Writer's note: I honestly think that freedom of belief is fundamental. Without it humans would be little different from clones or robots. If this article offends anyone, my sincere apologies. It is not my intention to infringe on that right.
Some people are treating the “UFO Temple” as if it were the biggest religious scandal to hit Thailand. Well, if Dhammakaya starts imploring worshippers to do far worse things than donate money in order to win a place in heaven, then perhaps we can talk. And I’m not defending the Dhammakaya movement here, make no mistake.
All I’m saying is that we need to see how religions have evolved and look at the strange practices they have encouraged before criticising the unorthodox sect.
Let’s tackle the charges against Dhammakaya one by one.
1. It craves money. Well, which religious institution, organisation or sect doesn’t? Granted, Dhammakaya may be doing it in the most outrageous way. But if money is evil, what difference does that make? Countless “conventional” temples draw millions of baht in donations to erect Buddha statues they boast as “the biggest” or “all-gold”, or to produce amulets that are supposed to be “the most powerful”. Elsewhere churches become rich beyond imagination, with bank accounts that would make Lord Buddha and Jesus Christ weep.
2. It exploits worshippers with crazy ideas of the after-life. Which religion doesn’t promise “a better place” after we die? Okay, some ideas are crazier than others, but enough said.
3. It uses “peer pressure” tactics to draw huge donations. On this, I’m sure not all witch-hunters in the medieval age were willing – or started off as willing – witch-hunters. Again, enough said (although witch-hunts are obviously worse than emptying your bank account).
4. It has an insatiable urge to dominate. In other words, if Dhammakaya can make the whole world Dhammakaya, it will. Which religion doesn’t have that goal?
5. It performs silly ceremonies with silly costumes. Well, how about wine that’s supposed to be blood, or bread that’s supposed to serve as flesh? How about the animist ceremonies that see adherents wearing scary clothing to represent evil? I can live with Dhammakaya people dressed like angels, walking on hot Bangkok streets and claiming to see bright sparks in the sky.
6. It is corrupt. Well, it depends on how you define corruption, which is not confined to money. People can be corrupted in many other ways – by power, by love, by lust, by anger, by the urge to dominate, etc.
There are more charges laid against Dhammakaya, but hopefully I have made my point. Religions give hope, but that hope can be exploited. If Dhammakaya is guilty of exploiting its followers’ faith, perhaps we should be cautious about throwing the first stone.
Don’t get me wrong. The freedom to criticise Dhammakaya is a good thing. It would help, though, to first discover why it has been able to do the things it has done.
We might not be the first generation to seriously and publicly question the existence of God (as we know him), but we can be the last generation to “skirt the issue”. By that, I mean the next generation will likely pull no punches in investigating, scrutinising and rejecting claims about the Supreme Being, whether pictured as a pale-skinned man with long white beard or otherwise.
With the majority of the world’s population still professing belief in God, the likes of celebrated sceptics Dan Brown, Carl Sagan, or George Carlin remain on the minority side of the argument. But who knows what will happen 20 years from now?
Somebody once told me religion is like a rocket. No matter how powerful, it is bound to use up its fuel one day. The fuel is faith, which has begun to waver. And the wavering of faith has nothing to do with goodness or morality, but with the proclaimed existence of someone up above who looks like us and tells us to live by his rules or suffer for eternity.
Is the rocket sputtering? A credible survey conducted recently in the United Kingdom reveals a striking decline in religious belief among the British. People who identify themselves as atheists are more likely to be good people, said a majority of the respondents. Fewer than a quarter believed religion is a force for good. On the contrary, more than half believed religion does more harm than good. In America, the change in attitude might be less drastic, but the seeds of doubt are growing all the same.
Dan Brown questions the divinity of Jesus Christ. Carl Sagan said that if a supreme being really exists then it isn’t anthropomorphic, and that humans on this “pale blue dot” exaggerate their own importance enormously. If God, does exist, said Sagan, “he” would be “a lot better” than Christians make him out to be. And for Carlin, religion was a total nonsense. Renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, whose life is being celebrated on the big screen with an Oscar-nominated film, is another who simply does not believe in God. Each of these figures has a large following in America.
There was a time when virtually the entire world’s population believed the Earth was flat. They were proved utterly wrong. So, nothing, absolutely nothing, holds sway.