The Old Straw Man Routine
According to the publishers blurb for the newish book Buddhist Warfare (edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, published by Oxford):
Though traditionally regarded as a peaceful religion, Buddhism has a dark side. On multiple occasions over the past fifteen centuries, Buddhist leaders have sanctioned violence, and even war. The eight essays in this book focus on a variety of Buddhist traditions, from antiquity to the present, and show that Buddhist organizations have used religious images and rhetoric to support military conquest throughout history.
Buddhist soldiers in sixth century China were given the illustrious status of Bodhisattva after killing their adversaries. In seventeenth century Tibet, the Fifth Dalai Lama endorsed a Mongol ruler’s killing of his rivals. And in modern-day Thailand, Buddhist soldiers carry out their duties undercover, as fully ordained monks armed with guns.
Buddhist Warfare demonstrates that the discourse on religion and violence, usually applied to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, can no longer exclude Buddhist traditions. The book examines Buddhist military action in Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, and shows that even the most unlikely and allegedly pacifist religious traditions are susceptible to the violent tendencies of man.
This is a classic “straw-man” argument. It does not argue against an actual position that anyone has put forward. Rather it argues against an imagined position only put forward by imaginary proponents, and these phantom adversaries and their figmental arguments are then attacked heroically, in the manner of green recruits bayonet-charging burlap sacks stuffed with bales of hay and tied to posts.
For those unfamiliar with the old straw-man routine, let me just provide one brief example with a very quick analysis:
I think it’s a mistake for people to believe that going on the offense against people that want to do harm to the American people makes us less safe.
[President George W. Bush, September 26, 2006]
Bush was here supposedly arguing against critics of his decision to invade Iraq. But instead of answering his real-world critics, Bush chose to make a straw man argument against imaginary people who believe that it would be mistaken to take action against those “who want to do harm to the American people”.
Like many straw man arguments, Bush’s statement above also employs circular reasoning. The whole point of much of the criticism of Bush’s invasion of Iraq was precisely that Iraq posed no threat to the United States. To make things as clear as possible, let’s first break down the criticism of Bush’s invasion:
a) Nations should not attack other nations without just cause.
b) Nations are justified in attacking other nations in the case of national self-defense.
c) Iraq posed no threat to the United States, therefore the invasion of Iraq was unjustified.
In order to counter this argument Bush would have to demonstrate that Iraq posed a genuine threat to the US. Which of course is precisely what he tried to do in the “run-up” to war, with a little help from Colin Powell, Judy Miller, Tony Blair, and many others.
Subsequent to the invasion it was discovered — and now everyone in the world knows this to be true — that Iraq possessed no “weapons of mass destruction” and that the United States never had any evidence whatsoever that Iraq possessed WMD.
But Bush ignores all this and simply asserts that any criticism of the invasion of Iraq amounts to an abandonment of the right of the United States to defend itself!
Concerning “the discourse on religion and violence”
But now lets leave politics aside for the moment (but not warfare!) and return to discussing the book Buddhist Warfare , and, in particular, the publisher’s blurb for that book quoted at the top of this post.
In this case the phony “straw-man” position that is being argued against is hiding behind an innocuous looking statement that Buddhism has been “traditionally regarded as a peaceful religion”. No details are given about just whose “traditions” about the “peacefulness” of Buddhism are being refuted, or what the criteria (that Buddhism apparently fails to meet) are for judging whether or not a religion is “peaceful”. Such lack of specificity is common feature of straw man arguments, and it is a key to their success: the point is to merely give an impression or make an insinuation. Under no circumstances should a straw man argument be specific enough for it to be refutable.
But Michael Jerryson, junior editor of Buddhist Warfare, allowed his enthusiasm to get the better of himself. To promote his book, he dashed off a screed for the online entity religiondispatches.org in which he makes very specific claims about the illusions he claims to be dispelling.
Jerryson’s ludicrous statements about an insidious “Buddhist propaganda” campaign by such modern teachers of the Dharma as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Walpola Rahula, and D.T. Suzuki, were already dealt with at far more length than they deserve in a previous post. But having exposed the baselessness of Jerryson’s specific claims, we are left to ask what is he really up to?
Once again, let’s turn to the publisher’s blurb, which provides a very broad hint at the true agenda behind the book Buddhist Warfare in the last paragraph. In that paragraph our attention is drawn not to claims that Buddhism is a “religion of peace”, but to “the discourse on religion and violence”. The publishers of this book specifically wish to claim that Buddhism has heretofore received a free ride in this “discourse on religion and violence”, because in the past this discourse has unfairly focused on “Judaism, Islam and Christianity.”
And now everything is made clear! Michael Jerryson and his mentor/co-editor Mark Juergensmeyer hope that their new book will right an ancient wrong: the notion that there is something different about Judaism, Islam and Christianity when it comes to “religion and violence”. Jerryson and Juergensmeyer wish to usher in a more “fair and balanced”, so to speak, discourse in which all religions are treated as equals, that is, as equally violent, equally intolerant, equally bloodstained. How cheery.
But what is this “discourse on religion and violence” of which they speak? Here, we have no straw man, but rather one of the great stories of modern, western intellectual history. And, yes, this discourse really does consistently single out Christianity in particular, and also to a lesser extent Islam and Judaism.
This discourse has its roots in the Enlightenment, and it contributed significantly to the downfall of totalitarian Christian theocracy, which had been ruthlessly policing peoples thoughts since the fourth century AD.
Here is how Margaret Jacob describes “The Enlightenment Critique of Christianity” in the chapter she wrote (by that title) for Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution, 1660-1815, which constitutes Volume 7 of the Cambridge History of Christianity:
The period after 1660 saw the emergence of the first sustained attack on Christianity from within Europe since the triumph of the Christian Church under Constantine in the fourth century. To be sure the critics were few and the dangers great. But once unleashed, they became a radical force, never again to be silenced. A specific set of circumstances caused the anti-Christian genie to spring from a dark and angry place within minds angered by fear and persecution. Some of these circumstances were contingent on political events, but others had to do with the intellectual forces unleashed largely by the new science from Copernicus to Newton. The formal philosophical systems and discoveries of the seventeenth century — and the Baroque age will always be remembered for Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza — shattered a previous certainty once given to the philosophy of Aristotle as interpreted by the Christian scholastics. In addition, in the 1680s the promotion of absolutist policies in France and Britain threatened the stability of all northern and western Europe and the religious independence of Protestants in England, Ireland, the Dutch Republic, and potentially in the German states west of the Rhine.
The picture that Jacob paints here with broad strokes is largely accurate: after over a thousand years of totalitarian, theocratic darkness, Europe was finally, slowly, clawing its way toward the light of intellectual, philosophical, political and religious freedom, and a “sustained attack on Christianity” was a central component of this reawakening of the human spirit.
If anything, Jacob fails to communicate just how “radical” and “angered” this “sustained attack” really was, and also the extent to which these Enlightenment critics of Christianity had no qualms about explicitly comparing Christianity negatively (to say the least!) to other religions. For example, in a famous passage in his Philosophical Dictionary Voltaire poses the question of whether or not “there have been peoples other than the Christians and the Jews in whom zeal and religion wretchedly transformed into fanaticism, have inspired so many horrible cruelties.” The answer given is that to some extent Muslims were also “sullied with the same inhumanities” but that other than the three Abrahamic faiths, well, not so much: “there has not been one right from the existence of the world which has ever made a purely religious war.”
A great many other Enlightenment figures, including Thomas Paine, David Hume, and Edward Gibbon also went beyond merely criticizing Christianity and directly compared Christianity to other religions in a way that found Christianity (along with its monotheistic siblings) very wanting, especially with respect to violence and intolerance.
Strange Bedfellows: The New Apologetics
This anti-Christian “discourse on violence and religion” has hardly abated since the Enlightenment, but it has been, and not surprisingly, strongly opposed all along by (who else?) Christians. More recently, however, a kind of soft-core Christian apologetics has begun appearing, in which Christians and non-Christians have made common cause in attempting to mute any criticism directed specifically at Christianity. The arguments employed by these Apologists inevitably revolve around the “fairness” of comparisons between Christianity and other religions, or of simply singling out Christianity in any way at all.
The mainstay of this New Apologetics is the assertion that all religions are now to be treated as equals, and that it will henceforth be considered intolerant, or even “hate speech”, to focus on any specific religion (or any limited subset of religions) in particular for criticism, although vague negative generalizations (or even sweeping condemnations) directed at “all religions” will be viewed more favorably, or at least less unfavorably. Liberal Christians eagerly approve of this approach, while their less liberal co-religionists will have none of it, preferring the more traditional “one true religion” approach.
These liberal Christians are also joined in this New Apologetics by others including some very unlikely bed-fellows, such as certain Pagans and (“New”) Atheists (as well as a motley assortment of Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, and others.) The immutable characteristic of all of these New Apologists is that none of them will ever allow any criticism of Christianity to go unchallenged.
This New Apologetics seeks to undo the damage done by the Enlightenment Critique of Christianity, not, however, by actually defending Christianity, but simply by endless repetition of the perennial excuse of the child caught red-handed in some forbidden act: everyone else is doing it. This is the reason why the publisher’s blurb for Buddhist Warfare juxtaposes “the discourse on religion and violence, usually applied to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity” and “Buddhist military action in Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.” The publishers reveal, in no uncertain terms, that their wish is for everyone to agree that all acts of religious violence whatsoever are not the fault of any particular religion, but simply the unfortunate result of “the violent tendencies of man.”
A major problem for this New Apologetics is that it insists on a rigid historical revisionism that forbids any mention of the very worst crimes committed by Christians and Muslims, unless these are explicitly attributed to “the violent tendencies of man” and not to the violent tendencies of those two religions. In the case of Islam, this revisionism requires people to dutifully repeat the lie that “Islam is a religion of peace,” or else risk being labeled as hate-mongers.
A significant problem arises in how to respond to this revisionism precisely because it is primarily a Western phenomenon (Muslim dominated societies are unconcerned with such niceties). Westerners who wish to voice their criticism of Islam as a violent and intolerant religion can hardly be taken seriously if they remain silent about the violence of Christianity, the religion that has dominated Western culture for well over a thousand years, and remains the overwhelmingly predominant religion throughout the West.
And if anyone thinks that the violence and intolerance of Christianity is all in the past (ie, to justify solely focusing on Islam), there are at least three important pieces of evidence to counter that:
(1) Evangelical Christianity is growing and becoming ever more virulent, especially in Africa and Latin America.
(2) Aggressive Christian “missionary” work continues apace throughout the world, with the express aim of eliminating all other religions from the face of the earth.
(3) Most of the spread of Christianity over the last century was in Africa, where missionary work went hand in hand with the most brutal European colonialism. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was in many ways a direct consequence of the sudden Christianization of Sub-Saharan Africa during the 20th century.
The above phenomena alone provide all the reason we need to never let up in the proud tradition of criticizing Christianity and exposing it’s Monotheistic Heart of Darkness. For more on the book Buddhst Warfare, also see the recent post on “Buddhist Warfare”: Is Buddhism a Religion of Peace?