Wirathu may not be a household name, although Time magazine devoted an article to his teachings last week. The media has become fascinated with religiously motivated violence of late, although such violence is nothing new. Capitalizing on the fact that many of us in the western hemisphere see Buddhism as a religion of peace, Hannah Beech’s article, “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” reveals the growing conflict between some Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. The article took me back to my seminary days where, in a class in systematic theology, our professor was extolling the virtues of Buddhism as a religion of peace as opposed to Christianity with its history of warfare. Not denying that history, I raised my hand and asked how Christians then had come to know Jesus as the Prince of Peace. And Muslims, as any student of religion learns, also value peace. The ideals of most religions promote peace. The problem is that the practitioners of religions are humans.
Like our chimpanzee cousins, we humans distrust those of other tribes. In one of the more disturbing aspects of chimpanzee research, encounters between especially a male isolated from his troop and another family group often end badly. Biology has programmed us to keep valued resources for ourselves. It’s as if nature knows there are limits to her bounty, and in order to survive and thrive, some will need to starve. Or be killed. Critics of religion—and there are many who are quite vocal—often overlook the aspect of religions that call for the reversal of our natural tendencies. Yes, I’m selfish. As a biological creature, I’m concerned that I get enough to eat, and have sufficient space. I want to stockpile money so that I may retire (unlikely to happen in reality), and spend my final years in peace and relative comfort. Yet, my religious upbringing has left the door open for others. What about those with even less than me? My empathy reaches out for them. Don’t they deserve what I deserve?
The problem is always at the friction point where belief systems rub passed each other like immense tectonic plates. The Buddhists of Myanmar say they just want to be left alone. The Muslims of Myanmar say they just want to survive. Their religions are pressure points building along fault lines. Still, I suspect that there are other sources of tension and violence in Myanmar, besides religion. I know there are in American society. In fact, most everyday violence, I suspect, has nothing to do with religion. Violence is part of human nature. Religion, at its best, urges us to fight this compelling biological message of self-preservation at any cost. Religious violence is a very real cause for concern, but to get to the root of the problem we must look past religion to biology. And sometimes—just sometimes—religion turns off the flame beneath the simmering pot.