Saturday, May 29, 2010

A bit of back and forth with "New Atheists"

I do regularly visit P.Z. Myers' blog, as anyone who reads my blog regularly knows.  My thinking largely parallels Petteri's thinking on this.  Regarding the New Atheists, and with great thanks to Petteri for thinking about this in the first place, I  part company on with New Atheists on the following:

a)Whether Buddhism is a religion : I say it is.

b) Whether religion is a net negative: I do admit there's an awful lot of evidence against the big monotheistic ones, but for the same reasons I say Buddhism is a religion - it's a set of skills one hones and said skill honing - I'd have to vote in favor of a net positive

c) Whether people are fundamentally rational: I think it's quack science to suggest this; I don't think the neuroscience supports this.  Furthermore, anyone who's pondered their place in existence either has to accept the extreme singularity (and hence the apparent absurdity) of their predicament, or they choose to invent a religious narrative that wishes this away.  I'd include "people are fundamentally rational" in the latter category; though, and Buddhism in the former category. 

d) Whether religion is nothing more or less than a set of (flawed) propositions and behaviors accepted on faith: I would say this is to some extent true in Buddhism at first, but the honing of skills takes a bit of the scientific method as applied to one's self.



Petteri adds this one bit here, by the way:


The world ends at Wittgenstein 7. If something can't be defined or verified, it's as good as non-existent and therefore not worth talking about.


Now I do have to point out that Wittgenstein didn't actually say what Petteri says, but I think he is accurately characterizing much New Atheist thought.  Wittgenstein's "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" is as much an admission of the existence of the mystical as it is for the phenomenological.  I, myself, lean toward the phenomenological (sort of in this sense).  Whether or not, though there is something beyond in the realm of where one cannot speak, if we cannot speak of it for all intents and purposes, one can neither assert nor deny; the nonexistence of god is ultimately as relevant as its existence.  We Zen Buddhists go one step further (in both Rinzai and Soto traditions); we know there are some things whereof one cannot speak, and they do not necessarily fit into categories of "natural" and "metaphysical."   And furthermore, we seek to observe, express, and embody these things and natural things and all logical combinations thereof in a non-dualistic manner. 

Naturalists, it would seem to me, literally don't play much tennis or swimming, 'cause you can't do those activities and not be doing some kind of non-dualism.  And yeah, yeah, yeah, you don't need a "religion" to do those activities well.  But then again what we're talking about here is various deconstructions of the term "religion," and Southern Baptists have one preferred meaning, New Atheists have another, and this Buddhist ex-Catholic has sort of jury rigged his own, and freely admits your mileage may vary.

Anyway, that was a long but overdue digression.  Yesterday P.Z. Myers finally got around to a blog entry that went over that saccharine op-ed from the Dalai Lama.  I'd mentioned this article here. So anyway, I commented on Myers' blog:

I was wondering when you'd get to the Dalai Lama. Regular readers to my blog know that although I'm a Buddhist, I tend to be very critical of the Dalai Lama.
It tends to get me in trouble with certain other Buddhist bloggers.
I have differences with you folk in that you'd call my religion as I do it a philosophy, whereas I call it a religion because it has elements of the cultivation of skills (which most religions admittedly lack, but which pretty much all philosophies definitely lack).
But the Dalai Lama is problematic, as well as the holder of some quite large conflicts of interest.



Somebody replied, and I noted that it is the skill of using breath and mindfulness (and I could have  added actions, behavior, etc.) that makes Buddhism the religion that it is. Eventually that person wrote:

My objection is more along the lines that your use of the word "religion" strains against the common usage of the term in the English language and (at first blush) smacks of sophistry. It renders the term even more meaningless than it already is, and muddies up the water instead of making it clearer.
Note that the fact that it helps you to be mindful and breathe doesn't make it a religion. The cultivation of skills is, by your own admission, not a necessary condition of religion, and so it cannot possibly make the difference between Buddhism being a philosophy and a religion. That's the other element of my objection (and why I made the comment about logical consistency).
None of this should be read as a criticism of Buddhism in general or your particular flavor; the latter especially seems pretty reasonable to me.

I do think there is much common ground with everyone, and although we might quibble on what's a religion and what's not a religion, we should be able to live with each other, whether fundamentalist or New Atheist.   I think it's amazing how little interaction there is with  Western Buddhists in the blogosphere and other religions in general, or atheists, given the fact that we're a minority, and our practice is in the midst of these other belief/non-belief systems.






269 comments:

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Petteri Sulonen said...

Whoa, cool! Somebody reads me! :D

I think the whole "is X a religion" thing is very much about semantics. JemyM on my blog pointed out that the word "religion" is, in and of itself, problematic, because it's so laden with connotations and is used to denote such a huge variety of things in a huge variety of contexts. IOW, I don't really see all that much point in debating the issue, even if I can't resist diving into it myself.

(Re Wittgenstein, you're right, of course, and I didn't express myself very well there. I intended that phrase to mean that for the New Atheists, the world ends at Wittgenstein 7, unlike for Wittgenstein himself. Thanks for pointing it out. Although it was probably unnecessary to drag in the good Austrian in the first place...)

Mumon said...

Petteri

Thanks. I think you're probably right about the whole debate about X = a religion, but Buddhism is kind of uniquely in the cross-hairs of that debate, with folks all over the map telling us whether or not we practice a religion. Everyone's mileage varies here.

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