Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Improved Buddhism and Governance

There are many ways that a religion can interact with a governing body. One way is simply tolerance, where the governing organizations put no restrictions on what a religion group does. This, of course, is impossible in some situations, as competing religions complain about the activity of a new religion, or they object to the use of public spaces, or they object to specific activities, and so on. The general public may object, such as to obsessive proselyting. So, there might be a discussion which resolves issues, or there might have to be a law or regulation passed.


Another issue is taxation. How much tax is there, is it property tax or use tax or sales tax or some other, and are religions exempt, or only some religions, or only organizations which have certain aspects of a religion?


In a situation like this, where there is a new religion such as an improved Buddhism, what should be the stance of the religion and its leaders towards interaction with government? There are many ways in which the interaction can be much more than simply taxes and regulation of public activities. Let’s consider some of them.


There can be a state religion. Should an improved Buddhism strive to become the official religion of some nation or region or the whole world? As an official religion, it might be the only religion allowed to practice, or simply be the only one which is exempt from certain taxes. There are many stages in between these two extremes. One is where everyone is registered as a member of a religion, and those who do not register as members of the state religion are subject to additional taxes, or cannot vote, or cannot take certain positions, or might not occupy certain professions, or have other restrictions or requirements on them. Another situation is where the religion is taught in state-run schools, and school attendance might be mandatory or voluntary, by the parents or guardians. Another role is a ceremonial one, which is also a very mild role. The state religion gets to participate in certain state ceremonies, and no other religion can. It could be a very stringent requirement, stating that long-term residency is contingent on registering as a member of the state religion. There could be economic requirements, such as everyone’s taxes being donated to the state religion headquarters.


These types of interaction might be categorized as those which involve registration as a member, and those which do not. The ones which do not solely involve the interaction of the religion with the government, and include the ceremonial role and the educational primacy role. They also include state support of a religion. If support for a religion is not enshrined in the laws of a nation, then the religion is forced to seek funds from other sources, and most likely the largest component would be contributions from members. It would be easier for a religion to concentrate on its religions functions if fund-raising were simplified by it becoming a state-supported religion. It does come to mind that there might be several state-supported religions, and this condition clearly involves controversy over how much each gets.


The depth of the support is also a question. Is only the upper hierarchy supported by the state, or is every single religious facility also on the list for state support? There could be different stages between these two extremes as well. This is obviously a way for a new religion to prosper, but there may be trade-offs which come with the support, like government influence on activities of the religion. Government actors change with time, and a pleasant arrangement might turn into a unpleasant one. Being a religion does not prevent someone from attempting to corrupt the higher positions.


The other type of relationship that a government may have with a religion is one of cooperating in the task of recruitment. Once a government decides that a certain religion provides advantages, perhaps altruistically for the population as a whole, or for the preservation of the government, two opposite reasons, the government can impose regulations on the population concerning their membership in the state-supported religion. This cannot work unless there is some sort of census, in which members of the population register as members of the religion. The registration could perhaps be perfunctory, just a signature on a form, but it could also be more serious and more involving. It could serve as a means for excluding other religions from functioning openly and freely. If some other religion was acting as a center for opposition to a government, the government may respond by mandating membership in a state-run or state-approved religion, to the exclusion of all others. This is where the government acts in its own interest, as opposed to seeking to provide the benefits of the best religion, as they evaluate it, to all citizens.


The other situation, where the government is truly beneficent, they may have the ability to comprehend the benefits that a particular religion offers to the average member of their population, and simply decide that the best one should be promulgated. Exactly how they compute the benefits doesn’t matter so much for this discussion, but the fact that they are able to come to such a conclusion gives them the opportunity to act. A beneficent government is interested in all aspects of their citizens’ lives, and they may also be aware that there is tremendous inertia in beliefs, so that it might be centuries before the best religion was universal, unless they do something about it. This has been the action taken countless times in the past, when, for example, an absolute monarch converts to a new religion and compels all his subjects to do it. Another example is when a nation or group of nations conquers another, and decides that all the population of the conquered nation must convert to the religion of the conquerer. The details of the conversion process can be somewhat arbitrary, ranging from taking an oath or signing a form, to going to classes to learn about it and then performing some ritual or participating in some ceremony. These details are not pertinent to the discussion here, which is about whether a new and improved religion, such as an improved Buddhism, should seek assistance in recruitment from a government. Should it only seek this from a truly beneficent government, or should it take advantage of a government which is seeking its own self-interest. The latter would be an alignment of interests and not necessarily something derogatory about either the government or the religion.


With a new religion, such as an improved Buddhism, the utilization of state support would reduce the implementation time from generations to years. If an improved Buddhism were truly beneficial for its members, providing better mental health, focus, resistance to depression, concentration, goal-making and goal-seeking, cooperation with others, self-reliance, self-confidence, or other good mental attributes, then perhaps a primary mission of the new religion would be to seek state support.


In a country like the United States, which was founded by religious refugees from countries that had state-supported religions, there is a tradition for no state support of religion. Most other countries do not have that tradition, and indeed there are many countries with a state-supported religion. The process of convincing the government of a country which already has a state-supported religion to change that religion might be a difficult task, but if the new religion is designed to provide measurable benefits without any irrational spiritual baggage, then it might be possible. Changing a country which has a long tradition opposing state support of religion, or which has never had one, or which had one but after long strife abandoned it, will be correspondingly more difficult. The key point is that there would have to be good reasons for state support.

There might also be some attributes of a new religion that would appeal to a government which was seeking its own interests. The danger of having state support in this situation is that if the government changes, what would that mean for the state-supported religion? If the change of government was associated with a great deal of acrimony or even worse, even if the new religion provided clear benefits to its members, having been associated with the repudiated government might overwhelm these benefits and have the new religion not only lose state support, but possibly even be banned and replaced with another religion, maybe an older one.


This is a risky situation, and would likely have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Understanding the situation within such a nation would be mandatory, and figuring out the future prospects for such a government would also be. Would it be possible to find a way to make a new religion appealing to a government which was self-interested, but which would also not be so closely associated with it so as to be able to navigate the turmoil that might surround a government change.


So, a clear conclusion is that a rapid accession of a new religion might be done in some places with state support, provided that the government is beneficent and has no tradition against state support, and that the new religion can demonstrate clear benefits for the members of the population. We live in a scientific era, and so such a demonstration would have to be qualitative, measurable, and repeatable. This seems like a hard task for a religion, but Buddhism may be up to the challenge, if properly improved.

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