Revolts of the Righteous

Burma's Buddhist monks have left their monasteries and taken to the streets, leading thousands of Burmese in protest against the ruling military junta. Their stance highlights a broader phenomenon: the role of religious leaders and movements in opposing despotic regimes.

It has become fashionable in certain smart circles to regard atheism as a sign of superior education, of a more highly evolved civilization, of enlightenment. Recent bestsellers suggest that religious faith is really a sign of backwardness, the mark of primitives stuck in the dark ages who are yet to catch up with scientific reason. Religion, we are told, is responsible for violence, oppression, poverty, and many other ills.

It is not difficult to find examples to back up such assertions. But can religion also be a force for good? Indeed, are there cases where religious faith comes to the rescue even of those who don’t have it?

Since I have never had either the benefits or misfortunes of adhering to any religion, it might smack of hypocrisy for me to defend those who have. But watching the Burmese monks on television defy the security forces of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, it is hard not to see some merit in religious belief. Burma is a deeply religious country, where most men spend some time as Buddhist monks. Even the most thuggish Burmese dictator must hesitate before unleashing lethal force on men dressed in the maroon and saffron robes of their faith.

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