While Western atheists are most familiar with outrages committed by monotheistic faiths, the followers of Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism can be just as violent, oppressive and xenophobic. As China, India and other developing nations become wealthier and more internationally influential, it’s likely we’ll hear more and more about this, as adherents of these religions begin to swagger and brandish their newly discovered power.
Sri Lanka, for example, is grappling with a hardline group called Bodu Bala Sena, which is Sinhalese for “Buddhist Power Force”. Much like the extremist Buddhists of Myanmar (the so-called 969 Movement), the BBS is led by Buddhist monks who preach xenophobia and violence against the country’s Tamil and Muslim minorities, and on several occasions have incited deadly mob attacks on mosques and minority neighborhoods.
They also engage in historical revisionism, regularly “rediscovering” ancient Buddhist temples and other supposedly significant archaeological remains on land sacred to Sri Lanka’s Muslims or Tamils. A former Sri Lankan diplomat calls the BBS “saffron fascism“. The previous president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was an ally of the BBS who courted their support and refused to crack down on them – but with Rajapaksa’s shock defeat in elections this week, it remains to be seen whether conditions will improve for the country’s minorities.
Likewise in India, where the dominant religion is Hinduism, there are violent, ultra-nationalist groups that preach hate against minorities. I’ve previously written about this movement, which goes under the broad name of Hindutva. And last month I came across a scary article about one of the larger Hindutva groups, the all-male (of course) Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
As in Sri Lanka, the RSS promotes historical revisionism and religious pseudoscience about the antiquity and truth of Hinduism. And they have friends in powerful places: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a former member. Lately, they’ve been lobbying for a law that would ban “religious conversion”. Their ostensible argument is that Hinduism isn’t a proselytizing religion and so it’s unfair to make them face competition from Christian or Muslim evangelists. But even if one accepted that reasoning (which I don’t; why should any belief system be sheltered from a self-imposed disadvantage?), it seems their true intent is that Indian citizens whose families changed religions should be forcibly reverted to Hinduism. This sometimes goes by the name of ghar vapasi, or “homecoming”.
If you strip out the cultural idiosyncrasies, what’s evident is how much all these groups resemble the American Christian right and each other. They all preach the superiority of their own faith and ethnicity, a pseudohistorical narrative of a glorious past which lets them claim credit for everything good in the world, and suspicion and prejudice against whatever minority is locally noticeable, painting them as untrustworthy outsiders. These atavistic, prejudiced impulses seem to be something common to humanity, whichever culture you happen to live in – but by allowing people to claim divine authority for their bigotry, religion deserves its share of the blame for making the problem worse.