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.
True believers would no doubt see the hand of God in these stirring events. Marcos’ main opponent, Corazon Aquino, actually boasted of having a direct pipeline to God. I treat such claims with skepticism. But the moral power of religious faith does not need a supernatural explanation. Its strength is belief itself, in a moral order that defies secular or indeed religious dictators. Active resisters to the Nazis during World War II were often devout Christians. Some sheltered Jews, despite their own prejudices against the Jews, simply because they saw it as their religious duty. Faith does not have to be in a supernatural being. The Nazis were resisted with equal tenacity by men and women who found strength in their belief in communism.
Despite the horrific violence of Islamist fanatics, it should not be forgotten that the mosque too can be a legitimate basis for resistance against the mostly secular dictatorships in the Middle East today. In a world of political oppression and moral corruption, religious values offer an alternative moral universe. This alternative is not necessarily more democratic, but it can be.
The danger of all dogmas, religious or secular, is that they lead to different forms of oppression. The revolt against Soviet domination in Afghanistan was led by holy warriors who went on to impose their own form of misrule.
Charismatic leadership can be problematic, even when it takes a more benign form. The Madonna-like status of Aquino in the Philippines was inspiring in the heady days of “People Power,” but it did little to bolster the institutions of a secular democracy. In Poland, once the battle against communism was won, the Solidarity movement was soon sundered by conflicts between secular democrats and believers who looked to the Catholic Church for guidance.
Nevertheless, faith has an important role to play in politics, especially in circumstances in which secular liberals are rendered impotent, as in the case of Nazi occupation, communist rule or military dictatorship.
Liberals are most needed when compromises have to be made, but not as useful when faced with brute force. That is when visionaries, romantics and true believers are driven by their beliefs to take risks that most of us would regard as foolhardy. It is, on the whole, not beneficial to be ruled by such heroes, but it is good to have them around when we need them.
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.” He is a professor at Bard College and a contributing editor to The Times’ opinion pages.