Dawkins vs. Sri Lanka, and silence wins.
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.