Religion, Big Statues, and Humanist Values

I am tired of hearing about religion and evolution. I have read about the subject since I was 13. So, let’s look at a much more fascinating subject: religion and archaeology. Actually, this subject is written about far too little. Anyone can give you a long list of reasons why students must learn evolutionary biology properly and not buy into old myths instead. But who has discussed why archaeologists are so interested in old artifacts?

In 2001, the Taliban destroyed some gorgeous Buddha statues in Bamyan, Afghanistan. This evoked outrage all over the Western world; through our international media, soon the whole world had heard the story. What provoked such universal condemnation? Obviously there wasn’t some secret Buddhist lobby behind the scenes. Their purely scientific value was minimal, as they had already been examined. Was it because they were such beautiful statues, or so big? I’m sure there was someone who would try to argue this, but it is easy to disprove. Later the same year, the French government destroyed an enormous statue of a cult leader in Castellane, France. This elicited precisely no outrage from anyone, even though a cult spokeswoman made an explicit comparison between her group’s statue and the Bamyan Buddhas.

The Islamic ideal that provoked the destruction of the Buddhas is easy to identify. In Islam, as in humanism, the story of humanity is a path from darkness to light. But the Islamic message, especially in its modern and unstudied forms (c.f. the Kitab al-Asnam for a medieval counterexample), is much simpler than the humanist. In the past Age of Darkness, the story goes, people worshiped idols and killed each other for stupid and barbaric reasons. In the current age, people move away from profane habits and towards purer and more divine activities, and treat each other with dignity and justice. There is no need for doubt about social aims or cross-cultural dialogue, because the only message that is needed is all contained in the Qu’ran.

The Western ideal that led people to condemn the destruction of the Buddhas while ignoring the cult statue is somewhat harder to define. Looking at both these cases betrays the actual interest we have in these Buddhas, which none of us had ever seen before. They were important because they were relics of an ancient culture, and were a significant marker of human achievement from that age. We can’t name one specific faith that leads us to treasure these relics, because secularism specifically denies assigning names to its ideals. But in the legally encoded humanist language of the United Nations, it is easy to identify the parallel term: “World Heritage”. We believe that everyone should have knowledge of and access to the historical artifacts which tell us about our shared humanity.

Looking from the outside in at these two cases, I do feel a little conflicted. Personally, although I am Buddhist, I think the cult statue was much more interesting, a veritable monument to the unstoppable creative force in humanity. Given the resources of the modern age, a small cult was able to build a ridiculous tribute to an individual nobody else cared about. The Bamyan statues, on the other hand, were just a few Buddhas among many, and we all know what Buddha looks like. I can understand why the Taliban decided to blow them up; they must have represented to those clerics a history of outside domination, and were physically two big idols towering above them in a position of authority. Sure, it was an arrogant show of personal insecurity, but haven’t we all felt insecure at one point or another?

I think the proper response to events like this is not to unilaterally condemn one group and praise the other, but to understand where humanist beliefs like “World Heritage” come from, and why they are necessary for the future of humanity. Too often, shared sentiments like these go unanalyzed in the West, or even ignored entirely; even recognizing the simplest things, like “nobody wants war”, can stir something in people’s hearts, as it did in the case of Samantha Smith. By explaining where we come from, we can invite other people to understand us.

Posted: July 12th, 2010 | Secular-Religious 2 Comments »

2 Comments on “Religion, Big Statues, and Humanist Values”

  1. 1 Avery said at 11:52 pm on July 12th, 2010:

    I neglected to mention the Inquisition destruction of the entire Maya corpus, probably the worst cultural crime in history, and a good reference for our own age of “cleansing the spirit”.

    But times change quickly: by the time the Odin Stone was destroyed in Orkney, Scotland, in 1814, there was already a strong backlash against it. And the Buddhas are already being rebuilt.

  2. 2 TechnoBuddha said at 2:45 pm on September 2nd, 2010:

    Well isn’t this a little surprise. I’m very honored to know that your Buddhist! Although I myself don’t consider myself a following Buddhist, I do follow many of the ideas and beliefs of several of the different Buddha’s gave. I’m a mixture of both Ancient Buddhism and quantum physics…

    With regards to Ancient history and artifacts, I’d love for you to have a write up? or a discussion sometime on some of the OOPArt… and get the conspiracies going…LOL (btw, I’m william who’s been setting up the Decentralized hosting solution, wanting to host Diaspora when it goes out)