Killing The Buddha

Killing The Buddha is a recent Sam Harris blog post. I generally agree with what Sam is saying in this post [Buddhism would benefit from taking out the irrational elements] but can’t help thinking that criticizing religions is too narrow and somewhat misses the point of the difficulty he is referring to – superstition, blind belief etc.

I think this tendency to beliefs and superstitions must be something in people rather than religions. I can talk to a person in a way I can’t talk to a religion. I think the same irrationality might be also attributed to an atheist or a scientist if they we’re being doctrinal or dogmatic.

I’m just not sure that it’s helpful to think in terms of religions rather than individual people [as if the religion was imposing something on the people, rather than – what I take to be more realistic – that religions are made up of people].

What do you think?

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  1. Winton Higgins
    Posted September 4, 2014 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    One of the many problems with the so-called new atheists (who are really just warmed up 19th century materialists) is that they see religions as mere belief systems. The classical sociologist Emile Durkheim explained that they’re in fact primarily cultural practices in aid of reinforcing faith communities, and often thereafter wider political groupings. Like all communities (from nations to rugby clubs), they thrive on myths and rituals, and have a nasty habit of going tribal, hence the ubiquity of religious violence. This is not a problem specific to religions, but a general problem that arises when humans flock together and form a group ego.

    These days the leading edge of Christianity (historically one of the most violent religions) has taken to interpreting its myths ironically, or symbolically, or abandoning them altogether, and treating their faith as an ethical path, just as its founder intended. Such people do a lot of good in the world.

    Let’s not get our knickers in a twist about ‘irrationality’. Practice comes before beliefs; it’s often hard to tell what sort of truth-claims people act on rather than just pay lip service to, or enjoy revisiting at Christmas time. The label ‘irrationality’ is typically the weapon of scientistic dogmatists still enmired in metaphysical truths, people who haven’t yet turned the corner into post-metaphysical thought, such as phenomenology.

    I’m struck by this school’s popularity among the leading edges of both Buddhism and the Judeo-Christian world. The Buddha could make a strong case for being the world’s first post-metaphysical thinker and the pioneer of phenomenology, even if that claim would amaze most of his current worshippers worldwide, as well as drastically reduce material support for monastic institutions.

  2. Tony Reardon
    Posted September 5, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    You’ve caught me out being simplistic in the attempt to ‘keep it simple’ but I think I’ll just let that stand as it is.

    What really interested me was the question of whether humans in general have a built in inclination towards non-critical acceptance of their emotional impulses – as opposed to the more difficult work of self-responsibly attempting to work things out for themselves.

    I do think that human beings, as a whole, are programmed by nature [probably for diverse survival reasons] to over-identify with with their emotional impulses as personal as if they actually choose their thoughts and feelings.

  3. Winton Higgins
    Posted September 6, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I think ‘impulses’ is an unhelpfully general term. In dharmic terms we can either fall into reactivity (in the form of craving, aversion or delusion, or a combination thereof), or we can respond out of care (or one of its derivatives, such as friendliness, compassion or sympathetic joy).

    Reactive patterns are probably hangovers of evolutionary factors that served the species well in pre-historic times in the battle for survival, but serve us ill now – hence the dharmic condemnation of them. Some care responses may also be evolutionary factors, but dharma practice builds character around them. In which case they may be just as ‘impulsive’, but skilfully so.

    So one can act skilfully without ‘working things out for ourselves’. Again, there’s an over-reliance on rationality at work here, a blind belief that rationality will automatically make us good. An historical counter-example: intellectuals were hardly ever rescuers (a very dangerous activity) during the Holocaust; the actual rescuers responded out of impulse. As Pierre Sauvage summed it up: ‘Those who thought didn’t act, and those who acted didn’t think.’

    • Tony Reardon
      Posted September 6, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      mmmmm, I think you’ve read “over-reliance on rational” into what I wrote I can’t find it in my words.

      By “working things out for ourselves” I meant ‘not swallowed whole from others’, ‘being self-responsible’. This seems to me a more obvious reading of my words than ideas of “over-reliance on rational [I’m also skeptical of too much rational] – but I guess not for you.

      Putting a different word in for impulse is fine by me.

      Researcher Paul Ekman says, “one of the factors that’s most troublesome for our emotional lives is the fact that the evaluation process that triggers an emotion and gives rise to the impulse for action is often extremely fast and complex and is impenetrable by consciousness.”

      I think this makes for very powerful, automatically operating programming and part of that programming seems to be for the emotions to be identified with and believed as personal.

  4. Carol Smith
    Posted September 14, 2014 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Hi Tony!
    I liked Sam’s post too, and I agree with what he said as well.
    You do raise an interesting point about human beings and our irrational tendencies – yes I think it is part of the human condition to believe weird stuff, and irrational beliefs don’t need a religion to exist in someone – I once met a staunch atheist who said she was incredibly superstitious. However, religions provide a vector (in the epidemiological sense) for belief, and are therefore – a worry.
    Thank god (‘scuze the pun) for the New Atheists, such as Sam Harris, Dawkins, the late Hitchens and their ilk, the world is in desperate need of them at the moment.
    I think you are quite right as well, in thinking that people identify with their emotional impulses without thinking about things – for many, I don’t think they even know they can choose how to ‘be’, or they blame others for ‘making’ them angry upset or whatever.

    • Tony Reardon
      Posted September 14, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Thanks Carol

      Sam Harris does articulate something of an extreme in the secular buddhist orbit but it is that which i value in my ongoing attempt to understand myself.

      I hadn’t understood until i read Sam’s blog piece that i have been afraid to criticize religions.

      It isn’t so much that i feel a need to exercise that criticism as that i don’t want to live [almost] any aspect of my life from fear.

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