It has become fashionable in certain smart circles to regard atheism as a sign of superior education, of highly evolved civilization, of enlightenment. Recent bestsellers by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others suggest that religious faith is a sign of backwardness, the mark of primitives stuck in the Dark Ages who have not caught up with scientific reason. Religion, we are told, is responsible for violence, oppression, poverty and many other ills.
It is not difficult to find examples to back up this assertion. But what about the opposite? Can religion also be a force for good? Are there cases in which religious faith comes to the rescue even of those who don't have it?I have never personally had either the benefits nor misfortunes of adhering to any religion, but watching Burmese monks on television defying the security forces of one of the world's most oppressive regimes, it is hard not to see some merit in religious belief. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a deeply religious country, where most men spend some time as Buddhist monks. Even the thuggish Burmese junta hesitated before unleashing lethal force on men dressed in the maroon and saffron robes of their faith.
The monks, and nuns in pink robes, were soon joined by students, actors and others who want to be rid of the junta. But the monks and nuns took the first step; they dared to protest when most others had given up. And they did so with the moral authority of their Buddhist faith. Romantics might say that Buddhism is unlike other religions, more a philosophy than a faith. But this would be untrue. It has been a religion in different parts of Asia for many centuries, and can be used to justify violent acts as much as any other belief. For evidence, one need only look at Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is lashed onto ethnic chauvinism in the civil war between Buddhist Singhalese and Hindu Tamils.
Just as the Buddhists risked their lives to stand up for democracy in Myanmar, Christians have done so in other countries. The Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines was doomed in the mid-1980s from the moment the Catholic Church turned against it. Thousands of ordinary citizens defied the tanks when Marcos threatened to crush "People Power" with force, but the presence of priests and nuns gave the rebellion its moral authority. Many political dissidents in South Korea were inspired by their Christian beliefs, and the same is true in China. And no one can deny the religious authority of Pope John Paul II as a spur to Poland's rebellion against communist dictatorship in the 1980s. (more here....)