Faith and the bullet

An English atheist observes the events in Burma:

Something old is playing out. On one side, shaved heads and ranks of red robes; on the other, frightened and angry young men in uniforms, banging their batons against their riot shields and raising their rifles. Barricades, plumes of smoke from teargas canisters. And Buddhist monks, wearing sandals, staring down the guns.

It’s very moving. But more than that, it is food for thought. This – these monks staring down the guns – presents a problem for a militant secularist in the Dawkins or Hitchens mould. I don’t mean that it has any bearing on the argument about whether there is or is not a God. Buddhist monks don’t worship anything resembling the God on whom the Dawkins guns are trained in any case; and the fact that they stare down the guns doesn’t make a difference to whether or not what they believe is true.

But stare down those guns they do – and their behaviour does have a strong bearing on the question of whether religious belief “poisons everything”, as Hitchens puts it. I’d submit, as an irreligious bystander, that one of the things that helps those monks hold the line is faith. The form that their resistance takes is shaped by that faith – and it is uniquely powerful.

The reason that religious faith and totalitarianism will always be at odds is because the entire point of totalitarianism is its demand that there is nothing greater than the State. The Italian Fascists put it most succinctly: Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato.

But God and even the supernatural are things beyond the inherently material State, at least in the absence of a god-king. (None of whom, historically, have ever been totalitarian rulers; Hitchens’s example of the Japanese emperor is downright amusing when one considers how little power the Japanese emperors posssessed since the Taira and the Minamoto were fighting over the Shogunate in 1160.) Uneasy lies the regime that sets itself against religion, as we have often seen, such uneasiness usually devolves into violence.