Wednesday, October 26, 2011

And something about New Atheists...

Danny Fisher gets to interview Stephen Batchelor, who comments on the so-called "New Atheists"...

I think in some respects the militancy of their atheist rhetoric has obscured a rather more nuanced attitude to questions of religious experience that comes through elsewhere in their writings. The problem with emphasizing the word “atheist” is that it paradoxically keeps one in thrall to the language of theism. The Buddha was certainly an atheist in the literal sense, i.e. there is no need to speak of God (or any of His surrogates, e.g. Truth) to understand or practice the Dharma, but he has no need to rant against the Deity.  On the few occasions in the suttas where he does address the question of God, he simply makes fun of the idea and moves on.  I consider him to be an ironic atheist.  Buddhists can nonetheless learn from the new (and old) atheists to be more alert to the subtle (and less subtle) ways in which theistic ideas have often infiltrated Buddhist teachings under different guises. I have noticed how terms such as the “Unconditioned,” the “Deathless,” and even “Buddhanature” are often interpreted in a quasi-theistic way.  I find the uncritical enthusiasm for Advaita Vedanta among some Western Buddhists equally alarming in this regard too.

On the other hand, I feel that Buddhism could offer the new atheists a way of life that provides both a coherent philosophy and meditative discipline which might help them realize fully their spiritual and religious longings without any need at all to use theistic language.

 Well, "alarming" is not a word I would use,  regarding enthusiasm for Advaita Vedanta, but yeah, of course"atheism" puts a question in an opposite position to theism.

But this position of Batchelor's: beyond magical thinking, is close to my view, though I think the other thing we Buddhists offer the world is a more practical down to earth take on non-duality.  It's a very useful thing in day-to-day living for me.

It's a nice encapsulation of why I find the uproar regarding New Atheists a bit unjustified from the Buddhist community.   If your way can't stand up to these guys, check your way; it might be these guys have a point, or that you are still somewhere in thrall to theistic concepts. 


Petteri Sulonen said...


The flip side of the coin is, though, that most New Atheists I've come across aren't interested in discussing anything Buddhism-related to start with. They simply dismiss it as yet another form of superstitious pap. And if you keep bringing it up, they will stomp on you.

This often also applies to what ought to be relatively uncontroversial stuff, such as the possible health benefits of meditation. PZ Myers recently cudgeled mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy, for example.

IOW, as far as I'm concerned, there's not much point in discussing Buddhism with (most) New Atheists. It only irritates them, and they're not interested in doing the work to understand what the discussion is about. Buddhist philosophy isn't trivial, and most of the New Atheist critiques of it aren't very well informed IMO. Like someone critiquing Marx without understanding his theory of value, or what he meant by dialectical materialism.

There are exceptions, natch. One of the regulars at my zendo is a very public New Atheist, for example. He likes to wear antireligious T-shirts and stuff. He's a bit of a bastard, but I like him.

Mumon said...


True enough. When it's pointed out that, yeah, Buddhism is a religion, the standard response is, "Yeah, but I don't mean your kind of religion."

Unfortunately, even in Buddhism, there's enough superstitious pap to cherry pick as well as aspects of it subject to abuse by the narcissist.

But you're also dead on about Buddhist philosophy - I (perhaps because I'm a Westerner by upbringing & culture, but I'm not completely sold on that point) ...I ...can't see how a reasonably open-minded person can read the Lotus Sutra, or similar text, and not after awhile get the impression that it's not by any means to be taken literally. It simply doesn't read that way to me - it points beyond itself at every point.

Myers, of course, would do well to practice stress reduction, but I generally like him.

J said...

The Buddha was certainly an atheist in the literal sense

That may be a possible reading,but not the only one, and not the traditional reading. There is a passage an early text (Dhpd?) where Bdh. (often responding to hindu clerics) says something like not make proclamations of whether...Brahma exists, or doesn't exist. But there can be no doubt that he is not a materialist--Mind exists, in some fashion, whether that offends the Herr Doktor Darwins or not (like PZ Huxley Myers, Harris, Bachelor, et al) . Yet the early pali texts rarely feature the bizarre supernatural events that the mahayana texts do (ie the Lotus sutra, for example).