The Honest Way to Teach Comparative Religion

An Open Letter from Billy Rojas to the Harvard Divinity Bulletin


A letter by Leo Shatin which appears in the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of HDB deserves serious comment. It is all well and good to teach about religion, following the template of Comparative Religion or similar programs, and do so starting at the public school level. As a retired teacher of history and Comparative Religion myself I can hardly argue with that premise.

This is crucial in a pluralistic democracy which is home to hundreds of millions of people who identify with a multitude of faith traditions. And it is crucial for anyone who intends to have dealings with people who live in other nations –India, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Japan, Brazil, Russia & etc– which do not share many of the assumptions and values that are foundational to American culture. It is a really good idea to promote the kind of education which allows US citizens to get along with each other and to understand the outlooks of the peoples of the Earth.

Cyrus the Great understood exactly this principle in the 6th century BC, which is what his famous Cylinder advocating religious tolerance throughout the polyglot Persian Empire was all about. And we can find similar sentiments expressed in such diverse sources as Malachi 1: 11 in the Bible, the Lotus Sutra, and Ludlul Bel Nimeqi, “I will praise the Lord of Wisdom,” of ancient Mesopotamia.

All of this said, however, Shatin made a vital point. If we are to teach religion truthfully shouldn’t we , as he put it, “incorporate historical instances and examples of misuses of religion” ? The reasons should be so obvious that further elaboration is not necessary. But there is an implication within this excellent suggestion that must be spelled out so that its importance is not lost.

Here in Oregon, it has been impossible –literally– to get this point across to teachers who regard multiculturalist educational philosophy as their de facto Nicene Creed, admitting no validity to any other worldview when discussing religion. The ONLY way to present the story of religion / religions is to be positive and upbeat about all of them and never to criticize any of them, except. certainly for some number of teachers who have personal biases, Evangelical Christianity and Jewish Orthodoxy. Otherwise everything possible must be done to promote tolerance toward the world’s faiths. As if the last word on the subject was uttered by Voltaire more than 200 years ago when he promoted religious tolerance in opposition to the intolerance of the ancien regime.

What we currently have in many schools, in other words, is a semi-official state religion, an academic version of Theosophy or, cie vous plait, political Unitarianism. This also is not surprising. See Dan McKanan’s article, “The Dialogue of Socialism,” which documents the relationship between the original un-Marxist American Left and religion in the Summer/Autumn 2010 issue of HDB. The gist of things is that Socialism in the US was “Theosophized” –or Unitarianized– many years ago and important values in those belief systems have since become intrinsic in the hearts of today’s “Progressives” as part of their assumptions and values. At an unconscious level modern Leftists in America base their views on one of two specific liberal religions of the past, to which we might add other persuasions like the Baha’i Faith, which has gained a level of influence in the United States mostly in the years since WWII.

On what grounds can Comparative Religion be taught fairly when many or perhaps most of its teachers, in a sense, advocate a religious orthodoxy they seek to inculcate in the young ? This comes close to violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, however well intended the motives of these teachers may be.

By standards of this quasi official state sponsored religion, it is evil to criticize any religion –minus the exception of Biblical faiths that many “liberals” dislike. Indeed, as I now know from experience, Comparative Religion teachers may become indignant when the suggestion is made that, for the sake of honesty and understanding the beliefs of others, classes should discuss criticisms of religion

Which is not to say that the agenda of, say, Free Inquiry magazine, the Atheist journal that criticizes religion exhaustively in every issue, should be anyone’s ultimate goal. The point is not that religion is, by definition, dysfunctional and hazardous to your mental health. Such an outlook is one-sided and objectively false to a thousand facts. However, there is real value in recognizing the importance of criticism of other religions as intrinsic to the beliefs and values of virtually ALL of the world’s faiths.

Part of the problem, of course, has to do with the political preferences of doubtless a majority of teachers of Comparative Religion ( or related fields like History of Religion ). It would seem to be a safe assumption that most such people become interested in the study of religions –plural– precisely because they are politically liberal and want to contribute to making America a successful religiously pluralistic country which is welcoming to communicants of scores of spiritual traditions representing a hundred-and-one nationalities or ethnic groups.

Yet there IS a problem. No religion translates 1 : 1 into a political ideology, at least not counting the narrow theocracy of Iran or such historic examples as Calvin’s Geneva. Otherwise, as far as political ideas go, all religions are mixtures of Right, Left, and Other. The most liberal contain conservative elements and unclassifiable elements, and the most conservative sometimes have major liberal views enshrined in their operating philosophies. Buddhists, after all, to discuss all schools of the dharma which are normative, usually are liberal by most standards, yet, because of Buddhist emphasis on sanctity of life, are strongly anti-abortion. Meanwhile, Baptists, clearly known for a number of socially conservative values, nonetheless are staunch champions of free speech, democratic governance, and human rights, each of which are usually thought of as Left-wing causes celebre.

The trouble is that academic liberals . in the process of promoting “understanding” among people of different faiths, obviously have extreme difficulty in being objective about their subject matter when it concerns religion. They want all faiths to be no worse than exotic forms of “Unitarianism” and selective bias kicks in. What does not fit some progressive paradigm gets short shrifted as if all kinds of embarrassing facts simply don’t exist. Or maybe they do exist but, wink, wink, we can ignore them with impunity inasmuch as a greater good is more important. Besides, when believers comprehend the value of an enlightened political agenda they will surely see the light. Just as the United Church of Christ has become a de facto version of Unitarian-Universalism, and just as “mainstream” Methodists and educated Catholics are moving in this direction, et al, including Reform Jews. That is, at some point in the future we will all become Unitarians anyway.

And we will all vote Democratic, or Green.

Alas, this is not exactly a very realistic prognosis. So-called liberal churches are in decline almost everywhere for one thing, and for another this mindset promotes blatant dishonesty.

Yes, the opposite is not any better. And in some ways it is worse. What good does it do a student to take a class in something called Comparative Religion, taught by a Biblical literalist, who only discusses Buddhists or Hindus in order to condemn them for “Pagan” beliefs that are judged wrong intrinsically ?

The point here is that –to confess my own political preference– it is far better to be a political Independent who values objectivity, as much as it is in our power to conjure up, so that no-one even tries to force the views of various religions to conform to desired American political outcomes favored by partisans of either the Left or Right. In fact, it seems self evident that there is no other way to teach Comparative Religion to good effect unless you are basically independent politically. Maybe not about everything, which is an impossibility anyway, but no worse than generally, while cherishing the objective of fair and honest evaluation of all faiths wherever the evidence may lead.

The propensity for dishonesty should be stressed. This may be unconscious ; regardless it can be painfully real. But if a political partisan wants something badly enough his or her mind can shape one’s subject of study and , like Procrustes, squash it or stretch it into desired shape.

Consider Diana Eck, clearly a scholar of repute. Yet her 2001 book, A New Religious America, takes the view that there really is no serious problem within Islam for homosexuals such as –not exactly a secret– herself , who see in this religion a font of good things to be inspired by. The gist of Eck’s remarks on this issue are that Islam fits in well with contemporary American progressive values and that Muslims, accordingly, should be regarded as suitable allies of the Democratic Party, et al. All of which is preposterous.

Since the end of the colonial era there has been a steady move in Islamic countries toward more conservative ( Shariah-derived ) laws in the area of sexual conduct. A minimum of half of all Muslim countries now require draconian punishments for being caught in homosexual actions. Recently Kenya, in deference to its Muslim minority, has moved in the direction of Uganda in criminalizing all sorts of homosexual conduct. And, of course, in some Muslim lands the penalty is either death, as in Iran and Yemen, or lengthy incarceration as in Egypt. Eck’s good intentions with respect to the world’s religions and the value of understanding them, with the desire to see each become part of the mosaic of American religious life, simply cannot be taken seriously as she presents things because of her dishonesty.

And it isn’t just Diana Eck. Another scholar of religion, Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago, recently published a book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, in which she claims that there is a homosexual foundation to major parts of Hindu tradition. That she did a great deal of research for her text is not exactly in dispute, but I happen to be on more than one Hindu mailing list. When her book was released in 2009 it became impossible to ignore the outcry from Hindus against Doniger’s conclusions. That is, sure, look long enough, and hard enough, and in a tradition as extensive as Hinduism you will find whatever you are looking for, especially since Hinduism is an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy. But Hindu practice for vast majorities of Hindus clearly has little or nothing to do with Doniger’s views. Hindu outrage made this as clear to me as anyone could possibly want. Again, the dishonesty of a scholar essentially spoiled her work and, among actual Hindus , Doniger’s book is overwhelmingly regarded as a travesty.

In other words, dishonesty in the name of progressive values is a scandal, not a virtue, and the sooner this problem is confronted for what it is, the better.

Of primary concern here is dishonesty in studies of Comparative Religion on the issue of the criticisms just about all religions make of other religions. It can be taken as axiomatic that without direct and honest study of these criticisms NO religion can possibly be understood for what it is.

As far as students in classrooms are concerned, this is anything but counsel to promote verbal fights and other acrimony as part of course work. On the contrary.

What distinguishes many faiths are traditions in them for dealing with disagreement, including strong disagreement. Disputation –sometimes including formal debate– has featured in the histories of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even medieval Islam. What might be characterized as broad ranging ecumenical discussions are known from Zoroastrian, Taoist, and Greco-Roman traditions. Participants took exception to the beliefs of others yet were more than willing to hear people out. Perhaps the most identifiable document of this kind is the famed “Questions of King Malinda,” well known in Buddhist tradition. However, the Apostle Paul’s conversation in Acts 17 with men who venerated an Unknown God is in this vein, especially since the discussion took place at the Areopagus, a hillside at Athens which was specifically used for open philosophical or religious argumentation.

Consider an obvious fact : Just about all of today’s religions started in opposition to one or another previous religious tradition. The first Mormons objected to the Protestant revivalists of the “Burnt-Over District” in early 19th century New York state. Buddhism began, certainly in part, as a protest against Brahminism. Zoroastrianism began as a protest to a form of Shamanism known in parts of Central Asia. Christianity started in opposition to Rabbinic Judaism. The Baha’i Faith began because of the view of its founders that Islam needed to be superceded. Modern-era Neo-Paganism began in opposition to Christian orthodoxy and its perceived limitations. This list could be expanded at length.

The question is: How can any of these religions actually be understood unless students ( or anyone else ) knows exactly why such opposition to other religions was crucial to the formation of a new faith ? After all, we are who we are –in terms of what we believe and value– not only because of positive attraction to an ideal or vision of the future, but also because of what we object to and oppose.

Any “kumbaya” model of religious origins, in other words, is ridiculous on the face of it.

Perhaps exceptions can be allowed for tribal religions in isolated areas of the world, but ( 1 ) even this seems doubtful, and ( 2 ) if it is true it would not exactly be a subject of interest to anyone outside of professional anthropologists.

What we are talking about are religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, plus a wide variety of newer faiths like, well, Theosophy or Unitarianism.

The facts are what they are, not what they are not.

Does anyone seriously doubt that there are numerous comments in the New Testament which criticize the Pagan religions of the Roman Empire ? It also is true that toward some of these faiths the first Christians borrowed ideas, and it is impossible to miss commonalities between various stories in the Gospels and Isis religion, Dionysianism, or Orphism, yet elsewhere there are innumerable criticisms of Pagan tradition, sometimes with strong condemnations.

Hebrew religion, as well as its transformation into what we now know as Judaism, also was mixed in outlook toward other spiritual traditions. Deuteronomy 32 includes extended material which clearly allows for respect toward traditional faiths of many other peoples of the ancient world. Yet Joshua condemned Mesopotamian religion, Balaam, in later Jewish lore, was reviled repeatedly despite the favorable things said about him in Numbers, and Ezra and Nehemiah were severe opponents of many other religions.

The Koran, in case this has escaped anyone, is filled with criticisms of Jews and Christians and condemns, with no room for argument, everyone it considers Pagan, which means Hindus, Taoists, Confucians, Ishtar worshippers, and Buddhists. Yes, some Meccan surahs can be interpreted as promoting religious tolerance, but only the willfully doctrinaire can possibly miss the plethora of criticisms, especially in the surahs written in Medina.

You’d think that penultimately tolerant Buddhism would not fall in this category, but anyone familiar with the Pali Canon knows that Gautama, at least as remembered by the monks who wrote his purported words, hardly spared Brahminists from an assortment of criticisms, regardless of how civil he was when debating them.

Then there is the Kalachakra Tantra of Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, primarily known in Lamaist countries, but increasingly familiar to scholars of East Asian religion. In that text, clearly written at or near the time of Muslim invasions of parts of today’s Afghanistan, Kirghizstan, Ladakh, and environs, there is unmistakable condemnation of Muslims for their savagery –and explicit criticism of Islam itself.

To be sure, the authors of the Kalachakra Tantra generlized from specific sects of then-contemporary Islam to the whole of Islam, and the writers sometimes conflated a previous religious opponent, Manichaeanism, with Islam, even adding bits and pieces of Christianity in the process, but the thrust of the text is unmistakable. Islam, to the Buddhists in question, was barbaric and unfit for human consumption.

What are teachers of Comparative Religion supposed to do ? Sweep all such things under the rug ? The unspoken answer as of 2011, certainly at large even if there are a few counter examples scattered across the map, is an unequivocal “of course.” By all means DO NOT tell the truth, keep such facts hidden from students, lie and deceive people so that Unitarian Theosophy, the official state religion of the Comparative Religion profession, will prevail and its values and views eventually permeate all of society.

This is what it amounts to even if, as in any good metaphor, this characterization exaggerates the situation. But in point of fact dishonesty rules.

None of this means that it wouldn’t be a good idea to promote interfaith understanding. This has been my lifelong objective as it is for probably 99 % of all Comparative Religion teachers. But how can such a goal be respected if it is based, in part but a major part, on falsified history ? On edited history ? On whitewashed theology ? On bowderlization at the heart of presumed scholarship ?

What cannot be offered here is some foolproof way to discuss such topics to best possible effect in public school classrooms. The argument simply is that we need to develop viable methods which facilitate exactly this –in the context of seeking harmony between people of different faiths who live in our pluralistic society. The point is that unless honesty is intrinsic to the process we have built our house on a foundation of sand.

It would be far superior to dismantle the discipline of Comparative Religion and reconstruct it on foundations that can withstand any test of scholarship, with no evasions or apologies. Why should we tolerate anything else ?

Billy Rojas


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