also, by consensus, we can mix Buddhism with other religions, because it is not essentially different from Christianity or Hinduism.

There are three problems here:

  1. It isn’t true. Different religions are not essentially the same. Different Buddhisms have incompatible principles, values, paths, and goals.
  2. It doesn’t work. Ignoring differences actually makes religious conflicts worse.
  3. It justifies totalitarianism. Whoever gets to say what is the “essential, shared core” of religions can define competitors out of existence—if that decree is accepted.

Recently, I described a better approach to religious conflict, which avoids these downfalls.

Here, I’ll expand on the problems with “all religions are essentially the same,” and show some ways they manifest in the Consensus view that “all Buddhisms are essentially the same.”

God is not One

If all religions are essentially the same, what is it that is the same about them?

This is a question advocates of the “brotherhood of all religions” would rather skate over. When pressed, they usually produce one of two answers:

Both of these are factually false.

All religions advocate violence

Most religions say you should be nice to some people. Some also say that you should be nice to everyone. But all of them also say you should slaughter the infidels, torture heretics, and enslave bad people. (No religion is ethically consistent.)

If the “essential core” of all religions were merely what they have in common, then violence against outsiders would be a good candidate.

Buddhism is no exception. There is some universal-love rhetoric in the scriptures. But Buddhism also justifies holy wars, judicial torture, and slavery. This is no rare aberration, but common all across Asia and through Buddhist history.

Nor is it ancient history. For instance, politically powerful Buddhist monks were primary advocates of 2007-2009 civil war in Sri Lanka, which was widely condemned by human rights organizations for indiscriminate slaughter of non-combatant civilians.

(Several recent books discuss Buddhist justifications for holy war and other forms of violence. One is Buddhist Warfare, edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer.)

Almost no one agrees that your True Self is God

The only major religion that says your True Self is God is Hinduism—and only some Hindu sects.

Nevertheless, the idea that this is the essence of all religions—which are therefore all really the same—is increasingly popular in the West. This is called “Perennialism” by religious scholars.

Perennialism is rejected by most prominent spokespeople for most religions. Perennialists need to argue that all these authorities are deluded about the nature of their own religions. A Perennialist knows The Truth about Islam, that it is really one path among many to becoming God. Most imams consider that the worst idea imaginable, but they don’t really know anything about Islam. Since the essence of Islam is the mystical experience of becoming God, which the imams have lost, they are idiots and should be ignored.

In the case of Buddhism, nearly all Buddhist thinkers have explicitly rejected both the True Self and God, and have strongly differentiated their Buddhism from other religions. Perennialism has become popular in Buddhism recently, though, unfortunately. It’s a very nice idea…

What do all Buddhisms have in common?

It seems to me that the most important aspects of the different Buddhisms are quite different. In fact, I’m not sure all Buddhisms have anything in common; far less do they share their central features.

The various Buddhisms went their own ways a couple thousand years ago. They’ve developed mostly independently, in quite different cultural contexts, over many centuries. They seem now to me to be as different as (ultra-conservative) Wahhabi Islam, (ultra-liberal) Jewish Renewal, and Mormonism. Their common ancestor is equally distant.

Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is sometimes said to be a shared core. But these three words are understood quite differently in different Buddhisms; and there are Buddhisms that have different objects of refuge.

To show the diversity of Buddhist opinion, here are examples that are currently influential, and disagree about pretty much everything:

All of these have been dismissed as “not really Buddhism.” But there is no generally-accepted definition for what is “really” Buddhist. Who gets to say?

If you say “all Buddhists must accept X,” some reply “We are Buddhists, and we reject X, so you are wrong.”

If you say “but scripture Y says X,” they say “Y is not definitive; scripture Z is more holy, and it says the opposite.” For example, militarist Sri Lankan monks point out passages in generally-accepted Theravada scriptures that justify holy war against supposed enemies of raṭa, jātiya, and āgama. (Namely, the Sri Lankan Tamil/Hindu race/religion minority group.)

Pretend unity doesn’t work

“All religions are essentially the same” works until two come into direct conflict. Then it makes things much worse. Conflict can only be resolved on the basis of understanding, and deliberately overlooking religious differences actively prevents understanding them.

“Why are they disagreeing with us? Their religion is the same as ours, so they shouldn’t disagree. They must be hung up on some trivial detail. Or else, they misunderstand their own religion, and wrongly think it is different from ours.

They are being hostile. Why are they hostile? We acknowledge that their religion is the same as ours, so we are very nice people. Why don’t they understand that their religion is the same as ours, so they must agree? They must not be nice people. We need to make them understand that their religion says they have to be nice to us. Or else we’ll have to kill them all.”

Stephen Prothero’s “A Dangerous Belief” is an eloquent call for religious tolerance based on recognizing religious differences. (It summarizes his book God Is Not One.) He writes:

Some people are convinced that the only foundation on which inter-religious civility can be constructed is the dogma that all religions are one. I am not one of them. In our most intimate human relationships, who is so naive as to imagine that partners or spouses must be essentially the same? What is required in any healthy relationship is knowing who the other person really is. Denying differences is a recipe for disaster. What works is understanding the differences and then coming to accept and, when appropriate, to respect them.

America’s various misadventures in the Middle East have been worsened by its unwillingness to learn about Islam. Of course, on the religious right, the attitude may be that Islam is simply evil, so the details are irrelevant. But the moderate or liberal assumption that Islam is essentially the same as Christianity is as much a problem. So is the assumption that there is one thing called “Islam,” and whatever is true for some Muslims must be true for all.

On the one hand, overlooking serious differences means that violent conflicts seem suddenly to pop out of nowhere, and to have no explanation or motivation beyond insane evil.

On the other hand, Americans who understand that there are moderate as well as extremist political Muslims may take agreement from moderates for granted. After all, their religion is essentially the same, so naturally they have all the same core values we do. This can lead to alienating allies, or feeling betrayed when moderate Muslims do not support all American actions.

Ignoring a Buddhist holy war

American Buddhists are usually quick to condemn racism, war, and human rights violations.

In American Buddhism, there was a nearly total lack of discussion of the bloody religious race war prosecuted just a couple years ago by Sri Lankan Buddhists. It was an ugly fact that did not fit the nice story: that all Buddhists—certainly all Theravadins—agree on core principles such as non-violence.

If American Buddhists had acknowledged that Buddhisms can be fundamentally different, we might have been an effective lobby for restraint in the Sri Lankan war. But, to criticize our fellow Buddhists might not have been nice. Mind you, they weren’t behaving in an entirely nice way. But, they were definitely Buddhists, and Buddhists are all definitely nice. (Especially Asian ones.) AAACK! HEAD ASPLODE! Too confusing! Make it stop!

Only avidya—deliberate blindness, ignore-ance—could cope with the cognitive dissonance. Only avidya could keep American Buddhism’s self-image intact.

I have found almost nothing about this war on Western Buddhist web sites. Where, for instance, was the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a major Consensus Buddhist organization? On their site, I could find only one mild mention of “concern” in a single sentence buried at the end of a paragraph about other matters.

(If you’d like to learn more about this, a good starting point is Annewieke Vroom’s review and summary of Tessa J. Bartholomeusz’s In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. There are several other scholarly books on Sri Lankan monastic militarism, plus of course many news reports from the war and statements from human rights organizations.)

Nice religion as a tool for totalitarianism

The third problem with “all religions are essentially the same” is that it has been, from its invention, a tool for totalitarian domination. Whoever gets to say what the “essence” is holds all religious power.

This has been the strategy of American Consensus Buddhism: to define all alternatives out of existence by insisting on sameness.

This is a big enough subject that I think I’ll postpone it to another post.