I'm still thinking about Burma...
My children are only 3, 2 and 5 months, so I have not yet had the opportunity to discuss religion with them at length -- or really, at all. So how do I talk to them about the monks making news in Burma?
As someone who believes that the major monotheistic (read "sky-god") religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are dangerous and lamentable -- yes, I am with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and the "New Atheists" here -- I have a certain amount of reluctance about broaching the subject of religion with my children. When I do talk religion with them, I hope that we will be able to discuss these Iron Age fairy tales (with various embellishments and borrowings), blood-soaked as they are, with a view to their decidedly mixed history.
It seems too complicated a topic to open up just yet. They have enough to worry about when it comes to Lex Luther and monsters in the closet. I would like to wait.
But how do I talk about the monks?
Can I describe them neutrally? Or does it open a floodgate of supernatural thinking to discuss even this distant religious tradition with my children at this early age? Should I just dodge the subject altogether?
Of course I don't want to dodge anything when it comes to my children. I want to answer their questions in the most appropriate way I can. So here goes:
Let's imagine that my oldest, George, catching sight of a report on Burma tonight on TV, asks: "Who are those funny orange guys, Daddy?"
I believe that, for now, I would avoid the dogma of Buddhism. It's too early to get into enlightenment and reaching nirvana. Instead I would focus on the tradition in that country for young men to choose a life of quiet and contemplation, where they can dedicate themselves to being attentive to the details of their existence: a bowl or rice, a ceremony, a gesture... I would tell him that they live together in monastaries, where they do all the work and sit still for long periods. In efffect I would secularize what they do.
Some religious people may criticize my approach to talking to my children. They would ask me to acknowledge the courage, the love for humanity, and the steadfastness which the monks' Buddhism -- their form of religiosity -- gives them. Is this not evidence of a benefit from religious devotion? Doesn't it at least support the idea that religion is a spur to social transformation?
I hear these arguments, but I am not convinced of this link. And therefore I think it would be too blunt a message, as well as misleading for a child of his age, to tell him about their religious status as monks.
I know that in Burma today (and in the U.S., say, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s) acts of unbelievable courage are taken with a religious pretext. And the language of religion certainly expresses many of the longings of those on the front-lines of change. Yet I would argue that this religious aspect to these movements is not inextricable to it. It is the legacy of millenia of religious tradition, based in ancient texts and superstitions, whether in Burma or here. It may provide the symbols and language of the movement, but without these symbols and language the movement would stand on even stronger footing.
Replace the saffron robes -- or the clerical collars -- with a group of diversely dressed people with flushed faces, and you get the same result: a picture of human beings banding together to do something greater than themselves.
I am in awe of the Burmese monks who walked the streets of Rangoon and now find themselves in mortal danger. They have done something great -- I will never forget it. In saying this, I do not believe that I also need to feel awe for their religious commitments, ceremonies, and stories. These may have aesthetic value (I'm sure they do, as do temple, church and mosque services in our more familar traditions), but that does not translate to something important that I must tell my child at this early point in his development.
As my children get older, of course we will talk about the attractions of religion, as well as the distractions and delusions it causes in otherwise kind and forthright people. But now is not the time.
The religious side of the Burma situation is secondary. The people are primary.