Interview with David Miller
June 2, 2006
You've often written about the fact that the world's major religions share a great deal in common, despite their differences. Why then do you think that Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- to name three of them -- have become so polarized?
There are several layers to that question. One of them is that this has less to do with religion than politics. For centuries, the Muslims were able to co-exist perfectly well with Jews and Christians in the Middle East. Spain is another obvious example of this co-existence. So it's not that there is an inherent tension between the faiths.
What we are seeing now in the Middle East and elsewhere is the result of politics. It's the result of war becoming endemic in certain regions. An originally secular conflict -- the Arab-Israeli conflict -- festers. It goes on and on, and religion gets sucked into the whole mess. When violence becomes imbedded in a region, then this affects everything. It affects your dreams, your fantasies and relationships, and your religion becomes violent, too.
But as you readily point out, all of the major religions are based on compassion and nonviolence. That's how they began. So what happened?
Of course, compassion is not always a popular virtue. Religious people often prefer to be right rather than compassionate. Often, they don't want to give up their egotism. They want their religion to endorse their ego, their identity. And that becomes dangerous. Then you get a clash of warring egos.
How can we learn to respect each other's faiths and get along? Do you even think that's possible?
It has to be. Otherwise, we let down our own faith and our own traditions.
We in the West pride ourselves on our freedom and liberality and tolerance. And yet some of the stuff that's being said in the United States about other faith traditions has been a disgrace to Christianity.
You're referring to statements about Muslims?
Yes. I hear these things said about Islam being a wicked and violent religion -- and from people who are not necessarily on the Christian right. I'm embarrassed by those comments because it shows such ignorance.
Those comments are nothing new, of course. Are you saying we should know better by now?
Well, we have to know better! Because the more this rhetoric goes out through the Web, through the news, the more we convince people in the Muslim world that the West is incurably Islamophobic -- that it hates Islam and wants to get rid of it. And this means more people lose faith in [politics] and go towards the extremist groups. We have to prevent that from happening.
We can't convert Osama bin Laden and his henchmen. Our only chance of coming through this is to make sure that they remain a tiny minority. The more people hear this stuff, the more people see pictures like those of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, then people will say: "See, they hate us! They hate Islam." And more young men will turn to extremism.
In recent years, we've seen the ascendance of the religious right in this country. What do you make of that trend?
Well, it's just part of a worldwide trend, actually.
In more and more countries in the world, religion is coming to the fore. In the middle of the 20th century, it was generally assumed that secularism was the coming ideology and that religion would never again play a major role in world events. But it has. And Europe, which is still very adverse to religion, is beginning to look endearingly old-fashioned in its militant secularism.
More and more people, I think, are getting weary. Secularism has not fulfilled its promises. You know, in its short history it's had some catastrophes: Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein. This shows that secularism can be just as lethal as a religiously based tyranny.
I think these faiths -- for want of a better word -- these fundamentalist movements are all, as you say, rooted in fear. But there is also now a growing sense of triumph and power that they can make an impact on the political scene.
Do you think the blue state/red state divide exists in the way that it's often portrayed in the media?
Well, the media plays sort of a mischievous role in all of this. But it is true that -- not just in the United States but throughout the Middle East, and in Israel, too -- you have a huge gulf that exists between the liberal secularist, on the one hand, and the religious conservative on the other.
You have got a clash of two opposing notions of what is sacred. And that's very worrying in a society where you have a divide where people can't really speak to one another.
You're seen by many as a bridge builder. But I wonder if you think the fundamentalists are open to your books?
Oh, surely not. No! But I think the onus lies on us to have a different attitude than they do -- that to go in there with guns blazing and say that these folks are crazy is not the way.
And the contempt that we have expressed for the fundamentalist camp -- and I'm not talking about terrorists -- I'm talking about the rank and file who consider themselves religious -- that gets across, and of course it riles and enrages.
What's the alternative?
I think we've got to decode the fundamentalist imagery so that we learn to read these theologies. We need to see the fear and anxiety that lie behind a theology such as the rapture.
I mean, if you took the rapture scenario to a psychiatrist and said: "I'm having these dreams of the imminent destruction of the world, with huge battles and genocide at the end of time, vast massacres and the final reign of horror and the tribulation," a psychiatrist would say, "This is something deeply wrong here."
The fact that in the richest nation and the most powerful nation in the world, so many people adhere to this extraordinary fear-filled fantasy shows that there are all kinds of anxieties and this inchoate distress that we can't safely ignore.
In your latest book you write about the Axial Age, a time when four different religious traditions grew up in four different parts of the world. What does this period have to teach us about our world today?
Well, I never meant the book to just be an exercise in spiritual archaeology. I wanted it be a critique of the way we're religious today, because in our various institutions we often seem to be producing exactly the kind of religiosity that people like the Buddha wanted to get rid of.
What do you mean?
For example, none of these four religious traditions were interested in belief or metaphysics or questions about who created the world. If they entered into these speculations, they were for spiritual, mystical reasons rather than factual reasons. As a matter of fact, when sages start to propound orthodoxy and declare that their way is the only way, that's a sign that the Axial Age is ending.
The Chinese sages, for example, said that to expect the kind of certainty that people want from religion is immature and unrealistic.
[Certainty] also goes against the notion of the religious quest, because to get in touch with the ultimate -- with God, Brahma or the Tao or Nirvana -- you have to divest yourself of ego, and very often we identify with our opinions too closely.
We seem to be going in the opposite direction. All you have to do is turn on cable news at any hour of the day to see we're very focused on people's opinions.
Exactly, and it's all about ego. It's unskillful, as the Buddha would say. It will separate you from God. You've got to divest yourself of that kind of egotism.
Which leads us back to violence, doesn't it?
In [the Axial Age], violence had reached a crescendo that was unprecedented. And in every case people turned away from it.
In India, they promoted the doctrine of Ahimsa -- nonviolence, which was absolutely crucial -- and you could not continue in your religious quest until Ahimsa was absolutely second nature. That didn't mean you just couldn't kill somebody. It meant that you couldn't say an unkind word -- that's violent, too -- or make an impatient gesture or swat an insect. You had to have an absolute attitude of serenity and friendliness to everybody.
Similarly, in China the Confucians were aghast at the devastation that was happening, and one of them propounded a principle that would become absolutely key. It was the idea that you should feel concern for everybody. You could not feel compassionate simply towards your own group. You had to extend that compassion and benevolence to everybody.
So these are things you believe we can learn from those societies?
We really must learn from them! Today, we are living in a global society where we are cheek by jowl of each other as never before. We are bound to each other electronically, economically and politically. When something bad happens in Iraq today, there are going to be repercussions in London or Washington tomorrow.
And we are not going to have a viable world to hand on to our children unless we can stop this violence, because historically it has been found that when you attack extremist movements they become more extreme. We must treat people with respect. And that means we have to practice the Golden Rule globally.
It's often difficult to convince people that they are in the same boat. You know, in this country people are building gated communities. They are actively hiding from things they don't want to see.
And that is antireligious. The Axial sages said you must see things as they are, that delusion was one of the major things that hold us back from enlightenment, from God, from Nirvana. So we cannot get trapped in illusion.
Small groups now have powers of destruction that were previously reserved for the nation-state. It is only a matter of time before one of them will get some sort of nuclear device. And a gated community is not going to help at all if that happens. It reminds me of the story of the Buddhist pleasure park. Do you know it?
Tell me the story.
When the Buddha was a little boy, some Brahman priests are called in to tell his fortune, and one of them predicts he will leave home and become a monk because of seeing three disturbing sights -- a sick man, an old man and a corpse -- which will so distress him that he will become a monk. And he will save the world from suffering.
And the Buddha's father is not thrilled with this career option -- he has more ambition, more worldly ambition -- so he creates a sort of pleasure palace and brings his young son up in this. And he plants guards around the grounds to prevent any such disturbing sights coming within a radius of the young man.
So the Buddha grows up in this fool's paradise for a long time, and finally the guards get fed up with this and they send three of their own number disguised as a sick man, an old man and a corpse past the [other] guards. The Buddha sees that, and he leaves that very night.
The point is that the Buddhist pleasure park is an image of the mind in denial. It's the gated community. It's the United States before 9/11, which was retreating into isolationist policies within the Bush government.
Suffering will always break in. And if you turn [away], it's useless. It will somehow break in because suffering is ubiquitous. And it will certainly go past these guards that the Buddha's father erected. It will certainly come through the gates. You can't block it out.