by Michel Clasquin-Johnson
While there are religious individuals and organisations that enthusiastically and consistently promote Human Rights, the main story arc of the last two hundred years has been one of religions fighting one hopeless rearguard action after another against the spread of rights across global society. There have been temporary setbacks for Human rights, and temporary gains for religion, but on the whole, whenever religion and human rights clash over a sufficiently long period, religion loses. This paper uses a historical model suggested by Trevor Ling (1920-1995) to contextualise the conflict and extrapolate it.
I need to be careful here. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression that I am opposed to human rights. I have lived in a country without human rights and I have lived in a country that has them. I know which is better, or at least which I prefer. As it happens, they were the same country in different phases of its history: South Africa. The question I wish to address is the relationship between human rights and religion, or shall we say, the religions.
Let us start with a headline from a website: “Christians busy consulting Bible for next basic human right to oppose” (Albhertine 2014). The source is a satirical website, true enough, But why does that headline not look ridiculous? Why does it look as if it could almost be true? Why is it even funny?
Perhaps because it is at least partly true?
As I write this, women Anglican priests in the UK are waiting to see if they will be allowed to become bishops as their Episcopal sisters in the USA have been able to for some time. Around the world, we see efforts to afford gay and lesbian people the same rights as heterosexuals to marry being strenuously opposed. By whom? The religions. Individual religious people, even individual religious leaders, may be far in advance of the religions in general, but broadly speaking, the pattern remains: whenever human rights are broadened and extended, the religions will oppose it. Here is a recent non-satirical selection of headlines:
- “Southern Baptists Oppose Gender Reassignment” (Banks 2014)
- “Italy’s Catholic bishops denounce court ruling that OK’d sperm donors” (McKenna 2014)
- “Mormon feminist excommunicated for apostasy” (Ravitz 2014)
One wishes this was a historical anomaly, but it is not. There are religious individuals and institutions that deeply identify with human rights discourse, of course. Just recently, bishop emeritus Tutu was quoted as saying that “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place” (Hafiz 2013). And in the 1960s and 1970s liberal churches were in the forefront of advancing the rights of sexual minorities, a history that is only now being recovered (Kaleem 2014).
But such voices are drowned out by the other side, by an innate conservatism from the side of religions In the last few years, we have seen a concerted opposition by most religions and denominations against the issue of marriage equality. Not all, but most, and this situation shows a clear parallel to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century debate on slavery or the twentieth century entanglement of religious institutions with apartheid structures. Today it is embarrassing to admit that one’s religious predecessors once supported slavery or apartheid. Nobody likes to be on the wrong side of history. Yet this is the choice we see religions making again and again.
My choice of examples makes it sound like this is a peculiarly Christian problem. It is not. The human rights violations in Buddhist-majority Burma (Myanmar) make New York Times commentator Nicholas Kristof declare that this is an even more appalling apartheid than what we had in South Africa (Kristof 2014). He is correct: the South African government at its worst never denied medical care to an entire population group. Are you a secular humanist, or a Reform Jew, and you want to get married in Israel? Can’t be done. The right to marry is locked up by a small range of Orthodox religious professionals (Gradstein 2013). One Conservative Jewish spokesman goes so far as to ask “How is it possible that the Jewish state is the only state in the Western world that does not grant Jews religious freedom?”(Yiva 2014). I will not even attempt to trace the long list of contradictions between human rights theory and Islam in the contemporary world.
What is to be done? One way to deal with the problem is to dig deep into a particular religions texts, carefully selecting passages, creatively reinterpreting their historical contexts and the authors’ original intents, then straining the interpretation of the text until we reach the conclusion that that religion did support that particular human right after all!
It is not hard to find examples of this strategy. It occurs both before the victory of a human rights issue over religious conservatism, as religious liberals try to marshal the resources of their faith, and afterwards, as the losers do damage control. Unfortunately, it is based on the logical fallacy of cherry-picking, while rebuttals tend to rely on another fallacy, the one Anthony Flew called No True Scotsman.
A contemporary example of the tension between religion and human rights can be seen in a recent debate on the openDemocracy website. Larry Cox (2014) opens the debate by declaring that “human rights must get religion” and that an deeper engagement with religion will lend legitimacy and impact to human rights campaign. Demurring, Kirmani (2014) argues that “explicitly linking religion to human rights can lead to the exclusion and persecution of minority groups” and that religion and human rights are best kept far apart. Ghanea (2014) attempts to operationalise Cox’s thought by applying it to the situation of Bahai’s in Iran. Finally, Carrette declares that the relation between the two is paradoxical and that it is, in the end, a semantic problem:
The problem of religion is finding the right language for “rights.” We do not yet fully understand how such language helps and hinders the attempt to overcome persecution and suffering, but we do know that such language definitely matters (Carette 2014).
If we look at the history of the interaction between human rights and religion, then, we see a very clear pattern. Yes, there are times and places where human rights have experienced reverses. But the main thrust of the relationship is one in which human rights advocates, some of which may incidentally be religious liberals, have in the long run triumphed over the forces of conservatism, forces that have incidentally included the bulk of religious people. It is almost enough to make one believe in Fukuyama’s (1992) “End of History” thesis.
Historically speaking, there is an irony involved here. Human rights ideology did not spring forth fully formed from the brow of the Goddess of Reason. It had its antecedents in the theory of Natural Rights, a Christian doctrine with a theological history stretching deep into the Middle Ages and beyond that to Roman Stoic philosophy (Pagden 2003, Lee 2005). One could say that human rights has turned upon its parents.
That this is theoretically problematic for us, I suggest, is because we see society as a neutral space in which various strains of thought compete for our attention. But is this vision of reality (essentially the neo-liberal view of market forces applied to the social-historical realm), the only or even the best way to approach the issue? Allow me to present an alternative.
The bleak vision of Trevor Ling
The world is seeing a new interest in the construction of mega-narratives about history and our place in it. One might have thought that such concerns had disappeared with the death of Oswald Spengler, but the world of thought is often cyclical, and the appearance of Francis Fukuyama’s (1992) book The End of History and the Last Man signalled that the world was once again ready to think in big patterns. When this was followed by Huntington’s article (1993) and then book (2011) on the “Clash of civilisations”, it really did look as if historians and philosophers were again prepared to look up from the small-scale studies and speak expansively across the centuries.
However, twenty years before Fukuyama and Huntington framed their very different, and very differently influential, visions of future history, the Buddhologist Trevor Ling [1920-1995] presented a view of religion and civilisation that can explain why religion is engaged in this interminable rearguard action. In this, he anticipated contemporary positions on “religion” as an essentially modern concept (e.g. Nongbri 2013). Sadly, Ling never pursued this train of thought further. We find no trace of it, for example, in his book “Buddhism, Imperialism and War” (Ling 1979). While both Fukuyama and Huntington found themselves in a post-Cold War intellectual climate in which they could expand their ideas from an article to a book, Ling was unable or unwilling to do so. The early 1970s did not present the right environment for expansive thinking on the past and future of civilisation. Ling’s thought on this issue therefore never became the cause célèbre that Fukuyama and Huntingtons’ respective theories became two decades later. Yet it is an intriguing perspective on the course of history, and one that deserves more attention than it has received thus far. Certain contemporary events make perfect sense when viewed from a Lingian perspective. Others, predictably, do not, but perusing this neglected perspective may, on the whole, prove fruitful.
This article will not try to compare Ling’s thoughts directly with those of Fukuyama and Huntington. That would require a book, and indeed, it is a book I hope to write one day. It is notable that a very similar position to Ling’s was arrived at independently by Goldenberg (2012, 2013, 2014).
According to Ling (1973: 24-34), what we call a “religion” is the much atrophied and fossilised remnant of what was once a living, thriving civilisation. Once there was a Christian Civilisation. The people who lived in it were barely aware of “belonging” to a “religion” called “Christianity”. A few intellectuals may have used such terms, which fool us today into thinking that there was a universal understanding of their meaning to parallel our own. But such was not the case. Similarly, there was a Muslim civilisation in which being a Muslim was simply part of normal, everyday life. And so on for the Hindu, Buddhist and Confucianist civilisations. This survives, to some extent, in a few places:
It might sound strange, but growing up in Israel makes one’s Judaism pretty obvious. You don’t need to practice Judaism to know that you are Jewish. You know that you are Jewish because you are not something else” (Gutman 2014)
But even here, the possibility of being something else shows the encroachment of modernity. It is hard for us to imagine even the possibility of there being nothing else to be. Except that we don’t need to. As we shall see, we also live in an all-encompassing socio-psychological environment.
Civilisations eventually decline and fall. Bits and pieces of their heritage do survive the catastrophe and live on in subsequent civilisations, though. A text here, a cosmogony there … and these survivals form what we call “religions”. They are no longer the main branch of society. They are incomplete fossils from a past age. And the key to that fossil status is awareness. There was no need for a Medieval European to stand up and say “I am a Christian”, or for a Tenth Century North African to declare “I am a Muslim”. Those were default conditions in their civilisations, simmering under the threshold of consciousness for all but the intelligentsia. But once there is sufficient separation that a statement like “I am a Buddhist”, or “I am a Hindu” makes sense, that civilisation is irreparably broken:
… what are seen today as the ‘great religions’ – Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam – are vestigial remains of civilisations. Mere hummocks of what were once, so to speak, great mountain ranges, they now have a mild charm, standing out a little, as they do, from the flat alluvial expanse of secularism in which they are slowly being silted up.” (Ling 1973: 33)
But as Ling himself goes on to suggest, perhaps that metaphor exaggerates the flatness of the terrain. We too live in a specific social and intellectual milieu. We too live in a civilisation. In what civilisation do we live? What is the dominant condition that we take for granted to such a degree that any deviation from it comes across as a conservative backlash? In terms of Ling’s analysis, I submit that we live in the Human Rights Civilisation. This is the dominant discourse that shapes our lives. We don’t think of ourselves as “belonging” to Human Rights, but neither did a tenth-century European think of himself as “belonging” to Christianity. it is what he was. It is what we are.
It is more complex than that, of course. When I speak of Human Rights Civilisation, I use it as a shorthand for a civilisation that prizes democracy, scientific and technical progress, economic growth, and so on. Human rights is one aspect of this civilisation, and I use it to give it its name as a verbal shorthand that derives from the original conference topic for which I wrote the original draft of this paper. It is, to us, counter-intuitive and countercultural even to think that these all things might not be unalloyed blessings. Yet that is exactly what earlier civilisations would have thought, and exactly what the remnants of those earlier civilisations think today.
The playing field is therefore not level. Human rights is not an equal dialogue partner with the religions. it is not a tool that religions may apply or not apply as they please. It is the all-pervasive zeitgeist, so universal as to be unspoken.
The spokespersons for the fossilised remnants are like Julian the Apostate, trying in vain to restore a lost civilisation. For a civilisation, once it descends to the status of a mere religion, does not rise again. At least we have no known examples. This is a key difference between Ling and Goldenberg: the latter allows for the possibility (Goldenberg 2012) that a “vestigial state” may one day become a fully fledged state once more. In Ling’s analysis, this is not possible.
A new civilisation may build upon the ruins of the old, but that exact civilisation is lost to us. There may one day be a neo-Christendom, or a neo-Caliphate, but it can never duplicate exactly the conditions of the original. These new civilisations, should the ever come into being, will always be “neo-something”. Fossil remnants of previous civilisations going up against the current zeitgeist, against Human Rights Civilisation, are therefore always going to lose in the end.
Or will they? One thing the study of religion teaches us is the unlimited capacity of the human spirit for innovation and renewal. One day Human Rights Civilisation too will decline and fall. What will replace it is inconceivable to us today. Some parts of what we now hold dear will persist. In fact, according to this analysis, Human Rights will one day join Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and all the other civilisational fossils. It will be the next “religion”.
Most likely none of us will live to see this happen. But it does show how Ling’s analysis of macro-historical patterns gives us some interesting explanatory and even predictive tools. Perhaps it is time this methodological approach was looked at and expanded.
Alberthine, Formella. Christians Busy Consulting Bible for next Basic Human Right to Oppose. NewsThump, March 30, 2014. http://newsthump.com/2014/03/30/christians-busy-consulting-bible-for-next-basic-human-right-to-oppose/?. Accessed 9 June 2014.
Banks, A.M., 2014. Southern Baptists Oppose Gender Reassignment. Religion News Service. URL http://www.religionnews.com/2014/06/10/southern-baptists-oppose-gender-reassignment/. Accessed 6.11.14.
Carrette, J., 2014. The paradox of religion and rights. openDemocracy. URL http://www.opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/jeremy-carrette/paradox-of-religion-and-rights. Accessed 6.9.14.
Chou, C., 1995. In Memoriam. International Institute for Asian Studies. URL http://www.iias.nl/iiasn/iiasn5/ling.html. Accessed 7.15.14.
Cox, L., 2014. Human rights must get religion. openDemocracy. URL http://www.opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/larry-cox/human-rights-must-get-religion. Accessed 6.9.14.
Fukuyama, Francis. 1992 The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.
Goldenberg, N., 2012. Naomi Goldenberg on Religion as Vestigial States [WWW Document]. The Religious Studies Project. URL http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-naomi-goldenberg-on-religion-as-vestigial-states/ (accessed 8.6.14).
Goldenberg, N., 2013. Theorizing Religions as Vestigial States in Relation to Gender and Law: Three Cases. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 29(1), pp.39–52. URL http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_feminist_studies_in_religion/v029/29.1.goldenberg.pdf.(accessed 6 August 2014).
Goldenberg, N., 2014. Demythologizing Gender and Religion within Nation-States, in: Reilly, N., Scriver, S. (Eds.), Religion, Gender, and the Public Sphere. Routledge, New York, pp. 248–256.
Gradstein, L., 2013. Israel Civil Marriage Ban Blocks Those Not Considered Jewish From Wedding. The World Post. URL http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/12/israel-civil-marriage-ban_n_3429764.html. Accessed 7.21.14.
Gutman, A., 2014. Not Interfaith Marriage, Two-Faith Marriage. Huffington Post. URL http://www.huffingtonpost.com/abraham-gutman/not-interfaith-marriage-two-faith_b_5592677.html accessed 7.21.14.
Haddon, W., 1995. OBITUARY:Professor Trevor Ling. The Independent. URL http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituaryprofessor-trevor-ling-1586664.html. Accessed 7.15.14.
Hafiz, Y., 2013. Desmond Tutu Would Prefer Hell Over A Homophobic Heaven. Huffington Post. URL http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/26/desmond-tutu-hell-homophobia_n_3661120.html. Accessed 7.21.14.
Huntington, S.P., 1993. The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs.
Huntington, Samuel P. 2011 The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kaleem, Jaweed. Unearthing The Surprising Religious History Of American Gay Rights Activism. Huffington Post, June 28, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/28/gay-religious-history_n_5538178.html. Accessed 30 June 2014.
Kirmani, N., 2014. Religion as a human rights liability. openDemocracy. URL http://www.opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/nida-kirmani/religion-as-human-rights-liability. Accessed 6.9.14.
Kristof, N., 2014. Myanmar’s Appalling Apartheid. New York Times. URL http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/opinion/kristof-myanmars-appalling-apartheid.html. Accessed 7.21.14.
Lee, K.P., 2005. Deeper Longings: The Relevance of Christian Theology for Contemporary Rights Theories. Ave Maria Law Review, 3(1), pp.289–302.
Ling, Trevor. 1973. The Buddha. Buddhist Civilization in India and Ceylon. London: Temple Smith.
Ling, Trevor. 1979. Buddhism, Imperialism and War. Burma and Thailand in Modern History. London: George Allen & Unwin.
McKenna, J., 2014. Italy’s Catholic bishops denounce court ruling that OK’d sperm donors | Religion News Service. Religion News Service. URL http://www.religionnews.com/2014/06/11/italys-catholic-bishops-denounce-court-ruling-okd-sperm-donors/. Accessed 6.11.14.
Nongbri, Brent. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.
Pagden, A., 2003. Human Rights, Natural Rights, and Europe’s Imperial Legacy. Political Theory, 31(2), pp.171–199. Available at: http://ptx.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/0090591702251008 Accessed July 21, 2014.
Ravitz, J., 2014. Mormon feminist excommunicated for apostasy. CNN Belief Blog. URL http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/06/24/mormon-who-advocated-ordination-of-women-is-excommunicated/. Accessed 7.21.14.
Yiva, Y., 2014. Conservative rabbis warn Israel losing Diaspora over lack of religious pluralism. The Times of Israel. URL http://www.timesofisrael.com/us-conservative-rabbis-warn-israel-losing-diaspora-over-lack-of-religious-pluralism/. Accessed 7.21.14.
Appendix 1: A select bibliography of works by Trevor Ling
Shadow and Substance: The Religions of Men and the Body of Christ. Department of Missionary Studies, International Missionary Council, 1959.
The Significance of Satan, New Testament Demonology and Its Contemporary Relevance. SPCK 1961.
Prophetic religion. MacMillan, 1966.
A History of Religion East and West. London: MacMillan, 1969
Buddhist Factors in Population Growth and Control: a Survey Based on Thailand and Ceylon. London School of Economics Population Investigation Committee, 1969
Buddhism. Ward Lock Educational, 1970
The Buddha. Buddhist Civilization in India and Ceylon. London: Temple Smith, 1973. Republished in 2013 as The Buddha: The Social-Revolutionary Potential of Buddhism.
Karl Marx and Asian religion. Bangalore University, 1978
Religious Change and the Secular State. Research India Publications : exclusive distributors, K. P. Bagchi, 1978
Buddha, Marx, and God: Some Aspects of Religion in the Modern World. Macmillan, 1979.
Buddhism, Imperialism and War. Burma and Thailand in Modern History. London: George Allen & Unwin., 1979
Buddhist Revival in India: Aspects of the Sociology of Buddhism. Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980
Karl Marx and religion in Europe and India. Barnes & Noble Books, 1980
Buddha’s Philosophy of Man. Dent, 1981
Islam’s Alternative of Fundamentalism. John Rylands University Library of Manchester. 1981
Max Weber and Buddhism: The Rustication of an Urban Doctrine. Graham Brash (Pte.) Ltd ,Singapore, 1985.
Buddhism, Confucianism and the Secular State in Singapore. Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, 1987
Buddhist Trends in Southeast Asia (Editor). Inst of Southeast Asian Studies , 1993.
Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil: A Study in Theravada Buddhism. Oneworld, 1997.
Mythology: an Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Principal Myths and Religions of the World. Barnes & Noble, 2004. (with Richard Cavendish). Translated into Serbian as Mitologija: Ilustrirana enciklopedija.
Buddhist Values and the Burmese Economy. in L. Cousins, A. Kunst & K.R. Norman (eds). Buddhist Studies in Honour of I.B. Horner. Springer 1974, pp 105-118.
Introduction to S Suksamran, Political Buddhism in Southeast Asia: The Role of the Sangha in the Modernization of Thailand. Palgrave MacMillan, 1977
Max Weber and Buddhism. In J Lipner, D Killingley & D Friedman (eds.), A Net Cast Wide: Investigations Into Indian Thought in Memory of David Friedman. Grevatt & Grevatt ,1986.
Personality and the Devil. The Modern Churchman 5:2 1962. http://liverpool.metapress.com/content/06856pg112x16730/ (accessed 15 July 2014).
Buddhist Mysticism. Religious Studies. 1:2. April 1966, pp 163-175. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=2401792&fileId=S0034412500002444 (accessed 15 July 2014).
Religion, Society, and the Teacher. The Modern Churchman.10:2, 1967. http://liverpool.metapress.com/content/e633511t5734123g/ (accessed 15 July 2014).
Buddhist factors in population growth and control. A survey based on Thailand and Ceylon. Population Studies: A Journal of Demography. 32:1. 1969. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.1080/00324728.1969.10406027#tabModule (accessed 15 July 2014).
Sinhalese buddhism in recent anthropological writing: Some implications. Religion 1:1, 1971. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1016/0048-721X(71)90007-8#.U8UwBlZDCBM (accessed 15 July 2014).
Religion in England: Majorities and minorities. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 2:2, 1973. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/1369183X.1973.9975187#.U8UwC1ZDCBM(accessed 15 July 2014)
The study of religion in universities of southern Asia. Religion 5:1, 1975. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1016/0048-721X(75)90004-4#.U8U211ZDCBM (accessed 15 July 2014).
Counterculture: Towards a new perspective. Religion 5:2, 1975. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1016/0048-721X(75)90018-4#.U8UwAFZDCBM (accessed 15 July 2014).
Buddhist values and development problems: A case study of Sri Lanka. World Development. 8:7-8. July-August 1980. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0305750X8090042X (accessed 15 July 2014).
Buddhism and education in Burma and Thailand. Religion 14:1, 1984. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1016/S0048-721X(84)80029-9#.U8U21FZDCBM (accessed 15 July 2014).
Appendix 2: Eulogies to Trevor Ling
In Memoriam: Trevor Oswald Ling (1920 – 1995)
Trevor Ling, outstanding scholar of Buddhism and pioneer in the development of religious studies in British universities from the 1960s, passed away peacefully aged 75 after a courageous battle against Alzheimer’s disease.
By Cynthia Chou
The information in this section was taken from the obituary by Cynthia Chou at http://www.iias.nl/iiasn/iiasn5/ling.html (accessed 15 July 2014)
He was raised in West Ham, London under the profound religious influence of his Baptist mother. During the 1940s, he was already preparing for the Baptist ministry when he assumed war service in India. In Calcutta, he came under the tutelage of the Baptist clergyman, Horace Collins who inspired him towards a Hindu-sensitive approach to religion. This led him to realise the need for scholars to be able to read the Vendata and translate and interpret the Sanskrit text. Subsequently, he learnt the Sanskrit and Pali languages, and made progress in his spiritual development by reading the Vedas, the Upanishad, the Gita and the Vedanta.
On his return to England in 1946, he went up to St. Catherine’s, Oxford to read Theology and Modern History. Following this, in the initial years of the 1950s, he taught theology at Nottingham University. Later, he moved to the Field Lane Mission in North London and then to Earlsfield Baptist Church in South London.
In 1960, he was awarded his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies on the concept of evil in Buddhism and the New Testament. This work resulted in his first major book titled, Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil (1968).
Subsequently, he took up a post as Pastor at Judson Church, University of Rangoon with the American Baptist Missionary Society. Whilst there, he met the Bishop of Rangoon, the Rt. Revd Victor Shearburn whose influence led him to decide to become an Anglican. In Rangoon he also developed a deep personal interest in Buddhism, taking his children on Sundays to lay offerings before the Buddha image in the Shwedagon Pagoda.
In 1962, he returned to England to the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, Yorkshire. He spent the following year as curate at St. Stephen’s Church, Thornton Heath, Surrey. On 9th June, 1963, he was ordained as an Anglican priest in Canterbury Cathedral by Michael Ramsey.
The years 1963 to 1972 saw his appointment in the Department of Theology at the University of Leeds. He was later awarded a Personal Chair in Comparative Religion. By the early 1970s, his growing interest in Chinese influences on the historical tradition of Buddhism was enhanced by the appointment of Owen Lattimore to the Centre of Chinese Studies in that University. This consolidated his work on South-east Asia, and his main research continued in Theravade Buddhism (of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos). He also became increasingly interested in the sociology of religion, and published a volume called Buddha, Marx and God (1966).
In 1972, he was persuaded to assume responsibility as the Chair of Comparative Religion at Manchester University by his former Phd supervisors, H.D. Lewis and Geoffrey Parrinder. In the same year, he published A Dictionary of Buddhism and thereafter a number of works on South-East Asia. His well-known text, A History of Religion East and West (1968), brought him wide recognition. This book adopted the unique approach of following each religion through similar eras, rather than examining different religions in separate chapters. His historical and sociological work flourished during his Manchester period. Among his works were Religious Change in the Secular State (1978), Karl Marx and Religion (1980), Buddhist Revival in India (1980), Buddhism, Imperialism and War (1979) and a translation The Buddhist Philosophy of Man (1981).
Thereafter, he was a Visiting Professor at the University of Santiniketan, West Bengal. In 1984, he was invited to the National University of Singapore. In 1987, he became Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of East Asian Philosophies, Singapore where he continued working on Buddhism, Confucianism and the Secular State in Singapore. It was also during his spell in Singapore that he embarked on learning the Mandarin language. From 1988 to 1992, he was a Fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore. His years in Singapore once again resulted in numerous publications.
In the latter years of his life, his quest for the spiritual side of religion continued in his personal life. In Singapore, his search led him first to attend the Anglican Cathedral, then the Methodist Church and finally the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church. He found much happiness in the Presbyterian Church and was soon involved as Chairman of the Church Choir.
Thereafter, he returned to his home in Brighton where he often mentioned that he would look over the sea and think of Singapore. His last days were spent in Long Eaton, Derbyshire. He was a highly disciplined and professional scholar who devoted his life to the pursuit of religious studies. He was also an extremely kind gentleman with a sense of humour that endeared him to his colleagues, students and to all those who cared for him and about him. We remember him most by his advice, “You should always leave the world a better place than you found it.”
His first wife, Mary Evelyn Inkster, died in 1973. He is survived by his three daughters, Elspeth (Ellie), Ruth and Catherine (Kate) of that marriage, and by his second wife, Jeanne Openshaw.
OBITUARY: Professor Trevor Ling
Friday 16 June 1995
The information in this section was taken from the obituary by Haddon Wilmer at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituaryprofessor-trevor-ling-1586664.html (accessed 15 July 2014).
In the 1960s when the new discipline of Religious Studies broke out from the matrix of (Christian) Theology, with its traditional orientation to the training of clergy, Trevor Ling was one of its most creative and influential pioneers.
As with others of his generation, the Second World War did as much, if not more, to shape the scholar to come. The Army took him to India, where he was profoundly influenced by an unconventional Baptist missionary, Horace Collins, who encouraged him to learn spirituality from Hindus. He was gripped and educated by India with an unsentimental fascination.
After Oxford, he became a Baptist minister, a part-time academic, and an occasional Labour candidate, until he took his family to Rangoon in 1960, to be University Chaplain, employed by American Baptists. Working with them destroyed his patience with Baptist Christianity. Thereafter he increasingly distinguished between religions which divided because they insisted on being “right” over others, and those which were comprehensive because they could allow themselves to be complemented by others. But in the 1960s he was still ready to work with Anglicanism. He was ordained by Michael Ramsey, but being a priest eventually became irksome and he resigned his orders. Later, he worshipped in the Anglican Cathedral in Singapore, but was close enough to being a Buddhist to have to resist that label, also.
Ling’s early scholarly work was on Buddhist mythology of evil, which he compared with Satan in Christianity. In Buddhism, he saw evil being overcome essentially by the inner disciplines of meditation, while in Christianity Satan was overcome by the Community of the Holy Spirit. When the community failed him or became unbearable (as in mass-evangelistic and charismatic forms), he made more of the Buddhist possibility. Its inwardness perhaps suited the strongly independent and private aspects of his personality.
His period at Leeds University (1963-72), as Lecturer and then Professor of Comparative Religion, was a time of great achievement. With Professor John Tinsley, he made the decisive break- through in establishing Religious Studies as a distinct discipline there. His widely used History of Religion East and West came from courses he inaugurated. The histories of “living religions” are told alongside each other, from the early city civilisations of Asia to the 1960s. Constantly comparing East with West, the book is an education in world history and an experiment in “the comparative philosophy and sociology of world religions”.
Sometimes, religious studies are thought to be “objective”, as theology is not. But Ling never gave up seeking good religion and advocating what he found. Some scholars thought the occasional preaching in his books a weakness, but it could be seen as an act of responsibility. He emphasised the rational and secular practicality of most Indian religion, arguing that the study of religion should not be misshaped by an obsession with the minority quests for otherworldly personal salvation.
The secular was not, for him, an alternative to religion, but a set of clues to the nature of religion.
After Leeds, Ling hardly settled. He interrupted his time as Professor of Comparative Religion at Manchester University to teach in India for two years, then took early retirement in 1982 to spend a decade in Singapore. Perhaps there was more here than the mobility of a world-class academic. He was concerned to be in touch with the sacred, and his abrupt and decisive exodus from the British academic scene could indicate that he eventually found the modern university as constricting as dogmatic churches.