Criticism of religion is not necessarily unspiritual

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Medieval Inquisition

One ought to be very careful when criticizing others. Jesus said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”(Matthew 7: 3–5) Similarly, the famous psychologist, Carl Jung warned us about the projection of our own shadow onto others. He said, “Projection is one of the commonest psychic phenomena…Everything that is unconscious in ourselves we discover in our neighbor, and we treat him accordingly.” (Carl Jung, Archaic Man)

But not every thing, person or system we perceive as evil is a projection of our shadow. One’s criticism of others does not necessarily contradict one’s spirituality. Criticism does not have to be self-serving or based on malice. Yes, the more mindful you are, the more you will see “the plank in your own eye.” You will see that you and the things you most cherish — your beloved country, your race, your religion, your belief system — are not without flaws or blemishes. Thus, the first thing we should do before criticizing other people’s religion or belief system is to do some honest soul searching and see the shadow in the things we cherish and value. This is not something we can do overnight. It takes practice. Lots of practice. Many people think of the Buddhist practice as (sitting) meditation. But the core practice of Buddhism is bhavana — the cultivation of a culture and mental habit of awareness. The Buddha talked about the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Becoming aware of our own shadow and the projection of our shadow onto others should definitely be a part of that mental habit.

Having said that, we must also be careful about drawing the wrong conclusion from Jung’s caution of shadow projection — it does not invalidate all kinds of criticism as a manifestation of our own defense mechanism. Not every evil we perceive is a projection of the undesirable qualities within ourselves which we reject and have blocked from our own consciousness. There are also evil people, evil religions and evil social institutions which are NOT a result of our projection, ignorance and unconsciousness. It is important to study Jungian psychology carefully. Jung wrote:

“Not that these others are wholly without blame, for even the worst projection is at least hung on a hook, perhaps a very small one, but still a hook offered by the other person.” (Carl Jung, On Psychic Energy)

Social criticism is important. We just have to be honest and not self-serving in our criticism. The criticism of what people regard as “sacred” serves a vital social function. I would go as far as saying that it is a matter of conscience and civil duty. For if we don’t criticize the religions, then their problems will not be brought into the public’s awareness. Certainly, the criticism of what others cherish is not an easy thing to do. It is anxiety-provoking. You may lose many friends. You may lose your popularity. In the past four decades, I have been involved in many interfaith dialogues. I follow Dale Carnegie’s advice. Before criticizing other people’s religions, I typically criticize my own. It is important to be fair and balanced. Yes, Jesus cautioned us not to criticize while being blind to our own dark side. But he was also very clear about the existence of false prophets and bad religions. He said:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. (Matthew 7: 15–20)

When in doubt, judge the religions by their fruits. Look at history. Collect empirical evidence. Some religions and belief systems are more bloody, more tyrannical and more manipulative than others. This is not just an opinion. I was brought up in a Christian family, but I left Christianity at age 16. I read a book written by a Chinese philosopher who exposed the atrocities mentioned in the Old Testament. Now, at age 65, I re-read Genesis carefully. I reaffirm the wisdom of my choice at age 16. Many people, including some scholars, regard monotheism as a kind of spiritual progress in human civilization. However, I noticed that all monotheistic religions stress obedience as a primary virtue. Not obedience based on reason but blind obedience. Thus, Abraham was supposed to kill his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God. Abraham was supposed to obey the voice he heard as a command of God, regardless of how unreasonable or inhumane the command was. How is this progress?

All monotheistic systems demand obedience and disallow dissent or disagreement. Monotheism also means the suppression of other people’s religions and the vilification of other people’s gods. An article in the Jewish newspaper, Haaretz, openly questioned the common belief in the value of monotheism. Its headline reads, “ Monotheism Is Seen as Judaism’s Gift to the World. But Has It Really Brought Peace and Harmony?” Historically speaking, monotheism has not brought peace or harmony to the world. Rather, the rise of monotheism coincides with the rise of religious intolerance and religion-motivated atrocities and violence. The genocide of the Canaanites is only one of the many examples.

Religion is not beyond criticism. The honest criticism of various religions does not contradict modern society’s principle of tolerance and religious freedom. Certain leaders, religious writings and social institutions should be criticized and condemned, because they are hateful, toxic and monstrous. Let us not succumb to fear or political correctness. No one, no religion and no institution is beyond criticism. The notions of infallibility and inerrancy belong to the dustbin of history. They are based on fear and superstition. Nothing more. Just that a belief system is a religion does not give it a free pass.

So, let us be not afraid to criticize, but allow room for debate. There is always the possibility that we might be wrong on some counts. But to avoid the criticism of religions is a problem in itself.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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