Religion Island

They call it the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, this island of Sri Lanka. But you could just as well call it Religion Island. There are no less than four major religions practiced here, and that doesn’t count the people in villages that make offerings to the local tree gods. Buddhists dominate the religious landscape, but there are Hindus and Muslims and Christians in abundance. I’ve heard that over 98 percent of this island’s population consists of active worshippers of one religion or another. My wife and I have been living here for the last four months, and from our home outside of Colombo, the capital city, you can hear the rites of the local Buddhist temples being performed early in the mornings and late at night. On full moon nights, processions of white-clad worshippers wind through the poorly paved roads. This is far from a godless place.

It was with some anticipation, then, that those of us inhabiting Religion Island awaited the coming of Richard Dawkins. His book The God Delusion is, after all, meant to be the definitive scientific debunking of religion for our time. Dawkins came to attend the Sixth Annual Galle Literary Festival, which was started by an English ex-pat named Geoffrey Dobbs and has become a major stopping point for international literary types. These days, the festival attracts big names from all over the world. Galle is a beautiful little city at the southern end of Sri Lanka possessing a Portuguese-Dutch colonial fort jutting out from a rocky promontory into the tropical splendor of the Indian Ocean. It is a damn nice place for a literary festival.

The session with Richard Dawkins was sold out, the lecture hall packed with a standing-room-only crowd. There were people from all over the world, but plenty of Sri Lankans, curious, no doubt, to hear what Dawkins might have to say about religion on their island. Dawkins was reading from his newest literary creation, a children’s book called The Magic of Reality that teaches our young ones the virtues of rational scientific inquiry as opposed to mythic and religious thinking. I was less interested in the reading than what would happen during the Q&A. Would the voices of Religion Island rise up in a chorus of outrage and indignation? Might there be a great confrontation?

Alas, there was no great theological skirmish. The questions were respectful and sometimes admiring, as could be expected from the international crowd at a literary festival. There was no chorus of outrage and indignation from the locals. You could have described it as boring, really. But in the days after the festival ended, walking round the streets of Galle after the crowds had dispersed, I began to think that a clash of sorts had occurred, if in muted form.

Dawkins was asked, for instance, about Buddhism. His response was that he didn’t know anything about Buddhism. He thinks that Buddhism might be more about a “way of life,” as he put it, than about doctrine. In this, he was inclined to let Buddhism off the hook in a way that he would never allow for the great monotheisms. But he wanted to stress that he didn’t know enough to say anything definitive. This fact did not seem to bother Dawkins. He had come to the island of Sri Lanka to tell people what he thinks, not, presumably, to find out anything about what they think. And so one cause of confrontation was side-stepped.

Another questioner asked Dawkins whether he thought it strange that religion had inspired so many great works of art while science has, to date, left the artists more or less unmoved. Dawkins’ response, once he thought about it for a little while, was to note that artists have always gone where the money is and where the commissions can be had. Religion gets the art because religion pays for the art. Dawkins went on to imagine an alternate reality in which great composers like Beethoven would have composed symphonies to the important scientific discoveries of the day, rather than to God and the church. Roughly one half of the audience was delighted. The other half of the audience kept its silence, though the tension of disagreement could be felt in the room.

Have you, dear reader, ever seen any of the reclining Buddhas, either here in Sri Lanka or elsewhere in Asia? They are massive sculptures carved out of rock and stone. Human beings created these works of art in Sri Lanka many centuries ago. They can be found in the ancient places of the interior, places like Dambulla and Polonnawura as well as in forgotten places hidden within the depths of the forests and jungles of Religion Island. The Buddha lies on his side, his face a mask of serenity that transcends the world while remaining, somehow, fully within it. One of the last things Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk from Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, ever did on this earth was to visit some of the reclining Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. (He died a few weeks later in a tragic accident in Bangkok.) Unlike Dawkins, he was interested in the Buddhism of the island. He wanted to understand its relation to the mystic traditions of his own Catholic Church, and was profoundly impressed by the visit. He couldn’t get the vision of the statues out of his mind. “Looking at these figures,” he wrote, “I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. … I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination.”

It has long been the contention of Richard Dawkins that a great appreciation for the beauty of the world accompanies scientific inquiry to every degree that it accompanies religious or aesthetic contemplation. One frequently encounters arguments in Dawkins writings that our task is not just to appreciate the beauty of nature, but “to show that all this beauty and wonder is not the property of religion. The fact that scientists can not only revel in it but explain it redoubles the beauty.” Richard Dawkins admits that we sometimes want to have an attitude of wonder toward the world. One of his great strengths as a polemicist is to appeal to the human need for beauty and then to argue that science can, among its other accomplishments, fulfill this need.

But a contention is one thing and the truth is another. The great symphonies of the 19th century were not inspired by science, even though they were composed in a scientific age. The secular artists of the contemporary Western world seem, likewise, to find little inspiration from science. Only but rarely do these individuals create art in homage to science. Even less frequently do they create their work out of an inspiration derived from scientific method. Perhaps this is because the mood of objectivity and distance required for scientific analysis is incompatible with the expressionistic mood necessary to create art.

It would be absurd, of course, to claim that an artist must have religious faith in order to make art. But the two states of being are fully compatible. For much of human history, the religious impulse and the art-making impulse were deeply tied together. Most of the great works of art from every civilization are testimony to this basic fact. The same cannot be said of science and no amount of fine rhetoric from Richard Dawkins or anyone else will prove otherwise. It is a thing to consider, that science does not seem to go together with the kind of wonder that moves the artists. It is an incompatibility that seems to go deeper than any question of funding or who pays for the art. Is it, actually, something deeper?

When Thomas Merton was visiting Sri Lanka he was eager to speak with someone about his experiences with the Buddha statues at Polonnaruwa. He got into a conversation with a priest at a Buddhist University who turned to Merton at one point in the conversation and said, “Those who carved those statues were not ordinary men.” No, they were not ordinary men. I claim no insight about what made those men special and different, but something had happened to them. The men who carved those statues attained an extraordinary state of religious and aesthetic contemplation. It was not science that had inspired them to get there. Take that fact as you will.

It seems Richard Dawkins has no place for the statues of Polonnaruwa in his understanding of the world. And so the great confrontation on Religion Island took place mostly as a battle between competing silences. Richard Dawkins touched down upon the soil of Sri Lanka for a few days and then flew off again to his next destination. He preferred not to know much about the religious practices of the people who live here. He preferred to pass over the recumbent Buddhas of Sri Lanka in silence. And they prefer their silence too. Those stone faces have endured every human folly for a thousand years, and will do so, presumably, for a thousand more.

Morgan Meis has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the New School for Social Research. He's written for Harper's, Slate, Boston Review, and regularly for The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily.