14 January 2011

Buddhist Atheism and Darwin

Since being contacted by Ted Meissner of The Secular Buddhist podcast for an interview (an enjoyable experience), I've been taking more interest in the theme of non-religious Buddhism as an adaptation of Buddhism to Western Culture. I've watched a Stephen Batchelor video on YouTube, and read various articles. Batchelor is a voice of reason and I appreciate his contribution. At the same time I've discovered that I very much enjoy Richard Dawkins' polemical approach to religion.

Not long ago I changed my strap-line for this blog to "Western Buddhism... the Buddhist Enlightenment colliding with the European Enlightenment" which reflects my growing interest in how we adapt Buddhism to Western culture in a way that honours both. Though now a Buddhist and writer, I grew up secular and focussed by education on science. I have a B.Sc in chemistry from Waikato University, NZ. However, during my studies I realised that a detailed knowledge of the theory and practice of science was not enough. I was still largely unhappy, even depressed, most of the time, despite getting good grades in my chemistry classes. I did some shopping around before becoming a Buddhist and joining in with the Triratna Community. Buddhism seemed to offer what I was missing, and a large part of that was a community of people with coherent, well articulated, but also lived values. I found at the Auckland Buddhist Centre back in 1994.

In this post I want to look at one kind of rhetoric used by religions adapting to new cultural surroundings, and contrast that with how Charles Darwin changed the Christian Church forever. In the Hindu tradition there is a popular narrative about Gautama the Wake. He was in fact the ninth avatara of Viṣṇu, and he manifested in order to stop Hindu's from carrying out animal sacrifices, to reform the Hindu class system so as to allow the śudra class to be liberated. Hindu's therefore see Gautama the Wake as a reformer from within. I have met people, both in the West and in India, who hold this view in all seriousness and who tried to convince me of it. Of course no Buddhist takes this seriously. The lie is so great and so bold that we hardly know where to begin to refute it. However the avatara story is not rhetoric intended to convince Buddhists that really they are Hindus. No, the rhetoric has a primarily internal audience. This is a story that is mainly told by Hindus for Hindus.

Buddhists have used precisely this tactic. I've already pointed out that despite the efforts of many scholars (with K. R. Norman and Richard Gombrich at the forefront) to find parallels and echoes of the Upaniṣads in early Buddhist texts, that the early Buddhist portrayal of Brahmins suggests a slim and superficial knowledge - a second-hand caricature - rather than a true critique (See especially Early Buddhism and Ātman/Brahman). It might make sense to see the Buddhist critique of Brahmins as similarly intended for an internal audience, especially in light of the historical failure to convince many Brahmins. Later on we see other aspects of Indian religion being absorbed by Buddhists: Sarasvatī and Śrī in the Golden Light Sūtra; Śiva in the Karaṇḍavyūha Sūtra, and again in the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha where Śiva is converted to Buddhism and becomes a dharmapāla (often the form of Mahākāla). Indeed if you look at the periphery of the early Tantric Buddhist maṇḍalas you will find all manner of deities from the Vedas and Pūraṇas, some of whom like the ḍākiṇī who go on to become quintessentially Buddhist! So Buddhists have long employed this same kind of rhetoric, critiquing other religions for an internal audience. I think it helps to strengthen group coherence, and faith in one's chosen path, especially perhaps under adverse circumstances.

I've noticed this same tactic on the Secular Buddhist Facebook page where there is a running critique of traditional Buddhism in terms of what it gets wrong: basically traditional Buddhism contains some superstition and some untestable metaphysical beliefs, such as, and perhaps especially, a belief in karma & rebirth. In my Secular Buddhist interview, Ted and I talked about rebirth & karma and the difficulties they pose for contemporary Buddhists. I am personally very sceptical about rebirth (see Rebirth and the Scientific Method), but I have argued that a belief in karma linked with rebirth might have pragmatic value when seen in the right light as a motivation to be ethical (see Hierarchies of Values). Mind you, I see beliefs per se as rather secondary to practical matters - what motivates someone to be ethical is less important than the fact that they are ethical. Motivations get refined by practice.

Buddhist Atheists, or secular Buddhists, or whatever we call them, have a problem not unlike the problem of 'Christian Atheists' (people whose belief system is defined by not believing in the Christian God). I suppose most Christian Atheists would claim that they don't believe in any god, but the fact is that the most of the public dialogue revolves around the existence or non-existence of the Christian God. Christians still set the agenda. One of the things I see as vitally important for modern discourse (over which I have almost no influence; but, hey, everyone has an opinion) is that we who are atheists need to find some positive content and start talking about incessantly. We need to stop defining ourselves in terms of what we do not believe, in terms of opposition to the mainstream. God is irrelevant.

One of the reasons that Charles Darwin has been so successful is that he did not set out to criticise the Church or its members. He set out to observe nature, and presented positive evidence of what he found. He did not invent the evolution meme, but he decisively showed that it was the über-meme of biology. Of course it had massive theological implications, but he more or less left it to the Church to work them out. Ironically the Darwin Correspondence Project draws out the fact that Darwin had not intended to attack church doctrine:
"But Darwin was very reticent about his personal beliefs, and reluctant to pronounce on matters of belief for others. His published writings are particularly reserved or altogether silent on religion." - What Did Darwin Believe?
Darwin is a model for anyone who thinks a paradigm needs overturning. He didn't, as far as I know, complain about the lack of a level playing field, or the lack of political influence amongst the intelligentsia (as Richard Dawkins does in his 2007 TED presentation); and he did not directly attack church doctrine - he didn't need to. Though we still argue about implications of his finding, we cannot ignore them. Darwin destroyed the church doctrine of creation by merely presenting his evidence to the Royal Society and the world.

In a sense I'm not interested in reading that traditional Buddhism is getting it all wrong. I agree that an Iron Age tradition, whose most recent innovations are medieval, is unlikely to sit well in our Information Age. It's a given that ancient traditions are failing to live up to the present situation, because we who live in these times, who invented these times, can barely understand and cope with them. On the other hand traditional Buddhism clearly helps many people to lead more meaningful and fulfilling and ethical lives - just as Christianity still appeals to many good people.

On the other hand the idea that Buddhism is inherently in tune with a scientific worldview is not true either - it is rooted in old-world ideas that no longer make sense. Many of those responsible for presenting Buddhism to the Western audience since the 19th century have been passionate about the European Enlightenment rationalist legacy, and they have edited Buddhism to suit Western tastes. Aspects of Buddhism distasteful to the Western mind are often simply left out, glossed over, or explained away; and it's not until a closer association that we find that they are indubitably and perhaps indelibly present. It's not necessarily an intention to deceive, more like a strategy to attract people with what we already know attracts them, but to some extent it is a deception. One consequence is that some Buddhists still claim that the historical Buddha did not believe in any gods, but our own scriptures show him, on almost every page, conversing with gods from various religions. If he did not believe in gods, then who was he talking to?

What I want to see is evidence that leads to conclusions that change the way we think about life in general, from which we can work out the implications for Buddhism. I don't see this coming from Cosmology or Quantum Mechanics or any branch of physics. I think the parallels drawn to these disciplines are either prosaic or spurious. Probably we will find interesting results from ecologists, and evolutionary biologists - especially the followers of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, and if I had more time I would go back to Lovelock, and read Margulis (who argues that symbiosis and cooperation are more important drivers of evolution than specialisation and competition). For my money I think we will find compelling evidence to change the way we Buddhists think in the work of neuroscientists such as Oliver Sacks, Antonio Demasio, V. S. Ramachandran, Joseph LeDoux; and their colleagues such as Thomas Metzinger (philosopher), and Martin Seligman (psychologist). I had not read anything in this area for some years, but have been working through Metzingers's recent book The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. It's not always a joy to read, but the book has some very interesting things to say (more to come on Metzinger!). Clearly those who study consciousness and the mind are much closer to our interests than those who study matter.

Rather than railing against rebirth, karma, or any traditional beliefs (which I think will convert very few people) we would be better off to focus on talking about the implications neuroscience research. One fascinating instance of this is the unfolding discovery of just how intimately connected are consciousness and the brain - this area of study is surging ahead at the moment. The conclusion that mind and brain are inseparable seems increasingly obvious; and the idea of disembodied consciousness increasingly unlikely. I predict that actual rebirth won't survive as a viable meme for much longer except in marginal, fundamentalist sects. However symbolic rebirth as a myth (in the Joseph Campbell sense) may well continue to inform our lives. And we will understand the difference more clearly. The challenge will be presenting what is in fact a highly technical body of knowledge to a readership already overwhelmed by information, with a decreasing attention span, and not trained in the kinds of thinking required to truly grasp the implication of science.

The Darwinian approach of presenting a mass of positive evidence and allowing people to come to their own conclusions can change the world. Although an oppositional rhetoric (as described above) for an internal audience must have some value (or it would not survive), it won't reach beyond the borders of the converted - it is not useful for proselytising. In order to make changes in society, even in Buddhist society, one has to be clear that there is a better alternative, and I'm not sure that Buddhist atheists (or perhaps anyone who identifies with the label atheist) have found what that is yet - they know what they're against, but not what they are for. Or at least what they are for is actually part of the background of modern life (secularism, rationalism, materialism etc).
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