Buddhism has shown that it is possible to establish a highly effective and admirable ethical system for humanity with benefits for all living beings seen as members of one moral universe, without reference to an all-mighty creator God – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
The horrifying tragedy that is unfolding before our very eyes worldwide but particularly in India, and God-fearing traditional Christian countries such as USA, Brazil, Italy, Spain, France, UK, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Norway and Sweden raises fundamental questions not only in respect to humanity’s capacity to combat the spread of the coronavirus that has taken a huge toll of over 3.1 million fatalities and over 147 million infections up to date, but also on the very existence of God on whom so much faith and trust has been placed by billions of people adhering to Abrahamic religions such as Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Is the colossal damage being done globally by the coronavirus pandemic evidence of God’s wrath or of God’s non-existence? Have any Church authorities up to date announced and stated that the coronavirus pandemic was nothing but a demonstration of God’s wrath and punishment for the sins of the victims? In the aftermath of the Lisbon Earthquake (1755) Church leaders did exactly just that: Explained away the destruction of Lisbon by a trio of natural disasters as a manifestation of God’s wrath.
Alternatively, can the current ongoing annihilation of the human race by the coronavirus be explained away on the basis of karmic retribution? Is the God-defying coronavirus a form of karmic retribution targeting mostly countries that have done wrong to others? Especially a number of select Western countries that have a shared sordid past over a period of 500 years of rapacious colonialism all over the world, committing genocide and mass murder of native people?
India is not lily white either. India's track record of interference in the affairs of neighbouring countries including training and support for terrorist groups like the LTTE to commit genocidal crimes and mass murder of innocent civilians in Sri Lanka before the brutal murder of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE, raises questions whether India too is now under the watch of providence meting out punishment to wrong doers. Those who evade accountability under man made laws will have to one day answer and face punishment under the fiat of providence.
"There were chaplains on the slave ships that ferried human cargo across the Atlantic. The atomic weapons that obliterated civilian population centres in Japan were blessed and prayed over before being loaded onto US bomber planes. The anti-Semitic writings of Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation hero who purportedly nailed his 95 grievances to doors of a Catholic Church, were used by the Nazi Government’s propagandists to convince German Christians that the imprisonment and expulsion of the Jewish people was a righteous cause. White slave owners in the South used the Bible to justify slavery and, a hundred years later, their descendants used the same Biblical texts to defend so-called “separate but equal” segregation policies. (Joe Forrest in 'Instrument of Mercy' – A Progressive Christian's Blog on Faith, Culture, Doubt, and Secularism)
Western countries that manipulate the UN system including the UNHRC to project an unsustainable image as 'protectors of human rights' ( while evading accountability for the gross violations of human rights of others) must take full responsibility for the cynicism with which the human rights discourse is now viewed all over the world. Soiled hands undermine the moral credibility of an undertaking that they touch.
Let alone crimes against humanity, what about crimes against innocent animals which continue to this day in countries like Brazil, Spain and Portugal where the barbaric bull fighting is treated as a popular sport and shown on prime time TV.
Is this not an appropriate time for reflection and catharsis on the part of humanity all over the world, and particularly in countries badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
The purpose of this brief article is to open and explore significant religious and philosophical issues that have arisen in the light of the bewildering and catastrophic coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage havoc with no end in sight.
Points for reflection
1) Treatment of animals
a) What we do to animals ruthlessly and brutally the coronavirus is doing likewise to humans, generating so much fear, alarm and anxiety. Do humans deserve pity, when we have no pity for innocent animals, who are eternal victims of our cruelty and inhumanity?
b) Should the yardstick of judging a civilisation and its progress, be based on massive development projects, technological inventions and innovations, political achievements, literature or how it treats all creatures, big and small, on earth humanely to the maximum possible extent?
c) It was Mahatma Gandhi who said that a country’s progress should be judged by the way it treats its animals and all other living creatures. When someone asked him what he thought about Western civilisation, his reply was: “It’s a good idea.”
d) In other words, what Gandhi meant was that the West was not truly civilised, in a moral sense. If the West was civilised, would it have conquered, occupied and exploited Asian, and African countries and decimated the native people in the two Americas and Australia until they were almost extinct? And committed crimes against humanity, mass murder, and genocide including cultural genocide?
e) Many condemn racial discrimination, caste discrimination, and mistreatment of vulnerable communities but hardly bother to refer to abhorrent treatment and mass killing of animals on an industrial scale. Are these non-human living beings meant to be expendable at the discretion, whim and fancy of human beings?
f) Recent expose of wet markets in Wuhan and other parts of China showed obnoxious eating habits and brutal slaughtering practices that by any definition would be classed as barbaric and primitive. Some Animals were shown plucked from the supermarket shelves and eaten alive. Anything that moves on legs, crawls, wriggles or swims (live or killed) is deemed edible and fit for consumption.
g) No health authority including the WHO has stated that flesh consumption is essential for human health survival. On the contrary there is enough evidence to show that meat consumption is the prime cause of many chronic diseases such as cancers, type II diabetes (T2D) and cardiovascular diseases (CVD).
h) The biggest problem is that all those who consume and support the flesh consumption culture take the view uncritically and unscientifically that the earth belongs to humans and all other non-human living beings have no rights to live out their natural life to the fullest except to serve human needs and requirements including sacrificing their precious lives to fill the stomachs of humans.
i) This indefensible view is largely influenced by the Biblical injunction ‘kill and eat flesh’.
j) Ethically speaking it is an unsustainable argument. Buddhism in its very first precept rejects that view without qualification.
k) The Buddhist approach of peaceful co-existence between man and animal is supported by Jainism and several Western philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Albert Schweitzer (philosopher, theologian, organist and physician, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952).
l) Albert Schweitzer made a remarkable statement when he said: “Until he extends the circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” “A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives.”
m) Spain is one of the major victims of the coronavirus pandemic. As much as humanity would like to extend its moral support to the people of Spain to overcome this crisis without further suffering, it would be tantamount to a dereliction of moral duty if the very humanity were not to raise the issue of bull fighting in Spain. Bull fights are not ‘ fair fights’ but a highly staged form of Spanish Government subsidised animal cruelty that projects the misleading view that torturing and killing animals for fun and amusement is acceptable. Animal cruelty of this kind should have no place in our world today, even though it is presented as a deep-rooted Spanish cultural tradition and sanctioned by the Spanish Supreme Court.
n) Every year, approximately 250,000 bulls are killed in bullfights. The countries where this cruel practice still takes place are Spain, France, Portugal, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador. All of these Catholic countries are reeling today under the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic in varying degrees of intensity.
o) The detoxification of these countries to get rid of the coronavirus must also extend to scrapping the inhumane cruel practice of bull fights, falsely categorised as a sport and which has brought nothing but shame and disgrace on both the Government and people of Spain.
p) The lockdown all over the world has confined the vast majority of humanity to their homes. It is discomforting and frustrating being caged, metaphorically speaking. Is this not exactly what humans do to animals by forcing them to live within small spaces in cages in a vast prison euphemistically called a Zoo for the whole of their natural lives? To serve a life sentence without committing a crime. When will this injustice to animals be undone?
2. Do prayers work?
Do prayers work? Is God listening? How does one explain the silence of God at a time of mass upheaval and sorrow among believers who are dying in their thousands? Is the appeal to God through prayer to save the flock an exercise in futility? These are valid questions.
Atheists, agnostics and pagans (their numbers are rising rapidly in Europe) are least troubled by these questions. The latest coronavirus related tragic events are an affirmation of their scepticism. It is more a challenge for the believers.
We in Sri Lanka have faced similar questions and underwent this exercise in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019
On 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, three churches in Sri Lanka and three luxury hotels in the commercial capital, Colombo, were targeted in a series of coordinated Islamic terrorist suicide bombings. Later that day, there were smaller explosions at a housing complex in Dematagoda and a guest house in Dehiwala. Two hundred and fifty-nine people were killed, including at least 45 foreign nationals and three police officers, and at least 500 were injured. The Church bombings were carried out during Easter services in Negombo, Batticaloa and Colombo.
Like in the currently unfolding coronavirus tragedy where the vast majority of the victims are citizens of predominantly Christian countries of Europe, the majority of the victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday Attacks were ardent followers of Christianity, and praying in some of the hallowed churches in the country e.g. St. Anthony’s Shrine (dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua and designated a national shrine and minor basilica), located at Kochchikade, Kotahena, Colombo 13.
These acts of violence targeting mainly Christians on a special Christian holiday inside Christian churches invariably raised legitimate questions on God’s benevolence and its powers of divine intervention. Why did God fail in his own house i.e. the Church? And on one of Christianity’s holiest days i.e. Easter Sunday, where church attendance in Sri Lanka is very high.
3. Does God exist?
It is said that one of the first modern atheistic movements in Europe commenced after this tragedy, renouncing religious ideologies as basis of critical thinking.
We must go back in time. A terrible tragedy similar to the unfolding COVID-19 Pandemic in Europe and other Western countries took place on a much bigger scale in Europe nearly 270 years ago when Lisbon (capital of Portugal) was subject to a series of cataclysmic earthquakes on the morning of Sunday 1 November 1755, which was All Saints’ Day and many people were attending the Churches whose architecture and building structure was not resistant to seismic tremors.
The earthquakes caused massive damage to the city of Lisbon and demolished around 12,000 households, killing over 60,000 people.
This unfortunate coincidence of the earthquake on a Sunday was definitely one of the factors that had contributed to the extremely high death toll in this event, as the Christian devotees that stood between the weak walls of the churches were crushed in large numbers.
The city walls, houses and buildings were not able to escape the 8.0 magnitude of the earthquake. Almost 85% of Lisbon’s buildings were reduced to rubble.
The earthquake had reportedly lasted about five minutes, causing five-metre fissures in length which split open in the city centre.
In addition the tremors triggered three tsunamis of six-metre wave length which flooded the region wave after wave, drowning and killing even more people.
Fires broke out soon after the earthquakes killing a lot more people. The flames lasted for five days and destroyed many important documents and personal records of the Portuguese people. Many had died from inhaling the smoke and collateral damage.
The resulting chaos forced the citizens, including prisoners that used their chance of escape, to flee the city.
Survivors soon began questioning God’s existence and his absence at a time when God’s help was most needed to save lives. The scale of suffering opened up many issues among thinkers, the clergy, politicians, and philosophers.
On the other hand, the Church authorities in Lisbon did actually announce and state that the earthquake was indeed a demonstration of God’s wrath and punishment for the sins of the victims.
Amusingly, the sinful Lisbon’s red-light district had suffered only minor damages while the churches despite the purported piety were completely obliterated.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 exerted a great cultural, religious and political impact. Europe was stunned by the merciless destruction of one of the continent's most opulent cities. Leading intellectual and philosophical figures—Voltaire, Rousseau, Pope, Goethe and Kant, among others—became fascinated by the question of divine intervention in human affairs. Lisbon, still home to the Inquisition, had been immolated: was this evidence of God's wrath or of God's nonexistence?
The Lisbon earthquake also opened the door to new genre of literature questioning God and wisdom of relying solely on God and engaging in recital of prayers. Renowned French writer and philosopher Voltaire produced a classic piece of satirical writing called ‘Candide’ (1759). The events discussed in the novel are often based on historical happenings, such as the ‘Seven Years’ War and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire ridicules religion, theologians, governments, armies, philosophies, and philosophers. Candide satirises various philosophical and religious theories that Voltaire had previously criticised including the belief in God.
4) The Portuguese Inquisition in Ceylon
Portugal and Spain were the two main centres of the Catholic Inquisition, which lasted for several centuries.
Though confined mainly to Europe, the Portuguese nevertheless introduced the Inquisition to countries in its Asian Empire such as Goa and Ceylon (later known as Sri Lanka). The Inquisition is infamous for its persecution of heretics which extended to Muslims and Jews in Europe, and Hindus and Buddhists in Goa and Ceylon.
Though both Portugal and Spain amassed great wealth during their hey days as empire builders they remained backward countries slow to evolve morally and ethically and distance themselves from barbaric cultural traditions such as bull fights. Unlike their neighbours in Northern Europe which broke away from the diktat of the Vatican, both Portugal and Spain together with Italy were unfortunately held captive for a long time in a stranglehold of religious dogma.
There was an intellectual aftermath of the Lisbon Earthquake disaster all over Europe. The cataclysm resulted in widespread Enlightenment discussions about God and the natural world.
The tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic has already rocked the world, prompting wide-ranging intellectual debates about the natural world and God’s place in human affairs. A new world order is emerging that can be expected to be vastly different to the one that is being left behind.
It is already attracting widespread attention and speculation among thinkers and policymakers. Would God continue to remain at the apex of the moral and spiritual world despite rising misgivings in the monotheistic Abrahamic world?
Buddhism has shown that it is possible to establish a highly effective and admirable ethical system for humanity with benefits for all living beings seen as members of one moral universe, without reference to an all-mighty creator God.
J. Takakusu, who was an internationally known Japanese Buddhist scholar, and Professor Emeritus of Sanskrit at the Tokyo Imperial University at the time of his death in 1945, had this to say: “If civilisation is really what the present civilisation of the West represents, it is a curse rather than a blessing. The shortest cut to remedy its shortcomings and make it complete is… to spread to the West the culture, philosophy and faith of Buddhism.” (Takakusu Junjiro, in ‘Europe Ripe for Buddhism,’ 1927)
What will replace God if the belief in God becomes increasingly unsustainable in the wake of catastrophes such as the coronavirus pandemic?