Eradicating Religion in Burma

"Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end. "

"It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, "mad cow" disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate."
Both of these statements come from noted atheist Richard Dawkins, and while it is probably worth remembering that Dawkins does not speak for all atheists, it is equally clear that his point of view is currently one of noteworthy popularity. 
The evolution of Dawkin's perspective into action took a bold step forward this past month in the sovereign state of Burma - officially known as Myanmar.  The government there that holds the enlightened view that religion is a hindrance to human progress has embarked on a campaign of violence against Buddhist monks.  Tens of thousands of Burmese people led by these monks took to the streets of Rangoon in the hopes of drawing attention to their human rights plight under the military junta. 

The Buddhist monks had no way of resisting men with guns, batons and riot gear. The army troops wore helmets while they bludgeoned the skulls of protesters with rifle butts.  Amidst the violence protesters were chanting:  "May we be free from torturing people."  In a few instances when soldiers were ordered to fire their guns at the monks, officers refused to fire and fled. The Buddhist monks who were chanting prayers received their answer from the powerful as blood streamed down from the faces of those who dared stand against the Burmese regime.  

The bodies of murdered monks were discarded in waterways hidden from the urban public.  It was another impressive victory of the strong over the weak.

The government of Burma views religion as a threat to its sovereignty.  Its unique articulation of death as a text includes forced labor, rape, torture, and the laying of mines in villages.  The deaths represent the tip of an iceberg in the tortured and disfigured populace.  Decades of violence practiced by the government against civilians has unleashed waves of immigration into neighboring states like Thailand.

In 1990, the people of Burma voted overwhelmingly to replace their military-led government with a democracy headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.  The military leaders responded by jailing her and ignoring the vote.  The recent protests involving tens of thousands of dissenters do not seem to have dislodged the government. 

This summer I had the pleasure of meeting some members of the Karen people at my local church. The Karen are among the viciously persecuted communities of Burma.  Like the Buddhism of the monks, their Christian faith is deemed a threat to the government, and for this many have been killed, tortured, and disfigured.  As I listened to them lift their voices in a hymn of praise in their native tongue, it was difficult to plumb the depths of their souls from which they called out against their suffering. 

Increasingly, persecuted Burmese people like the Karen are seeking refuge in the United States, which has recently agreed to take in 27,000 Burmese refugees, a significant increase over previous years.  The matter has drawn the attention of First Lady Laura Bush.

The violence of the military junta in Burma amplifies the cynical creed of Richard Dawkins and too many other reactionary critics of religion. Demonizing religion as a virus dehumanizes its practitioners.

For materialists, death is the last word.  Governments like Burma use it to eradicate the stain of faith from their human populations.  The monks paid no heed. The rest of  must continue to advocate a truer last word: Life.

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of Communication at Miami University, specializing in argumentation and rhetoric studies.
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