Last summer, when I read a news story about Buddhist extremists in Myanmar slaughtering hundreds of Muslim villagers, I was stunned. Buddhist extremism seems like an oxymoron. How can the religion of the peace-loving, wise Dalai Lama be the impetus for hate?
The answer lies in the problem of religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism is not confined to one faith tradition. There are fundamentalist Muslims, Christians, Jews, Mormons, and, it would appear, even Buddhists.
One hallmark of religious fundamentalism is the strict and literal interpretation of holy scriptures. Another is the refusal to brook dissent within the ranks of the faithful. These features of fundamentalism in themselves can create violence, as can be seen in the barbaric institution of strict sharia law within some Islamic countries, as well as the use of extreme corporal punishment in some Mormon and Christian sects.
But by far the worst aspect of religious fundamentalism lies in the hatred of the “other.” Such hatred has led to untold violence over the centuries whether it be the tortures of the Inquisition, the slaughter of millions of Jews, or more recently, the beheading of Christians and other non-Sunni Muslims by the Islamic State. In Myanmar, which in the past few years has begun a process of democratization, some zealots among the majority Buddhists have whipped up anti-Muslim sentiments that have led to wholesale massacre.
Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because the overriding values of the religion are ignored in favor of strict, authoritarian rules that can be backed up by cherry-picking from the holy texts. Who among us has not heard the adage, “Spare the rod, and spoil the child” as a justification for corporal punishment? Or “an eye for an eye”?
The results of this fundamentalist mindset can be deadly. Stonings and beheadings, ethnic cleansings, the bombing of abortion clinics or shooting at a Planned Parenthood facility, military-like standoffs at the compounds of religious cults. It’s no wonder that the atheist community has stepped up their condemnation of organized religion.
It’s up to believers in all faiths to unite in the message of love and peace that truly characterizes God. War, strife, and violence are of human design and can never be justified by invoking God’s name. To do this, we must move away from fundamentalism and fear and toward understanding and tolerance.