Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Response to Christopher Hitchens

He may be a rabid drunken warmonger, but his criticisms of religion are biting.

[I]t is his own supposedly kindly religion that prevents him from seeing how insulting is the latent suggestion of his position: the appalling insinuation that I would not know right from wrong if I was not supernaturally guided by a celestial dictatorship, which could read and condemn my thoughts and which could also consign me to eternal worshipful bliss (a somewhat hellish idea) or to an actual hell.

Implicit in this ancient chestnut of an argument is the further -- and equally disagreeable -- self-satisfaction that simply assumes, whether or not religion is metaphysically "true," that at least it stands for morality. Those of us who disbelieve in the heavenly dictatorship also reject many of its immoral teachings, which have at different times included the slaughter of other "tribes," the enslavement of the survivors, the mutilation of the genitalia of children, the burning of witches, the condemnation of sexual "deviants" and the eating of certain foods, the opposition to innovations in science and medicine, the mad doctrine of predestination, the deranged accusation against all Jews of the crime of "deicide," the absurdity of "Limbo," the horror of suicide-bombing and jihad, and the ethically dubious notion of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice...

Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first -- I have been asking it for some time -- awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.

It is indeed true, from a Buddhist perspective, that one could practice the 8-fold path, one could develop and cultivate skillful action, one could develop mindfulness without recourse to Buddha, Dharma or Sangha - although it is quite helpful, I'd say, that such a person would have to be in a like-minded community of practitioners, for encouragement, and for the feedback that being in such a community gives. Though I'd admit the potential existence of non-Buddhist hermits...

But then, such a community would be a Buddhist community in all but name, and Buddhism doesn't rely on the name or a particular Buddha for its practice. Its practice is realized when one individual does the practice, not when he takes the 3 refuges.