Leaving mythology behind

On Pharyngula blog, PZ Meyers, famous confrontational atheist, scientist, occasional humorist and all round interesting guy discussed Leaving creationism .  I have read much on the atheist bookshelf and find myself in agreement with quite a bit of it. And though the confrontational nature of some of the arguments is often self-defeating in terms of disabusing the populace of mythological notions, the point of view is understandable in an environment of aggressive and even threatening religious fundamentalism or religious corporatism as it is becoming, such as is evinced in the US currently.

As usual his post brought about several hundred comments and he asked people what their experience was. I was going to comment there without discussing my conversion to Buddhism since that tends to bring me a truckload of grief as some seem to think it is their duty to disabuse me of that attachment as well. That is even though they have no idea as to what is involved in Buddhist practice other than worshipping Buddha as a god, something about chi energy and Deepak Chopra as my guru. Attempts to clarify lead to “no true Scotsman” accusations hurled like cabers tumbling across the field during the highland games. Apparently those who know nothing about Buddhism know more than anyone else, including Buddhist scholars practitioners or teachers. So I’m not going to waste my time with those who argue from a position of ignorance. [I’ve picked up a few of the catch phrases too!]

The odd thing is Buddhism is the only religion that ultimately and specifically seeks it’s own annihilation. Leave that raft behind!

It is not hard to realize where the inclusion of non-theistic religious practice all comes from. In the same post Meyers writes:

Encountering fundamentalism was the trigger that woke me up to the follies and fallacies of creationism, but it also made the conscious blindness of less toxic religions obvious. Over and over again, I have witnessed the silence of the churches. Over and over again, a creationist rides into town, spouts his lies and nonsense, and who rebuts them? Usually, only the atheists. Even the liberal church congregations sit quietly, many of their members even attend these talks with muted assent, and the general attitude even from sects that don’t demand adherence to beliefs in a young earth is…let them abide. [emphasis mine]

Meyers is not discussing less toxic religions but non-fundamentalist Christianity into which he is throwing every other expression of religious sentiment whether it fits that mold or not. This comes from sloppy definitions of religion. Many posit definitions based on a specific case, usually one of the Abrahamic religions and attempt to apply those characteristics to other forms of religious endeavor. It is rather like a mistaken classification in biology. If we base our definitions of mammals on the case of the dog then quite a few mammals would be either disqualified on that categorization (and become philosophies rather than dogs?!) or the mental gymnastics required to include them renders the thinking rather distorted hence my apparent, though by no means empirically verifiable linkage with crystals or whatever blessed by Deepak Chopra, who I too regard as a pseudo-mystic woo monger. What is needed is a clear inclusive view of what comprises religious activity. And then we can get into specifics. But generalizing from the specific is…irrational. Fortunately the social sciences, as despised as they also are by numerous of the Meyers minions, has provided many descriptive frameworks from which we can work. [I’ll bring all of that into another post some time]

Later he includes:

I often hear the argument that not only is creationism bad science, it is bad theology. I don’t accept that argument at all. In part, it’s because all theology is bad, and if we’re going to start winnowing out particular religious beliefs on the basis of their nonsensical nature, we can’t stop with Genesis literalism — Jesus and Mohammed and Vishnu are all going to have to go, no matter how socially progressive their advocates might be. And it’s also because I see all those churches, each with their brand of theology, all almost entirely silent on the theological errors of their neighbors. Bad theology apparently doesn’t matter that much.

“…all theology is bad… “ is quite a belief statement. I’ll save that for another time too. It will relate to history, psychological needs and anthropology at the very least.

The inclusion of Hinduism is a bit odd though perfectly in keeping with the anti-theological argument I suppose. I’ve not encountered Hindus advocating against evolution, scientific method or rational thought. But like anywhere I suppose there are those who could wrest that kind of viewpoint out of Hindu doctrine. The ability of science to co-exist in a worldview shaped by Hindu religion is not an impossibility as it would be for many Christians. Consider how many of Indian Hindu origin have won Nobel or other prestigious prizes in science. (Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar for astrophysics, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan for chemistry, C. V. Raman for physics and so on-there’s a lot of prize winners especially in medicine). There are far more government awards given out in India for science, medicine and technology than for any other category except perhaps literature, which has produced quite a number of its own prize winners. The Padma Shri, which is the highest of these honors, for example over the past several decades illustrates this. Here are the listings for 1990-1999, 2000-2009, 2010-2019 There are no awards for religious propagation, purity or anything even vaguely related.

imageEven as I look through the rupee notes in my wallet (10, 20, 50, 100, 500 notes) there is no mention of any kind of God, religion or spiritual item. There are pictures of Gandhi on the face of all of them and on the backs there are landscapes, tigers, elephants, parliament and on the new 1000 rupee note are images of technological progress such as broadcast towers, computers and satellites. I only bring this up as a comparative to the “In God We Trust” that is placed on every piece of American money. The overt externalization of religious expression belies the transcendental nature of the god figure in Abrahamic based societies.

Here’s where I really get accused of being a religious apologist or proselytizer even though what I am doing is descriptive and analytical. Not all religions maintain the same kind of world view. One of the principle differences, relates to the concepts of transcendental and immanent divinity. Transcendental divinity is a hallmark of the Abrahamic religions. Some kind of divine figure is “out there”. That character is omniscient, omnipotent, unknowable and eternal. Expressions of religion are principally externalized and are reinforced by social contract outlined in a legalistic manner in doctrines. Validations of believer status rest upon participation, that is demonstration of belief before witnesses (ie confession, baptism, church attendance). There is directly no approaching the divine except by some form of gnosis, which is often castigated, dismissed or even persecuted from within the religion itself.

The immanent viewpoint on the other hand sees this world as divine in itself, or the divine intermingled though not necessarily recognized as such (ie the figure of Krishna advising Agarjuna in Bhagavad Gita) not necessarily omniscient (there’s some things even “gods” don’t know) or omnipotent (there’s some things even gods can’t do just by force of will-ie events in the Ramayana) but still fixedly eternal, albeit cyclical in its renewal (the concept of kalpas). Expressions are internalized and individual. Gnosis is implicit.  When expressions take external form such as in ritual, social inclusion as a believer is not contingent upon participation, though many participate willingly. Even those who evince no external religious behavior are not excluded.

In the first instance religious expression is an attempt to placate some external, and to re-internalize that by such methods as imbibing (ie communion) the divine. I always find this confusing since careful reading of the doctrines originally imbued the individual with immanent divinity (see the book of Genesis) as the God figure breathed life into the human being. This notion of separation has developed into a thoroughly externalized focus for belief. [Religion as a mechanism of social control certainly takes advantage of this, particularly by way of intermediaries (ie Pope, evangelical faith healers etc)-but that too is another post]

As an aside this is one of the major differences I see between expressions of Buddhist practice in Asia and in the convert Buddhist community of North America. The insistence upon the external, often balloons into both materialism and spiritual materialism as a cultural manifestation of previous and current surrounding Abrahamic belief based culture. This is what Buddhism in the “West” is being forced into. One who practices at home, or goes to a temple alone, as many do in Asia, is making an invalid expression. Perhaps this is one of the many roots of the cultural need to demean Asian Buddhism by insisting on terminology related to “modernization” or those who exhibit their own petty Messianic complexes as reformers or reframers of “obsolete” practices. What is really meant is that unless and until dominance can be achieved of this Eastern system of thought by mechanisms of externalization such as appear in Abrahamic religions it cannot be taken with seriousness.

The remaking of practice, and in some cases belief, in the form of Abrahamic templates.

It’s all part of the same process of cultural imperialism and rigidly framed experiential references as those of some of Dr. Meyers followers, and occasionally of Dr. Meyers himself.

Further that if one is not vigorously demonstrating their belief system in any of these circumstances and particularly in the Buddhist context via attachment to a teacher, center or through retreats, meetings and so forth then one isn’t really working at it therefore one is not a real Buddhist. Think Protestant work ethic injected into Buddhist practice. Atheists too now have conferences and other forums for demonstration of belief. Interesting.

That rigid framework of strict dichotomy which admits no grey areas is common to both the contentious Atheist position and to much Buddhist convert practice. Certainly it’s relevant to Abrahamic practices.

Back to the issue of the definition of religion, the differences between the transcendent and the immanent and the evolution of thought which occurred with the development of Buddhism.

The Buddhist viewpoint takes the ideas of divine even further and sees even any eternal construction as temporary, impermanent and ever changing. Not that Buddhists waste much time on pondering these sorts of questions to begin with. Such things as origins, transcendental destinations or worlds, eternalism and so forth are not particularly relevant to the ontological objectives of Buddhism. Wasting a lot of time chasing that which is essentially unknowable is not the wisest course. They are in some instances though relevant to practice but in ways that are too complicated to explain in this post which has gone one already much longer than I had anticipated.

I don’t want to get into a whole refutation of certain Atheist (yes the capitalization is deliberate) positions vis-à-vis Buddhism at present, though at some point I may do this. Nor the rest of the external/internal discussion. There is just too much to be said.

So returning to the original purpose of this post…the moments of realization that creationism was also a mythology. This is the comment I was going to leave.

As a small child I’d go with my father, the same father who sent me to Sunday school, and hunt for arrowheads on my grandmother’s farm. Some of them were purported to be over 10,000 years old. It struck me that if people existed before the 5 or 6,000 years postulated by the Sunday school teachers, and I had the evidence in my hand, somebody wasn’t being truthful. Perhaps that was my father’s point and the Sunday school was to satisfy some kind of social conformism. Years later he stopped church, after his mother died, and recently, on his 80th birthday he said, "Suppose there is no heaven." We discussed. At length. I am not a Christian or theist. Some of us come to the logical conclusions earlier than others.