Thursday, May 06, 2010

There IS common ground with Buddhists and New Atheists and Buddhists and Christians... BUT

An article by one John Thatamanil titled, "Beyond the Theism/Atheism Divide: A Plea for Humility"  was recently published in the Huffington Post.    Prof. Thatamanil works in  "areas of research [which] include comparative theology and theologies of religious pluralism. Specifically, he writes on Hindu-Christian Dialogue and Buddhist-Christian Dialogue."  He's Episcopalian, and while his heart is surely in the right place, his post on atheism/theism is a cautionary tale. 

I do not wish to channel P. Z. Myers in this post, though I find his brand of blog blasphemy somewhat entertaining from time to time, having been on the receiving end of the conservative form of Catholicism in the early years of my life.

I'd like to get a bit more serious.

But Prof. Thatamanil's article begins with...

Too many atheists display the same aggression and smug self-satisfaction that they detest in their fundamentalist rivals. The tragedy is that the crossfire between these groups prevents robust alliances between modest liberal religious communities and humble non-dogmatic atheists on matters of real urgency.
What binds many atheists together is an unshakable conviction that they know everything there is to know about religion, namely that it is irrational bondage to immutable doctrine. No amount of counterevidence can convince such atheists otherwise. What irony! But where do they come by this knowledge about religion? Their expertise seems to be derived by virtue of sheer sentience alone.
By contrast, if a theologian were to broadcast her convictions about molecular or evolutionary biology without some years of careful reading and study, she would be met with jeering laughter and summarily dismissed. Why then are uninformed atheists who have never read in theology exempt from similar derision? Sadly, every pedant believes himself entitled to his unearned convictions about religion.
 I can cite specific members of specific religions with whom I have disagreements.  I don't need to attack  the "many" members of specific groups.  I don't need to attack unnamed straw-men.

Let me put this another way.  If Thatamanil were writting, "Too many black people display the same aggression and smug self-satisfaction that they detest in their white neighbors," that might be bad enough, but he ends his analogous sentence with the word rivals.  Now while it is true that fundamentalist theocrats in the US and the rest of us are in some sort of conflict, specifically a theocratic conflict, that conflict is with fundamentalist theocrats and the rest of us. It is Thatamanil that transmutes this in to the false choice of "insulting, bad, bad atheists versus fundamentalists."

Finally, (that is, my final comments on the first 3 paragraphs of this) I have read Tillich, medieval mystics, Kierkegaard, Kung, Nagarjuna, as well as Sartre.  It's damned patronizing to postulate that someone, especially someone who is already as educationally pedigreed as I am (or any number of others) might somehow find these authors' works beyond them without "professional intervention."
It is, from a Buddhist perspective, hardly "right speech."

Thatamanil writes, "A Christian who compares liberation theology with caste in Hinduism is making an invidious comparison. A similar constraint should apply in conversations between atheists and the religious. Atheists who tar the whole of religion by contrasting the insight of Einstein with the fulminations of fundamentalists are engaged in egregious dialogical malpractice."

Yet, from my understanding of the meaning of invidious, is not Thatamanil living in a glass house? Let me explain: By remaining silent against his fundamentalist theocratic brothers and sisters, and by singling out "Atheists" who contrast naturalist reverence (when accused of having an outlook that is indifferent to the human condition! Oh! He forgot to mention that!) with fundamentalist theocrats foaming at the mouth, what kind of comparison is he making?

We Buddhists do have common ground with pretty much every religion, although I have to take issue with Thatamanil: "Ground of Being" can't really cut it for us, I'm afraid.  Nonduality you see,- mindful nonduality, would require eventually that those things  whose existence is for all intents and purposes  irrelevant should be taken as such in practical affairs.

"Ground of Being" won't cut it for an atheist like Dawkins or Myers for reasons I'm sure he can explain to you, and I have to admit, Ground of Being used to work for me.   But as I have more deeply studied and practiced Buddhism, the more I lean towards an understanding here that while it isn't Dawkins or Myers type of hyper-realism,  it is more towards a phenomenological view (I am kind of a probability guy, after all, not a biologist).  You don't need, after all the mental gymnastics (even the ones I do on this blog) to have much thought about nonduality; otherwise it, too becomes another form of duality.  The world behaves kind of a certain way, as though a mutual apatheism exists between the transcendant and the existent.  And, as the author of the Lankavatara might doesn't always appear that way as well.  But most of the time when you flip the coin it's either heads or tails.  They rarely land on their edge, and still rarer does a bird fly by and swoop up the coin.

Buddha nature pervades the whole universe.  That can be seen without recourse to mumbo-jumbo.
There is "Endless Dimension Universal Life," as far as we can tell; though it may be a slight verbal hyperbole. But not much  And there is also no possibility that a Deity will intervene to save us.

But all of this is ultimately unimportant.  What is important is for us to try to alleviate each others' sufferings and for all of us to transcend ours.  Sorry for the waste of time.


Kobutsu said...

Nontheism = Atheism - without the attitude...

Mumon said...

Yeah. It's hard not to have the attitude but it takes practice.

David said...

This was really informative. I always thought that invidious was what happened when you went to Blockbuster and they didn’t have the movie you wanted. I guess it’s indiskious now. Excellent post. I agree with every word of it. I think.

Anonymous said...

I'm fairly well read in Zen Buddhism, although this isn't my discipline. My teacher has a Phd in Zen Buddhism and I'd guess that if I tried to write a book about Zen based on my limited understanding my teacher could point out, with some justification, that I've missed the point. Reading Dawkins on philosophy and theology could be in the same vein. He doesn't understand religion outside of the straw man of fundamentalism he sets up (all the new atheists authors fall into this trap).

巧生 said...


Mumon said...


I disagree. Significantly. If you'd read, e.g., Sam Harris' "The End of Faith," you'd know that in fact Harris practices meditation.

And as far as Dawkins' religious sensibilities, I'd say if you read his books you can't help but feel an awe properly due to the reaction that we are existing here, now and in this place.