Issue 2, 2006 | Geoff Gallop

Religion, Politics and Buddhism

All over the world today there is debate about the relationship between politics and religion. Go to any bookshop and you can find a range of offerings on the subject, some polemical and some considered and academic.

It is the topic of the times with some seeing religion as the liberation of politics from relativism and cynicism whilst others see it as the poisoning of politics with fear and intolerance.

This wasn't always the case.

1.      Liberalism, Marxism and Modernisation

During the 1950s and 60s many thought that we were passing from a religious to a secular and scientific understanding of the world.  Fundamentalism was in retreat not only in the west but also in many parts of the developing world where the western ideal of progress became the model for the ruling elites.

In as much as there was a battle of ideas it was between Marxism and Liberalism.  In many ways the Marxism which became the ruling creed in many 20th century States was a secular form of political religion.  It offered a theory of history and a way of life that was institutionalised as an authoritarian state in which individuals became subjects rather than agents.

Not surprisingly many of the intellectual critiques of fundamentalist religion provided raw material for the critique of Marxism.  The concept of totalitarianism was developed to define not only the Marxist States but also the Fascist and Militaristic States that caused so much suffering in the 20th century with their doctrines of racial superiority and justifiable imperialism.

Even in the 20th century Muslim world it was the secular doctrines associated with nationalism and self-determination that held sway.  Separating Mosque and State was seen as a precondition for progress just as it had been in Europe and North America.

When the Soviet Empire and its governing ideology collapsed it seemed that we had reached the “End of History”.  Hopes were high that science would replace ideology (whether secular or religious), democracy would replace tyranny and justice would replace exploitation.1

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Deep beneath the surface of both Western and Muslim societies forces were at work which were to burst through to the surface in a dramatic way.

2.      The Religious Revival

Some say that the first indication that things had changed came when the Ayatollah Khomeini took over in Iran and student militants seized the US embassy compound in Tehran and held 53 Americans hostage.  Militant Islam had arrived and it meant business not only in relation to the West but in societies where Islam was the majority religion.

In the West we saw the emergence of what was called “value-based” politics.  What this increasingly meant was a politics based on a particular interpretation of the Christian religion and what it implied not just for theological understanding but also for political, social and economic practice.

Fundamentalism re-emerged as an aggressive tendency not only within Protestantism but also within Catholicism.  At the same time new religious movements associated with Pentecostals and Evangelicals attracted strong followings in the developing world.

Religion was no longer personal and private, it was political and public.

Religion was back, so much so that it was being spoken of as the major force in 21st century politics with the “clash of civilizations” replacing the “clash of ideologies”.2

All of a sudden ideas that had been discarded were re-entering the political vocabulary.  In some cases it simply meant taking them seriously again in public and political debate within a democracy.  In others – most notably and tragically in Afghanistan under the Taliban – it meant applying them to all aspects of life in a brutal and uncompromising way.

3.      Fundamentalism and Liberalism

Liberalism – and the values and practices associated with it – was put on the defensive.  Indeed it is worth noting the range of ideas that have been subject to criticism by the re-emergent political religion, whatever faith may have been involved.3

Firstly, the values associated with a scientific outlook and developed through the Enlightenment have been cast aside in the interests of theology.  Religious texts are once again being treated as statements of fact rather than as guides to meaning and life.

Secondly, there has been a challenge to the separation of Church and State.  Given that religion contains “The Truth” it is imperative that it be the basis of law and practice.  More specifically given that one religion contains that truth it ought to be the basis of that system of government, law and practice.  At best other religions may be tolerated but not respected.

Thirdly, there has been a systematic assault on the rights of women and the rights of gays and lesbians.  In this post-enlightenment outlook women are once again viewed in functional terms and gays and lesbians seen as parts of a deviant sub-culture fostered by licentiousness and immorality. 

Fourthly, and very importantly, there has been a radical re-emergence of the great either-or of orthodox religion Heaven and Hell, as political instruments both inciting violent action on the one hand and disciplining behaviour in the here and now on the other.  What this means is that the beliefs a person has and the way of life they lead will influence where they finish up in the eternal scheme of things.  There has been a devaluation of this life and a dehumanisation of those who differ in the way they think and live.  This process reaches its horrific nadir in acts of indiscriminate terrorism.4

This new form of Fundamentalism – or “Strong Religion” – has been correctly recognized as a distinctive force in contemporary politics.  It varies in its intensity and in the particular political forms it takes but it can be seen at work in each of the major religions.

Adherents distinguish themselves by their hostility not just to the world in which they live but also to the moderate versions of their own religions.  They see themselves as “beleaguered minorities” in an alien and hostile world challenging secularisation, liberalism, relativism and atheism.5

4.      The New World Order

In the Muslim world the new fundamentalists attack modernisation and the political elites who have been encouraging it through their links to the global economy, and the United States in particular.

In the West the new fundamentalists attack many of the liberal reforms that emerged from the 1960s, including multiculturalism and sexual equality.

From being moderate in thinking and bridge-building in practice a good deal of religion has become aggressive and divisive, giving a sharp and uncompromising edge to politics.

In many ways it is ironic that this should have happened when the Cold War ended.  There was so much optimism about what a new world order based on freer trade and commerce, social justice and international peace and security could bring, particularly given the potential of the new information and communication technologies that had been developed.

But it did happen and we now have to deal not only with a new Islamic Jihad but also with the response that has followed.

There is a new world order but it is hardly orderly and hardly peaceful.

Religious understandings are not only influencing these conflicts they are helping to define them.  Beliefs do matter and religious beliefs are at play in leading people to violence and clouding their perceptions when it comes to seeking solutions.6

There are many tragedies associated with this new situation, most notably the loss of life we have seen from attack and counter-attack.  Religious tension and religious conflict has grown.  Fear and uncertainty has been created, particularly following major terrorist incidents.  Resources much needed for infrastructure and development have been diverted to military and counter-terrorism purposes.  The role and authority of the United Nations has been undermined, as have international organizations and institutions generally, just when they are needed to tackle injustice, poverty and genocide.

Just when the world needs decisive – and international action – to deal with global poverty, global warming and nuclear proliferation it has been hijacked into a mutually reinforcing “Islamic Jihad” and “War on Terror”.

And it is not as if these are the only issues that concern us today.  In societies like our own there are real challenges relating to the meaning of a life-style and economy built around personal consumption and economic growth.

Coupled with pressures on the environment, the ageing of the population and the emergence of China and India as significant competitors, Western politics has never been more complex and demanding.

The stakes are high and history teaches us that there is no inevitability when it comes to progress and enlightenment.  It is certainly no time for withdrawal.  We need leadership around sound principles and a political framework that can take us forward rather than back to what would be a contemporary version of the dark ages.

As with any challenging situation we need to be realistic without losing sight of our ideals.  In fact ideals can be a powerful political force as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela have shown.  They understood the meaning of transcendence, reconciliation and co-operation.

5.      The Buddhist Approach (1)

That Buddhism can make a significant and creative contribution to the debate we have to have is clear to me.  Indeed I am not at all surprised at the growing interest in and commitment to Buddhist ideals and practice in the western world.  There are a number of features of Buddhism that make it particularly attractive to those frustrated by the terms of the current debates within our own and other societies.

Of most importance is this respect is Buddhism’s urging to go to the heart of things and avoid that which is unnecessary and diverting.  Metaphysical questions did not interest the Buddha.  He claimed that anyone who insisted that metaphysical questions be answered before he could follow the path to enlightenment was like a man wounded by a poisoned arrow who would not let a surgeon remove the arrow until he found out who shot the arrow, what his name was, and so on.  Such a man would die before he found the answers to these questions.7

The questions the Buddha sought to answer related to birth, old age, decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain and grief.  He was a humanist seeking practical solutions that would bring lasting peace and happiness.  He did not claim divine authority and “attributed all his realisation, attainments, and achievements to human endeavour and intelligence”.8

In fact he insisted that human beings keep an open mind and not rely on hearsay, tradition or the authority of ancient scriptures without reference to their own experience for their beliefs.  As Laki Jayasuriya has noted, his approach is totally consistent with the rational empiricism of the Western scientific tradition.9

None of this means that Buddhism is without any truths at all; it simply means that we must find them ourselves and that we should be open to what is revealed by the continuing advance of human inquiry and scientific investigation.

This takes us to the Noble Eightfold Path – Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation – and its mixture of morality, meditation and wisdom which involves both personal development and engagement with the world, each being dependent on the other.

It is an approach that can be tested in practice and, as such, investigated through science.

Indeed the various Buddhist techniques of meditation have become part and parcel of modern psychology, proven as aids to mental and physical well-being.

Buddhism offers an approach that is peaceful, compassionate and responsible in a world troubled by conflict, commercialism and consumerism.

When Buddhists make a contribution to political debates they inevitably look to solutions based on non-violence and dialogue rather than solutions based on violence and military force.  The focus is placed on concern for “the other” in all our thinking and practice, with happiness not being something we can keep to ourselves; it must be placed in all the contexts in which we live – family, workplace, school, community, state, nation, world.  Only then can we seek to find its true meaning in the application of the principles of compassion.10

This notion is underpinned by the belief that nothing exists in isolation, independent of another life.  All beings and phenomena are said to exist or occur only because of their relationship with other beings or phenomena.  The implication of this doctrine of inter-dependence has been drawn by Japanese Buddhist Daisaku Ikeda:

The Buddhist principle of dependent origination reflects a cosmology in which all human and natural phenomena come into existence within a matrix of interrelatedness.  Thus we are urged to respect the uniqueness of each existence which supports and nourishes all within the larger, living whole.11

This leads us to the question: how do we apply such views in a world of human fear, uncertainty and evil?  How do we apply such views to a world of nation-states and international conflict?  How do we apply such views to a world where warfare and terror persist?  Is it possible to adopt a moral approach in an immoral world?

6.      The Buddhist Approach (2)

Through the ages we know that different answers have been given to these questions within the different traditions of Buddhism.  However, although the answers vary certain themes come through in what is a Buddhist political and social philosophy.12

These are that all human beings have an inherent dignity and capacity for enlightenment and that government should be based on popular consent, exercised according to the principles of compassion, equity and justice, and enriched by communal deliberation and face-to-face negotiation.

Such ideas developed as a challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy in India of the divine origin of Kingship and the absolute power of the Monarch in the context of a hierarchical social structure based on birth or class.  In this interpretation the Buddha is a great social reformer concerned not just with the Sangha but also with the wider world.  As Gail Omvedt has observed, “the Buddha had a dual and nuanced approach.  There were separate emphases and instructions for the Sangha and for society as a whole”.13

Thus while the Buddha did not develop a systematic social and political philosophy in the sense in which we would understand it he did point us in the right direction and many that followed – most notably, King Asoka (c.300-232BC) – took up the challenge of putting some flesh on the bones.  Importantly Asoka made clear his commitment to religious pluralism and “guarding one’s speech to avoid extolling one’s own faith and disparaging the faith of others improperly… The faiths of others all deserve to be honoured for one reason or another”.  He understood that the transcendent could never be encapsulated into a doctrine or formula but only realized in a virtuous way of life.14

There is no doubt, then, that Buddhism has an enormous capacity to assist humanity meet the challenges of the day through its non-dogmatic approach, its belief in science, its understanding of inter-relationships, its commitment to a life based on the middle way involving morality, meditation and wisdom, its support for human dignity, popular control and the public good, and its belief in peace and dialogue between people and their religions.15

7.      A New Leadership for a New Century

The various truths it has learnt over the centuries need to be applied to the world of today.  It is implausible, however, to maintain the truly radical and uncompromising commitment to pacifism in a world of international terrorism.  Today religious and secular moderates face people who are certain in their views and in some cases willing to kill indiscriminately.  We need to understand the limitations of the “War on Terror” whilst understanding at the same time the reason for and necessity of it.16 

But let us be careful.  Just how far can we take that argument?  Is it the case that wars have always and only to be military?

All too often in recent years we have seen the “soft power” options given too little attention or too little time to work and the need to fight the “War on Terror” on a broad front ignored in the pursuit of a quick military fix.  Indeed military power has an all-too-often displayed habit of feeding off itself in a fog of self-deception.

Even when defending a good and free society there are traps.  It is all too easy to fall into the arms of authoritarianism even when defending its opposite.

There are no absolutes in politics as values often came into conflict and difficult decisions have to be made.  This requires judgement in the face of options, all of which may contain benefits as well as costs.

However, while strictly speaking there may be no absolutes, there ought to be biases:

  • a bias to human rights,
  • a bias to freedom,
  • a bias to engagement,
  • a bias to compassion, and
  • a bias to peace.

This means that if freedom is to be restricted, engagement limited, rights undermined, compassion thwarted and peace replaced with force there needs to be good and powerful reasons and a proper dialogue beforehand.

The challenges are many and complex, partly due to the re-emergence of religion itself as a powerful and aggressive political force.  We have discovered again how religion can become evil and divisive.17 

For radical atheists there is no irony in this because religion is the problem.

For those like me who see politics and religion as contradictory phenomena – both liberating and tribalising forces at the same time – there is a way forward.  It requires that form of political leadership which assures the people of its strength and their protection but at the same time looks beyond the boundaries imposed by location, time, belief and intellect.

There is a stubborn reality to nationalism and short-termism in politics and intolerance and dogmatism in theology and science that cannot be ignored.  They are not realities, however, which can generate and sustain human happiness.  Introspection and experience teaches us that just as the historical record reveals it.18  We can see the problems associated with these tendencies only too clearly today.  We need a politics that embraces internationalism and sustainability and a religious and scientific outlook based on dialogue and inquiry.  Mahatma Gandhi put it beautifully when he said:

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed.  I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my houses as freely as possible.  But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.

  1. See, most notably, Francis Fukuyama The End of History and the Last Man (1992).
  2. S.P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996).
  3. See Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism, The Search for Meaning (2004).
  4. This raises the issue of the Buddhist view that humans are reborn into a life that accords with the ethical quality of their previous lives.  This is not a view of heaven or hell, but it does involve a similar principle.  For an agnostic approach to this issue and to religion in general see Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide (1997).
  5. See A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby and Emmanuel Sivan, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalism Around the World (2003).  For a valuable critique of the methodology in Strong Religion see David Aikman, “The Great Revival: Understanding Religious Fundamentalism”, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2003.
  6. See Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004).   The question remains as to whether it is religion that is the problem, as Harris argues, or the particular shape it takes as a political force.
  7. Venerable Dr. W. Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (2002), ch.1:  “The Buddhist Attitude of Mind”.
  8. Narayan Champawat, “Buddha”, in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World (1995), p.164.
  9. Laksiri Jayasuriya, “An Engaged Buddhism?  The Essentials of a Buddhist Social Philosophy”, The Buddhist, May 2002, p.42.  See also Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs.  pp. 14-20 & 119-120.
  10. In his pamphlet Inner Transformation: Creating a Global Goundswell for Peace (2004) Daisaku Ikeda has noted the de-sensitising influences associated with globalisation and virtualisation: “Virtual reality is fundamentally incompatible with an uncomfortable, even painful – yet essential – aspect of human experience: the way our encounters with others force us to face and confront ourselves, and the inner struggle that this sparks” (p.25)
  11. Daisaku Ikeda, “Peace and Human Security: A Buddhist Perspective for the Twenty-First Century” (1995).
  12. From the insights that follow on Buddhist social and political philosophy I am indebted to Laksiri Jayasuriya’s unpublished paper “Buddhism and Politics”.
  13. Gail Omvedt, “The Buddha as a Political Philosopher”,
  14. Quoted in Robert Thurman, “Edicts of Asoka”, in Fred Eppsteiner (ed.), The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism (1988), p.115.
  15. Important as well is Buddhism’s sophisticated account of the relationship between personal development and social and political engagement that recognizes the connection between the two, with engagement helping develop the person and the person helping develop the community.  The education of the person through engagement (and backed up by reflection and meditation) is essential to what we now call “ethical leadership”.  That Eastern religions have much to teach us about education is brilliantly outlined in Geoff Mulgan’s Learning and Skills Agency Annual Lecture, January 2006: “Learning to Serve: the toughest skills challenge for public services and government and what can be done about it”.
  16. This view is forcibly argued in Harris, The End of Faith, pp. 199-203.
  17. See Roger Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil (2002) and Richard J. Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion since 9/11 (2005).
  18. I have further developed these ideas in “The Politician as an Agent for Compassion”, address delivered at St. George's Cathedral, Perth, Western Australia, 23 September 2001.
  19. Quoted in Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi : A Very Short Introduction (1997), p.42.