Saturday, March 14, 2015

Religious organizations: critical thinking vs. sense of fulfillment

Recently, Taiwan's media is full of drama about how religious organization take advantages of massive loopholes in the Taiwanese law system to evade tax, are non-transparent about usage of public donation money, encroach on lands not meant to be developed, and perform for-profit actions even though they are registered as NGOs. 

One of the main points from all these drama is the need for the government to quickly fix the laws so they can better regulate all organized religions. However, the focus of the media seems to be that since religious organizations try to teach people to be moral, shouldn't they hold themselves with morality higher than what is required by law and provide more transparent declarations of their financial statements? So the media people acted like hounds detecting the scent of wounds and went ahead to tear apart the organizations' flaws, exposing all their amoral activities, treating major and minor flaws with equal fervour in terms of judgement.

Well, internationally, from the Catholic Church, to ISIS, we know that all large religious organizations are composed of human beings, and are therefore bound to have problems despite the moral, well-meaning teachings of all holy books. Seems to be like the only way to fix the problem *is* to pass stricter regulations, because time and time again, it has been shown that self-regulation does NOT work, whether it's the financial sector, business world, scientific field, sports, education, religious field, or the government itself.

An interesting interaction I observed, was a debate between 2 cousins over the above mentioned issue. One of them, who is a member of the Taiwanese religious organization. She is angry and saddened by all the recent public criticisms over her beloved organization, which consists of a group of volunteers for whom she has high respects and with whom she enjoys working and volunteering together.

While I'm happy for her that she finds true happiness and fulfillment in life through volunteering work at the organization, along with a group of like-minded people, it also raises several questions in my mind:

1. Because this organization performs a lot of charity work worldwide, and because it provides a platform for good-hearted people like my cousin, is it okay for the members organization to ignore the acts of tax evasion, donation embezzlement, and other amoral activities, performed by higher management of the this organization in Taiwan?

2.  The volunteer activities that my cousin perform routinely (provide free dental care periodically for the poor), in a way, demonstrates the incompetence of the local government. In other words, if she lived in a country with better social care, like one of the Scandinavian country, then her act of charity would not be needed (ie. the government would pay for her service for those who can't afford it). Would she still feel fulfilled living in such a country, or would she feel at a loss? Because, realistically, the government can provide more comprehensive service coverage than a charity organization can.

I think about it because I feel the Swedes are a bit cold, since they feel that every social issue should be the government's problem, and the Swedish government does try to tackle most of the issues, but of course not with the same kind of fervour as a charity group. I never used to think this way, but recently I begin to feel like volunteering is actually a selfish act, meant to make the volunteer feel better about themselves. Having done many types of volunteer work in Vancouver, I do feel kind of hollow that I cannot easily find an organization to volunteer for in Sweden, since I don't speak the language. Shouldn't I be happy that the people here are so well taken care of? Not exactly. I think I feel happier if I have more opportunity to help out and feel useful.

3. As an outsider observing the news reports and blog articles, there is extremely like something is really wrong with the transparency of this Taiwanese religious organization, since it does not seem to want to be honest with its members or the public. Several of those who criticize the organization have done a lot of research and provide a lot of evidence to back their claims. Many of them are also highly educated and highly accomplished people in law, politics, social service, journalism, etc. Yet the members of this organization seem to repeat the same argument over and over again to defend their organization: our organization has done so much good in this world. How dare you criticize us? How does bringing down our organization serve the world? Does it bring you peace and happiness, or just a wicked sense of satisfaction? 

I'm pretty sure through constant digging of the public, the corruption and unlawful events will be continually dug up for examination by the Taiwanese society. For me, the scarier part is the apparent blindness of the members, that criticizing the unlawful aspects of an organization does not negative all the good it provides for the society, and that more transparency is good for everyone, including the public, the donors, the government, the members, and those who receive help from the organization. One thing that is really wrong is that this organization has brainwashed its members such that no one from within the group has spoken up in agreement about the need for improved transparency.

Another issue that concerns me is that its members seem to think that peace and harmony are more important than truth and transparency. This is, I guess, a central principle of Asian societies that follow Confucius teachings. The individual is not important. The prosperity of the organization, be it family, school, company, religious group, or the nation, is more important than any of the individuals. The teachings are more dogmatic and do not encourage critical thinking. I recall an earlier interaction I had with this cousin about some family issue. Her response was for me to reflect within about myself. I tried to share with her some of my reflections, but it seemed like her message was to keep reflecting; focus on what's wrong with yourself rather than what's wrong with everyone else. Don't just keep complaining about other people. While I partially agree with this type of thinking, I disagree with turning a complete blind eye on the faults of the others.  

Sorry about the super long post. I guess my question is at what point does a virtuous teaching (self-reflection) make you less aware about what's happening around you and how easily can biased teaching make you see the world through very biased lenses? I am of course, also biased by my way of living, my upbringing, my education, and by those around me. Are we all hopelessly biased or does critical thinking still has a place in this world? Why do I have trouble communicating with pretty much every member of my family with attempted reasoning? Maybe in another 10 years I'll be able to put my thoughts into writing that is a bit more digestible by readers. For now please excuse my mental garbage dumping.

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