Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Losing My Religion

Our spirit house

There have been some horrific bus crashes in the news in Thailand recently which is hardly something new, though the death toll of thirty one dead in one accident near Korat was exceptional. What did catch my eye though, following this accident, was a headline in the Bangkok Post... ‘Bus drivers swear oath to drive safely, check vehicles.’ (30 March 2007.)

As part of an official road safety campaign, ‘bus drivers are being made to swear an oath to sacred deities in the latest attempt to persuade them to drive carefully and ensure passengers’ safety.’ It may seem a bit bizarre, but if a provincial transport officer taking bus drivers to the wat to see the monks reinforces the importance of safe driving, then why not.

It’s always said that Buddhism is a powerful and cohesive force in Thai society and I for one hope that’s true. Religious ritual is a major part of life here and while monks may take part, in reality the rites often have more to do with animism than with Buddhism. A recent craze to acquire a special type of lucky amulet, the Jatukam Ramathep, is an example of the powerful hold that these older beliefs in a terrifying assortment of spirits still have.

There has recently been a heated public debate as to whether the proposed new constitution that is now being drafted following the coup should name Buddhism as the national religion. Citing a decline in public faith in the monastic order, Sanitsuda Ekachai, an outspoken and articulate columnist in the Bangkok Post concludes, ‘If we really need a national religion, animism should be the one. At least it can help us stop fooling ourselves that we are still Buddhist and see who we really are.’ (Commentary, 5 April 2007.) So is Buddhism in Thailand now declining and what’s the current health of religion in other countries?

A few days earlier the Bangkok Post reported a Newsweek poll saying that in America 91% of people said they believe in God, while 87% follow a formal religion. The poll found that 48% reject the scientific theory of human evolution, while around 62% of those polled said they would not vote for a political candidate who ‘confessed’ to being an atheist.

Wowee, now ain’t that something! George Dubya! You’re just gonna have to get down on your knees and pray!

Political leaders who claim to be driven by religious conviction scare me rigid, as either they’re not wholly rational or they’re fraudulently manipulating the electorate. Bush is probably a fraud, but what about my own PM, Tony Blair? The former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra was probably honest in this one respect... he publicly admitted that when his stars were unfavourable, he’d avoid taking any decisions at all.

The current Thai prime minister seems to have his feet firmly on the ground but some senior members of the Council for National Security have recently traveled to Chiang Mai at official expense to see a renowned fortune teller for ‘a ceremony to ward off bad luck for the coup makers’. (Bangkok Post, 2 April 2007.) Give me political leaders that are fully rational any day.

Even religions that are declining still have huge influence over the faithful and it’s hard not to notice the movement within the Catholic church to make the late Pope John Paul II a saint. Of course he richly deserves to be sanctified as, in Gilbertian style, he made more saints during his papacy then any pope before him. When his own saints come marching in, I’m sure he’ll get all the celestial support he needs.

Trouble is, the rules say that the sanctification process cannot begin until five years after death, and Pope John Paul has only been dead for two years. Then you need proof of at least two miracles, such as mystery cures of sick Catholics. So, in the words of John and Paul (Lennon and Macartney of course), "Roll up, roll up for the mystery cure!" A French nun, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre has now conveniently surfaced, claiming that the said Pope cured her of Parkinson’s disease.

If it was me sifting the medical reports on what might have caused her magical mystery cure, what would trouble me more than a little is that at the time, Pope John Paul was already an ex-pope and stone cold dead. Okay, Sister M-S-P prayed to him, yes, but the nexus of causation does seem to be a little bit thin for so dramatic a conclusion. Perhaps her prayers were in fact forwarded on to God and it was he who fixed things for her.

Anyway, it’s reported that centuries-old sacred rituals have now been held completing the first phase of a fast-track beatification of Acting Saint John Paul. The evidence was handed over, appropriately at the Basilica of St John, and three black leather trunks were sealed with ribbon and red wax as church officials and thousands of faithful applauded. (Bangkok Post, 3 April 2007.)

I’m sure they all had a great time, but it strikes me that using a belief in the spirits to urge bus drivers not to kill their passengers is infinitely more beneficial. On the other hand it’s nice having a few saints kicking around the place. Talking of which, along with having my eye on the Nobel Prize for Literature, I think I could be in the running myself.

Can you download an application form off the internet, do you know? You see, I’ve got one miracle already under my belt because I can change wine into water... so now I’m going to have to dream up another one. Of course Pope JP was dead when he was supposed to have cured Sister M-S-P and I wasn’t, so I’m just wondering... Trouble is, to be a saint I suppose one of the qualifications is being very, very dead which takes the gloss off it a bit.

I think I’d better shut up now before I offend anyone else, so finally I’m going to set an exam question for you and all my final year students in the Combined Honours School of Philosophy and Comparative Religion with Media Studies. Here goes!

“Have the monotheistic religions materially added to the sum of human happiness and do they provide good material for great movies? Discuss, giving examples of any such movies that were not totally ridiculous. Do you think that in MGM’s ‘The Creation’, Adam’s navel should have been filled in with flesh-coloured putty?”

My God, what rubbish I’ve been writing! Is there any point to all this? Yes, maybe there is. I think I’m saying that like seat belts and mechanical inspections, spirit worship really is quite handy when it comes to keeping death off the roads.

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