Gene Expression

Buddhism, a religion or not?

The comments for the post where I imply that Sam Harris is a religiously inclined individual addressed the topic of whether Buddhism is a religion or not. This is a common issue, and I tend to cause some irritation whenever I declare that Buddhism is a theistic religion, because that’s not what you would read in books (or, Wikipedia). I’m generally a big fan of what books have to say, and defer to scholars in areas that I’m not familiar with, but, I’ve really come to the point where I simply don’t think that Religious Studies really adds enough intellectual value for me. Christians believe in the Trinity, Buddhists reject a Creator God, Hindus believe in reincarnation, etc. etc. But what does this really mean on the human level? Because I don’t really believe that supernatural belief systems have any reality outside of the minds of human beings. They are cognitive representations, nothing less, nothing more.

A little book titled Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t, lays out most of the issues that I find of interest and curious about modal religious belief. The biggest one is that religious people don’t really take their axioms of belief and embed them into a chain of inferences guided by propositional logic. That is, secularists are always wondering why religious people who “believe” x nevertheless behave in ways 1…∞” that seem to contradict their avowed beliefs. For example, when I read about Saudi men gang-raping a woman and videotaping it, when they believe in a just and merciful God that is observing this, one has to wonder what’s going on in the human mind? Religious people regularly engage in this sort of psychology as well, “x couldn’t have been committed by Muslims, because Muslims don’t, by definition, do such things.” Or, “y wasn’t a real Christian, because if you really believed in God you wouldn’t behave in such a manner.” I’ve even seen strange definitions like “de facto atheists” for people who avow a belief in a divine entity but behave in an amoral fashion. Now isn’t that charming?

The reality is conditioned by the fact that our minds aren’t the rational cognition engines we assume (or, some assume). I won’t review the cognitive psychology of it, in part because I have to rely on real experts for the details anyhow, but the contradictory and fragmented nature of our minds is just a function of the fact that cognition doesn’t operate as a unitary process. Mental function 1 does not necessarily check notes with mental function 2. This means that mental function 1 can sincerely result in the avowal of a belief in an axiom which mental function 2 is totally unaware of (and promiscuously violates). Of course, I’m not implying that the functions are totally encapsulated, otherwise, we wouldn’t be aware of “conflicts” in our thought process as we weigh various impulses against each other in the cost vs. benefit calculus, but you get the picture.

Back to the specific issue of Buddhism. In our conventional narratives Buddhism is presented in a variety of ways. Among forward thinking secularists it is often assumed to not be a religion, rather, it is a metaphysical philosophy of a sort which compares favorably to the superstition of Western faiths. There is of course the small problem that omnipresent “folk” Buddhism is essentially a theistic bundle of superstitions. The response is predictable: folk Buddhism is “debased,” it is not “true Buddhism,” whose strictures are clearly defined in the canons, or elegantly expressed in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, and the life of the Buddha. Before the popularity of the Dalai Lama Tibetan Buddhism was often considered a debased form of Buddhism precisely because of its strong theistic tinge. In general, Mahayana, the form of Buddhism which relies on god-like Bhodisatvas playing the role of saviors, was considered further from the pure original Buddhism than the Therevada, who held more closely to the original individual-centered salvationary path dictated by the Buddha.

I have major reservations with this narrative. The main issue is that this is elite-centered, insofar as the vast majority of believing Buddhists are only minimally familiar with the canons. The philosophical literate tradition is the reserve of religious professionals, and I do not believe that religious professionals should be the measure of all things when it comes to religion, because they have their own interests and conflicts which can be confounded with the religion as a whole. For example, whatever divide there might be between Mahayana and Therevada forms of Buddhism, I believe that the religiosity of the two traditions on the ground is rather similar. The existence of both Therevada and Mahayana mass movements in Vietnam attest to this. In Theological Incorrectness cognitive anthropologist D. Jason Slone examines Therevada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, a nation where this faith is assumed to be the “most pure.” Slone’s fieldwork and documentary research led to two major conclusions in regards to Buddhism in Sri Lanka

1) The non-theistic philosophical religion promoted by the elites had little but notional connection with the day to day conventional theism of the vast majority of Sri Lanka Buddhists

2) The non-theistic philosophical form of Buddhism was strongly shaped by a counter-reaction to Protestant propagandists in the 19th century who attempted to convert the Sinhalese elite by arguing that Buddhism was a superstitious and primitive elite. The Buddhist counter-reaction drew upon the rich religious literature which had an opening for a rational non-theistic metaphysics to show that in fact, Buddhism was less superstitious and more rational than Christianity!

The forms of Buddhism popular among converts of European ancestry lean strongly toward metaphysics and meditation, individual cultivation as opposed to communal amity. The former tradition surely has a basis in Buddhist tradition, and many religions exhibit mystical strands which are generally cultivated by an elite. In Islam forms of Sufism would qualify, among Christians St. Thomas Aquinas carved out the Way of Reason to justify Christian faith, while others such as Thomas Merton leaned toward mysticism. But, one must not confuse these strands of a religion with the sum totality of the religion. With Buddhism I believe in the West that this is precisely what occurs, because the Buddhism popular in the West among converts leans strongly toward philosophical rationalism there is a prejudice that “folk” Buddhism is simply a marginal distortion, when numerically it has always been Buddhism, as such. This does not mean that there is a bitter chasm between the masses and religious elites in all ways, most Christians accept enthusiastically the Athanasian formula in regards to the Trinity, but, their acceptance is analogous to that of non-physicists who trust the specialists that there truly are 11 dimensions in the universe. One may believe something to be true without comprehending it in any gestalt fashion, and so on the level of cognitive conceptualization supernatural beliefs which are notionally very different (e.g., the monistic pantheism of Hinduism vs. the personal Trinitarian theism of Christianity) are rendered in a very similar manner. Even though the words may differ, the mental constructions tend to be rather invariant across cultures. One may agree that Buddha is not a god, as conventionally understood, and yet simply behave and act as if Buddha is a salvationary entity with supernatural powers. In other words, a god by another name.

The overall point is that it isn’t religion, but religions. I acknowledge that a given religion has many interpretations, but since they are all basically human constructions, I tend to lean toward the sort of religion practiced by the greatest number as definitive. This is my own personal choice, and the reasoning is that my interest in religion is tied to my interest in modeling and characterizing human behavior, and taking intellectuals as the exemplars will lead you astray since intellectuals are only a very small percentage of the human population. If you believe that a given religion is true in a particular form, you shall of course disagree, but, I do find it strange, though perhaps understandable, that many secularists tend to recast Buddhism in the least theistic form possible. If you believe that Buddhism is true, as you understand it, I can comprehend why an emphasis on a particular (non-modal) form of practice and belief is warranted, but, many who correct me and assert that “Buddhism is a non-theistic philosophy” and “not a religion” don’t even consider themselves Buddhists!

Addendum: I will not deny that there is much admirable in many forms of Buddhist ethics. But, I also contend that these admirable aspects of Buddhism are not fundamentally Buddhist, but common to many philosophical and religious systems, and humans in general. What is peculiar and particular about Buddhism are the supernatural claims, rituals and institutional organizations. In other words, I believe what sets Buddhism apart are its conventionally religious aspects, not its more philosophical ones.

Comments

  1. #1 DeanOR
    February 26, 2007

    It’s really impressive that this writer knows with absolute certainty what is reality and what is illusion and is an authority on religions that he has never participated in, and at such a young age! Amazing!

  2. #2 Jim
    February 26, 2007

    I enjoy reading your thoughts on religion. I think you make a pretty compelling case.

    I tend to think of people as inherently superstitious creatures. I think the evidence shows we have an innate tendency to believe in the supernatural.

    And I don’t just mean religiosity, but the myriad superstitious behaviors people tend to engage in.

    Intellectuals are interesting, since they tend to try to rise above this aspect of humanity. But do they really?

    To what degree do you think that ideology (especially political) is able to hijack the religious/supernatural cognitive machinery.

    The certainty and intensity of “true believers” of a cause seems highly religious to me. Their willingness to sacrifice themselves and others, the stark Good and Evil lens they see the world in — again are very similar, if not identical, to religious behavior.

    A simple example, I know a fair # of liberal/Democratic activists here in the States. All of who claim atheism or agnosticism (but some do yoga). They don’t simply believe their opponents (conservative/Republicans) are incorrect, misguided, or uninformed about some public policy issue — they believe their opponents are Evil. Purposefully Evil. Wake up and try to think of new ways to hurt the poor, women, and minorities Evil.

    I’m sure many Republican activists have similar view of Dems as Evil, I just don’t know them personally. Plus I assume many Repub activists have explicitly Christian reasons for thinking in terms of Good and Evil.

    So do political ideologies (like, say, environmentalism) hijack the religious parts of the mind? Or are both religion and politics hijacking some more basic part of the mind — the tribal, in-group, out-group part, for example.

  3. #3 James
    February 26, 2007

    My “religious” upbringing as the son of Vietnamese Buddhists has always emphasized the philosophical aspects you attribute mainly to the elite and Western practitioners. Among Asian-Americans of my parents’ generation a lot of Buddhism’s supernatural assertions are regarded as relics. Perhaps this is borne out of a desire to assimilate to Western rational norms, but I would study the way Buddhism is practiced in more educated populations (Korea, China, Japan) before drawing conclusions.

  4. #4 Spike Gomes
    February 26, 2007

    DeanOR:

    By that token nobody can master a foreign language of a culture they weren’t born into, right?

    James:

    Razib is right, I’ve studied Buddhism as a social phenonmenon in both the East and West. Your parents are outliers, but not unique. Many immigrant Buddhists and their descendants in the United States tend to pick up aspects of elite Buddhism, especially if they’re university educated. Buddhist student groups and ecumenical organizations also tend to pick up elements of it as an overlay on the traditional elements. The story of immigrant Japanese Buddhism in America is telling example here.

    Also, Buddhism as it is practiced in places like South Korea, Taiwan and Japan are in general mostly cultural in nature. Secularism (though not as we would recognize it) has won out big time there, even with the huge evangelical Christian population in South Korea.

  5. #5 razib
    February 26, 2007

    Perhaps this is borne out of a desire to assimilate to Western rational norms, but I would study the way Buddhism is practiced in more educated populations (Korea, China, Japan) before drawing conclusions.

    i stated above that a philosophical aspect always existed within buddhism. as i said, i am interested in the majority practice, not the educated populations, because the majority of chinese (even in singapore), japanese and koreans are not university educated. i’ve talked to plenty of eastern buddhists who promote the philosophical aspects as definitive, and that’s fine if they don’t get imperial about it. but i’ve heard the word “debased” way too much in regards to “folk” buddhism for my own taste.

    Also, Buddhism as it is practiced in places like South Korea, Taiwan and Japan are in general mostly cultural in nature.

    also, in both korea and singapore buddhist organizations have started mimicking aspects of christianity which are conducive to perpetuating retention of the youth. e.g., in south korea more ‘evangelical’ forms like won buddhism are on the march vis-a-vis more traditional modes.

  6. #6 Spike Gomes
    February 26, 2007

    Razib:

    I would say that it’s reactive to the presence of Evangelical Christianity more than anything else. Stuff like that hasn’t happened in Japan or Taiwan where Buddhism (+the other traditions) still has a cultural lock on the normative. I would also note that these organizations don’t focus on the philosophical aspects so much as conceptions of “Lord Buddha” and the transformative power of compassion.

    Still it is a very entertaining development. I wonder if the Buddhist youth rock bands are as godawful as Christian youth rock bands.

  7. #7 razib
    February 26, 2007

    I would say that it’s reactive to the presence of Evangelical Christianity more than anything else.

    right, that was my point. just like roman catholicism in the USA has mimicked many aspects of sectarian protestantism to remain a vigorous force.

  8. #8 razib
    February 26, 2007

    It’s really impressive that this writer knows with absolute certainty what is reality and what is illusion and is an authority on religions that he has never participated in, and at such a young age! Amazing!

    ethologists don’t need to be animals to study and characterize their behaviors :-)

  9. #9 John Emerson
    February 26, 2007

    I’m not up to a serious discussion of this at the moment, but I can make a few points.

    If you only look at the most typical practitioner at the ground level, you tend to find that all religions (especially all religions of urban literate sedentary peoples) are the same. All theistic, all superstitious, all somewhat polytheistic, all conventionally rule-followingly moralistic but infested with cheating, all family-oriented, all after-life-oriented, all plural and inconsistent, and all collecting bribes from misbehaving believers, so that sinners finance holiness.

    In many respects the scriptural universal religions are all different kinds of overlays on a common substrate. The overlays which define the religions mostly involve the elite elite. By dismissing the elite religion you come close to dismissing the differences between religions. (Actually, there are presumably systematic difference between bottom-level practice of the various universal religions, and that’s an interesting study.)

    What defenders of Buddhism such as myself say is that elite Buddhism can accomodate an atheist world view without fundamental changes in doctrine and practice, whereas theistic religions ultimately cannot. This is not nothing.

    The cost of this is that Buddhism of this type is elitist, and the teachers tell the laity one thing while believing something different, and claiming that the esoteric teaching is in some way “fundamentally the same” as the exoteric teaching, once the believer understands things rightly. Religious practice is thus defined as a progress in education, starting from crude truths imperfectly uderstood and rising to the refined understanding of subtle truths.

    I do not see GNXP as being anti-elitist, or as believing (as Protestants and some political radicals do) that the truth can be taught to everyone.

    The fact that certain developments in Buddhism are responses to Western contact isn’t a disproof and does not mean that the resultant Buddhism is impure. Buddhism recognizes the possibility of learning the way revealed religions don’t. It is not theoretically impossible for a new sutra to be written today in English which will eventually stand beside the canonical Pali, Sanskrit, Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan sutras.

  10. #10 razib
    February 26, 2007

    I do not see GNXP as being anti-elitist, or as believing (as Protestants and some political radicals do) that the truth can be taught to everyone.

    this is irrelevant to my point. of course i’m an elitist, that being said, i don’t privilege elite gibberish scaffolded in quasi-abstraction over intelligible folk superstition. i’m not saying that atheist buddhists can’t/shouldn’t call themselves buddhists, because i acknowledge the primacy of self-definition in made up categories like religion. but fundamentally these categories describe a distribution of ideas in the minds of believers, and i reject the tendency to sample bias at one end of the range (among sophisticated philosophical & mystical types). i apply the same standard to islam and christianity of course. there is no “true islam,” just the sum totality of what muslims believe islam is.

    The fact that certain developments in Buddhism are responses to Western contact isn’t a disproof and does not mean that the resultant Buddhism is impure.

    my main contention is talk of “purity” is not interesting to me, at least at the level of describing phenomena. talk of purity is relevant if you actually believe buddhism is “right” in some way, and so what buddhism is matters on a substantive level. for me, any religion is just the central tendency of believers who say that they follow that religion, not a a canon or a few axioms.

    Buddhism recognizes the possibility of learning the way revealed religions don’t. It is not theoretically impossible for a new sutra to be written today in English which will eventually stand beside the canonical Pali, Sanskrit, Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan sutras.

    you need to say more here. i am inclined to say here that you are wrong. after all, mormonism is just one revealed religion which continuously updates its doctrine in reaction to the conditions of the world as they are….

  11. #11 razib
    February 26, 2007

    By dismissing the elite religion you come close to dismissing the differences between religions. (Actually, there are presumably systematic difference between bottom-level practice of the various universal religions, and that’s an interesting study.)

    i am close to rejecting religious essences. i am close to asserting that the differences between world religions are results of contingent history, not the outcomes of “original” doctrine. see the post on cultural hitch-hiking….

  12. #12 razib
    February 26, 2007

    I do not see GNXP as being anti-elitist, or as believing (as Protestants and some political radicals do) that the truth can be taught to everyone.

    also, this was a really bizarre comment if i must say so. haven’t i made it clear that i don’t think any religion has any “truth” at all that is peculiar to that religion? that is, buddhism and all religions have admirable aspects, but i don’t think those aspects are peculiar to that religion, nor are religious assertions about facts of the universe which are correct peculiar to religion. buddhist ethics and psychology have admirable aspects, but those are not fundamenally buddhist (e.g., one can see parallels in stoicism, for example). for most religions the distinctive and definitional aspects are the superstitious gibberishy ones. this is precisely why so many philosophical buddhist converts sample and are not particularly attached to a buddhist community, they are extracting what is universally appealing, but not fundamentally a special buddhist insight.

  13. #13 John Emerson
    February 26, 2007

    A. There are Japanese and Chinese Sutras given canonical value even though they are centuries later in time than the Pali or Sanskrit sutras. Some but not all claim to be translations of vanished originals. (The Hui Neng Sutra doesn’t). Druze, Baha’i, Mormons, Christian Scientists, etc., who claim to have added a scripture to the Koran or Bible survive with difficulty (because of secularism, military prowess and good military geography, or deals with the Shah) and are not regarded as coreligionists by Muslims or Christians. The vast Christian majority of sects will not recognized a post-Biblical scripture.

    B. Now, this gets to the point of my recent piece over at GNXP, which you have somewhat misinterpreted. I wasn’t just saying that religion is irrational but somehow still functional, but that religion gives answers to questions for which there are no unambiguous rational resolutions, and that this is one of the reasons why religion survives. (Another is that religion grounds social solidarity, including the solidarity of hierarchal societies with all their unfairness). Rational people believe that they have rational answers to these questions (questions of meaning and value), but by and large I think that they only have conventional answers based on the way of life they were born into or have chosen. Rational secularists also seem mostly to be lucky people in their career lives who have not had to resolve any big, painful dilemmas in their lives.

    When secular rationalists have major disagreements with one another about, e.g., politics, you very quickly come to disagreements about “priors” which are difficult or impossible to argue. Each side will find rational and/or scientific grounds for their claims, and often each side will become angry at the irrationality of the other side, but basically both are in the religious zone. Usually these arguments come down asserting one’s own position as rational and demanding that the other side disprove it (“assuming the default”).

    Imagine you and PZ or GC and PZ trying to hash out politics. I can see both sides scoring rational points, and to the extent that it comes down an argument over the Blank Slate alone I think that you guys might do pretty well against PZ, but Blank Slate issues are not the only things you disagree about.

    If Buddhism can be maintained without assuming anything rationally and scientifically known to be false, I think that it remains on the table as a secular value system.

  14. #14 Joe Blow
    February 26, 2007

    Logic is a red herring.

    Darwin’s thesis of survival of the fittest by producing the most viable offspring implies that whoever breeds the most is the fittest. Nevertheless, Social “Darwinists” engage in all kinds of rhetorical gymnastics to disprove the lurking implication that all the fertile “inferior” races and castes are most fit in man’s modern self-made environment.

    People believe in religions because they feel certain things in their guts: there is something called right and wrong, there is cosmic justice, etc. This doesn’t necessarily imply a “Creator” as imagined by religions — these gut-truths could simply be ingrained behavioral reflexes “learned” by survival of the fittest — what Victorians called “racial memory.”

  15. #15 John Emerson
    February 26, 2007

    The reason I raised the issue of “purity” is that you were seeming to say something like “When contacted by Westerners, elite Buddhists adapted their religion to the Western context, but Buddhism isn’t really like that”. I granted that Buddhism developed with Western contact but said that it developed with Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan contact in the same way.

  16. #16 razib
    February 26, 2007

    The vast Christian majority of sects will not recognized a post-Biblical scripture.

    yes, but they can twist the scripture they do have pretty easily. the key is how constraining is scripture? the sample space of possible interpretations in the bible (or the koran) is pretty big, and you can skew it however you like.

    If Buddhism can be maintained without assuming anything rationally and scientifically known to be false, I think that it remains on the table as a secular value system.

    of course ‘buddhism’ can converge upon a secular value system. these sort of things come down to semantics, i’ve met avowed ‘buddhists’ who don’t disagree one wit in regards to ontology with myself, and whose ethics are pretty much coterminus. my point is that when i speak of ‘buddhism,’ i will tend to speak of modal buddhism since one sentence doesn’t capture the character of the distribution. i focus on the central tendency. daoism can be a ‘science’ or a religion, though my understanding is that daoist science is moribund because the exilers kept killing people. now, if i speak of the daoist religion and people object, ‘well, daoism isn’t a religon, it is a philosophy….’ will point out that the more rational/empirical daoism is a very marginal thing compared to “folk” daoism.

    i’m not that interested in philosophical buddhism as such because i’m not interested in marginal phenomena as much as modal phenomena. i think, for example, that it is possible that one can be a non-celibate homosexual and a muslim. but my interest in this phenomena is totally framed within the context of the beliefs of the vast majority of muslims.

    the key in the end is that you think. and other people have other thoughts. i’m not really invested in figuring out who is right in regards to buddhism, because i’m a nominalist in regards to buddhism. this is only relevant in the context of this blog because i’m focused on modal cultural phenomena, and people repeatedly ‘correct’ me on what buddhism is. in regards to ‘what is buddhism’ i’m only interested in using the best definition by the criteria of which obtain the most accurate expectation of behavior and converges upon the peak of the frequency distribution.

  17. #17 John Emerson
    February 26, 2007

    OK, now it comes down to the dreaded semantic arguments. So we have Buddhism subscript 1 which is modal Buddhism, and Buddhism subscript 2.0 which is elite Buddhism, and then Buddhism subscript 2.1 which is elite Buddhism conformable with secular naturalism.

    I pretty much agree with you about subscript 1 Buddhism. Sociological / historical religions converge messily and inconsistently to monotheism / polytheism + providence / fate + purification / uncleanness + devotion / ethics, etc. etc. It’s a very interesting question to see where the practiced sociological religions significantly diverge, and I don’t think that these divergences are where RelStud says they are. (So far, of the literate universal religions, Protestant Christianity seems the least sexist and most sexually liberated, though to a guy who can afford four wives Islam seems very liberating of course.)

    The reason I advocate for Buddhism 2.0 and 2.1 is that those are the parts of Buddhism which most philo-Buddhist secular Westerners (Sam Harris, but including me up to a point) are talking about. That’s also the only form of Buddhism that might even possibly be of any interest to you except as a historical object.

  18. #18 razib
    February 26, 2007

    That’s also the only form of Buddhism that might even possibly be of any interest to you except as a historical object.

    i am not unfamiliar with this sort of buddhism from my own personal readings. but this blog is more about how the world is, not my own personal preferences in regards to it. and yes, it would be good if religion had a better semantic system, but since no one has invented one in common currency we’ll just have to deal with these qualifiers….

    Protestant Christianity seems the least sexist and most sexually liberated

    1) i would argue that protestant xtianity exhibits A LOT of variance, so it explores a lot of cultural space. this might be a function of its origins and its factional nature.

    2) you need to compare european protestants to african and latin american converts to remove the confounding influence of post 1500 north-central european culture.

  19. #19 John Emerson
    February 26, 2007

    In XIXc China the issues were a.) “love marriage” as opposed to arranged marriage b.) public displays of affection between husband and wife or fiance and fiancee, and c.) mixed social events attended both by women and men. None of the three was allowed in traditional China.

    The XIXc Protestants were extremely straight-laced by our standards, but effectively were sexual liberationists. It’s quite possible that for the same reasons they are liberators even today in parts of Africa and Latin America.

    Emancipation of adults, especially adult women, is not often stressed as a fundamental American or Protestant principle, but faced with traditionalist clan societies, it is. It can coexist with extreme prudishness about fornication, of course.

  20. #20 ken
    February 26, 2007

    Obviously, it’s the elite physicists and pianists who keep their own fields alive and advancing. We try to emulate Rachmaninoff, not dismiss him as a freak, and his genius trickles down to the masses in subtle ways.

    When we’re talking elite clerics, priests, gurus, however, the skeptic assumes there’s nothing to advance, and there are no creative horizons. But with respect to contemplative methods (where Buddhism seems to be the champion), is that really true?

    The idea that Buddhism can move forward is reflected in the existence of newer sutras, which aren’t necessarily dismissed as heretical. There are also the Tibetan “termas”…texts that are supposed to be revealed only at the appropriate time.

  21. #21 razib
    February 26, 2007

    dude, have you read any of my comments or the post? i don’t give a shit how buddhism has developed intellectually. at least in this post and context i don’t. i’ve stipulated over & over what my interest is. furthermore, the music of the masses and of the elite are vectors of differing magnitude. i do not hold that elite buddhism and folk buddhism are along the same plane. so no, i’m not a believer in trickle down, i think the superstitious ‘catholic’/'buddhist’/'hindu’/'muslim’ peasant share more which each other than with their elite religious practitioners. i’ve stipulated this multiple times on this blog.

  22. #22 Ruchira Paul
    February 26, 2007

    Razib is definitely on to something astute here. I will not engage in high faluting religious/ metaphysical/ philosophical hair splitting but will relate something personal to illustrate the intellectual vs superstitious perception of religion to the common practioners of religions.

    My mother was a practising Hindu for most of her life. Although not given to dogmatic behavior (she didn’t demand for example, that my sister and I follow or believe what she herself did), she was given to regular observances of Hindu rituals which amounted to what Razib dubs “peasant” religiosity. My mother was a very good test case because she was also an educated and widely read woman, thoroughly conversant in eastern philosophy and languages. Apart from English and Bengali, she was well versed in Sanskrit and Pali and had extensive scholarly knowledge of Hindu and Buddhist religious texts. She maintained a cold eyed philosophical attitude towards Buddhism but not so towards Hinduism, her religion of birth and breeding. Hinduism held an emotional sway over her which accounted for a certain irrationality in her acceptance of some of the B.S. associated with it which she would try to justify using her scholarly understanding.

    In her late seventies, my mother developed arthritis which resulted in painful joints. That made it difficult and eventually impossible for her to perform the ritualistic Hindu puja which required her to kneel, bend and sit cross legged on the floor. At this point in her life, my mother became a Buddhist – conversion dictated by a medical condition! She had learnt that it was permissible to say a Buddhist prayer sitting in a chair or on her bed. She probably considered herself a Hindu-Buddhist but her daily religious ritual became exclusively Buddhist. Around this time, we noticed that Buddhism (and Buddha) began to assume the same “holy” aura in her expressions which was quite different from the earlier intellectual attitude she used to exhibit towards it. It was very clear that as soon as she adopted Buddhism as her “personal” religious way, it was “elevated” to the same superstitious and awe inspiring status that Hinduism had earlier enjoyed.

    I don’t know if I made sense. Razib (or John Emerson) will let me know, I am sure. :-)

  23. #23 ken
    February 27, 2007

    Most Thai males are still expected to go into a three month retreat at least once in their lives, and a good chunk of this practice is simple sitting meditation…following the breath, and avoiding any particular string of thought. So it’s simultaneously non-intellectual, non-superstitious, and non-elite. And it’s happening in the most “Buddhist” of countries.

    Of course, another common activity during retreat is chanting in Bali, a language most monks don’t even understand…I won’t deny the degree of magical thinking going on in the temples.

  24. #24 Kevin
    February 28, 2007

    Is the Buddha Dharma a religion or philosophy ? Who cares ?
    It is just the Dharma, call it what you like. I have ben a practicing Buddhist for a few years now, but have spent the past 20 years reading about all different faiths and chose te Dharma for many reasons. One of which is because it accepts and respects all faiths.

    We are spiritual beings on a human journey, and on this journey there are many paths. As streams and rivers eventually find the ocean, so to does all life flow towards enlightinment.

    We should all quit debating which faith is correct and which is not, respect all even if you have no faith do not judge others because they do. Words are wonderful but it is our actions that speak volumes. Peace is within.

  25. #25 Bill
    March 1, 2007

    What is, is.

    Less thinking, more living.

    Namasté

  26. #26 Ed Harrison
    March 2, 2007

    Intresting to say the least. I have always wondered if some are genetically predisposed to believe in the supernatural. While I suspect a large number of people use & view religion as a social & political tool, many genuinely believe in supernatural concepts associated with their religion… even those reasonably well educated. Some, I suspect, were born skeptics that pretend to “believe” as a survivial mechanism.
    Ed

  27. #27 ken
    March 3, 2007

    many genuinely believe in supernatural concepts associated with their religion

    I’ve made a recent point of going out on the street and asking Thais about their beliefs. They’re hugely superstitious, but when you push them about ghosts and jinxs and angels, they’ll typically respond that those things aren’t connected to Buddhism at all.

    So, sometimes it seems that people are gonna believe in supernatural concepts REGARDLESS of their avowed religion. Or, perhaps, those ghosts and angels are filling some kind of void that isn’t occupied by the religion…it’s just baseline supernatural noise.

  28. #28 Charlie
    March 6, 2007

    Congratulations! You just accidentally proved atheism is a religion.

    I am a devout pantheist, and thus a fellow traveler with most Bhuddists and Hindus. I am an ordained Universalist minister and I teach sunday school at a Unitarian Universalist church.

    (If anyone reading this is unclear on what a pantheist is, or thinks incorrectly it has something to do with pantheons or polytheism, please consult Wikipedia or look up Abner Kneeland’s “philosophical creed” before continuing.)

    I frequently have to endure diatribes (can’t really call them conversations when there is no two-way communication) from atheists who insist that there is no God because their own conception of God is proveably wrong. They aren’t willing to accept any definition of God that they can’t disprove, so my own God, being physically inescapable and proveably extant, is unknowable to them.

    This superstition – that God is something separate from physical reality – is no different from the superstitions you ascribe to Bhuddists. It’s an irrational belief that there is no elephant in the room… and also the fundamental tenet of the atheist religion.

    Well, probably wasting my time here. Most of the teacups are already full.

  29. #29 Thursday
    March 12, 2007

    I always enjoy your posts on religion. You always put a lot of real effort into them and you know your stuff. But the problem is that you haven’t convinced either me or apparently a lot of other people as to exactly why we should privilige folk practice over elite religion as the “real thing”. Claims of what is more authentic or not are value judgments, not science. You seem dangerously close to mixing them up, for what seems to me a purely polemical, not scientific, purpose.

    You’d be better off to simply stick to a neutral description of the facts, such as:
    1.Obviously, there is a big gap between elite religious thought and how most believers think and act on the ground.
    2.Equally obviously, many (but not all) of the religious elite don’t like this being pointed out.

    But, even so, these points aren’t really served by arguing over which is the real Buddhism or the real Christianity. Stating that folk Buddhism or folk Christianity are the real or authentic Buddhism or Christianity depends entirely on how you define real or authentic. You can define real or authentic as what is thought or practiced on the ground, but if you do so your argument is getting pretty circular. I.e. It depends entirely on how you define real or authentic. Eg. Real Buddhism is what is thought and practiced on the ground. Why? Because the real content of a religion is what is thought and practiced on the ground.

    A lot of scientific study of religion (Pascal Boyer is a prime example) seems to come with the a priori assumption that its illegitimate to combine rational thought with religious impulses. Every fact you site and every theory you make about the origins of religion may be perfectly correct, but that still doesn’t delegitimize elite religion. One can describe how Buddhism or Christianity is practiced on the ground by those who say they are Buddhists or Christians, but whether this is true Buddhism or not or true Christianity or not isn’t really amenable to scientific analysis.

    So, why not just be factual and say elite Buddhism does this and folk Buddhism does that and leave off arguing which is the true faith to the theologians? In fact what exactly would have been sacrificed by sticking to neutral but accurate designations? Tweaking the religious elite and their fellow travellers may be fun, but how exactly does it advance the scientific knowledge of religion? So, next time please please please, just the facts, ma’am (or in this case, sir).

  30. #30 razib
    March 12, 2007

    these points aren’t really served by arguing over which is the real Buddhism or the real Christianity.

    see:

    the key in the end is that you think. and other people have other thoughts. i’m not really invested in figuring out who is right in regards to buddhism, because i’m a nominalist in regards to buddhism.

    look up what nominalist is. look up what instrumentalist is. you’ve missed the whole point of my posts in their overall thrust. i have stated over & over that my description of religion x focuses on a particular modality because of my particular interests. so what if i haven’t convinced you? my point isn’t to convince you about what buddhism is, my point is that most people who lecture me on “what buddhism is” have a particular form in mind which they want to impose (elite buddhism). they proceed to imply that mass buddhism is “debased” or “not pure.” i’m not interested in such talk. since you couldn’t extract the fact i don’t believe that there is a “real” religion out there, just distributions of beliefs which exhibit various proportions, none of whom are fundamentally “true,” i see no point in trying to get these issues across to you (or, you didn’t bother to read my numerous posts closely). your assumption that i believe there is a “real” buddhism is pretty much the total inverse of what i was getting at, so i don’t think it profits you to read my material since it is incomprehensible to you.

  31. #31 Thursday
    March 13, 2007

    Razib,

    Razib:

    This statement:

    “i don’t believe that there is a “real” religion out there.”

    conflicts with this statement

    “I tend to lean toward the sort of religion practiced by the greatest number as definitive.”

    That begs the question, why is it definitive? Because it is practiced by the greatest number? You could have just said that its what you are interested in, but you didn’t. You used the word “definitive.”

    Quit trying to have it both ways. I’m not seeing things and I can read Razib, so don’t try and bully me.

  32. #32 razib
    March 13, 2007

    jackass, because i said it was definitive for me doesn’t mean it has to be for you. here is the intro from wiki on instrumentalism:
    In the philosophy of science, instrumentalism is the view that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments whose worth is measured not by whether the concepts and theories are true or false (or correctly depict reality), but by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena.

    i don’t give a shit about your opinion, so why would i try to bully you? i just don’t want to waste my time, some people believe that buddhist (or whatever) mysticism describes real phenomenon. their instrumentalist take would imply that theologies and metaphysics have some value. i’m obviously not one who believes that it has any reality in & of itself, so i’m not interested in it, except insofar as how it shapes group boundaries and elite power struggles.

    i’ve made this clear many times across many posts. i’m not going to be polite when people try to read something into what i’m saying by parsing definitions (that’s why i say i’m a nominalist, semantical parsing tires me).

  33. #33 Thursday
    March 13, 2007

    Why are you being so mean? Why the nastiness? I don’t have anything against you. I agree with most of what you have to say. What exactly are you accomplishing by attacking me personally, someone with a lot of sympathy for your point of view? And if you don’t care about my opinion, why such an extensive, vituperative reply? As I introduced a bit of a snarky tone into my original comment, I should apologize too. But if I’m wrong, enlighten me, don’t start calling names.

    If you mean what you say in your last comment, and I have no reason to think otherwise, then I don’t think it is entirely unfair to say your original post was occasionally unclear and the tone was sometimes misleading. What is so terrible about that? I just don’t see why science isn’t best conducted in the clearest, most neutral language possible, something which you do not always achieve, but I think its pretty clear that I didn’t mean to trash your whole post. I still think its mostly a very, very good analysis. I’m a fan. I wish you well and hope you continue to write on religion.

  34. #34 Thursday
    March 13, 2007

    If you mean what you say in your last comment, and I have no reason to think otherwise

    I.e. thanks for clarifying what you meant in your original post. I’m not always crystal clear myself.

  35. #35 razib
    March 13, 2007

    If you mean what you say in your last comment, and I have no reason to think otherwise, then I don’t think it is entirely unfair to say your original post was occasionally unclear and the tone was sometimes misleading.

    please note that i posted copious comments to clear up any confusion. language is an imprecise tool with somewhat subjective usages, so i understand confusions. but, context matters. the original post was written in large part to refute/rebutt those who regularly stated in regards to buddhism: “but that’s not buddhism, you know that buddhism is not really about x.” i think my comments make clear (on this, and other posts) that i take a nominalist tack on religion. by definition (speaking of) that implies that i don’t think there is a “real” buddhism. a religion can be anything you want it to be, and what you want it to be is framed by your utilizations of the definition.

    now, you ask about my nastiness. let’s get back to context. i’ve been blogging for 4 years, and have written dozens of posts on religion (perhaps hundreds). all those posts touch upon many disparate ideas. over time i have come to assume a core set of assumptions and facts within these posts as i develop my ideas. this means that i ommit axioms i hold explicitly for the sake of time and ease of presentation. this makes it confusing for some new readers, and i try to clarify when possible in the comments. but, time is finite. i could offer caveats on every post i make and be explicit about all my assumptions, but, if my ideas are developing and building upon a larger and larger database that implies

    1) the posts are going to increase in length monotonically

    2) the time i will have to put into those posts are goign to increase in length monotonically

    this is not feasible. and, i am not satisified with introductory primers or overly simplistic posts because they don’t push my own understanding any further. therefore, i demand that readers who really are confused simply look through my archives. that puts the onus on the reader, and equalizes the time that is expended by both parties. a common issue that many readers have is that i’m not explicit about everything or totally clear, and that’s an understandable gripe, but, readers need to understand that my core audience are not newbies, they’re the readers i’ve had for years who have evolved and dialogued with me on these topics.

    finally, to your specific issue, as i said, i can see how i was unclear, though i think reading the full totality of my posts you would see quite clearly what i was getting at. i think though that isn’t practical for everyone, and i don’t expect, but, that’s why i spent a fair amount of time clarifying the issues in the comments. my nastiness was a response to the fact that i did expend a fair amount of time making clear my position to my satisfaction in the comments, even if you didn’t check out the archives.

    if you want me to point to where in the comment i get explicit, this one stands out. that is not the only comment where i made my criteria pretty clear.

  36. #36 razib
    March 13, 2007

    p.s. and re: my nastiness. if you continue to read despite the animus i’ve directed your way, then i assume you’re genuinely interested in this stuff and won’t let personal conflict get in the way of finding more insight. that’s the kind of reader i prefer, i’m not interested in a large but shallow readership. for me the blog is about me and the data and analysis i can extract from others, but for you i assume should be about grappling with particular ideas, not whether you are positively predisposed toward my persona.

  37. #37 Jon H
    April 7, 2007

    ” What is peculiar and particular about Buddhism are the supernatural claims, rituals and institutional organizations.”

    Razib, find me another religion which has a core, cross-sectarian, principle about *exercises for developing concentration*, and which includes something like “right concentration” as one of 8 core principles. (I don’t see anything remotely like that in the 10 commandments, for example.)

    Also, describe what’s supernatural and ritualistic about performing exercises to develop bodily performance – with empirically testable results.

    (An analogy would be a religion with “right cardio” as a core tenet, and a core text explaining exercises for gradually increasing the ability to run marathons.)

    The religious implications of the focus on concentration are that it aids in maintaining mindfulness of your thoughts and actions in real-time. (This still requires effort and intention, it’s not magic.) The implication of this is that, if you’re mindful of your thoughts and actions, you’re less likely to impulsively or thoughtlessly act in ways that contravenes the other core tenets that apply to morality and ethics.

    It’s very down-to-earth and practical. If you’re daydreaming or obsessing about something, you’re not going to be focused on doing the right thing.

    It seems that you’ve settled on an idiosyncratic, poorly-founded definition of Buddhism purely because it’s the only one that suits your preconceived biases but bears little relation to the actual teachings of the Buddha.

    It’s a bit like defining Catholicism as consisting entirely of pederasty.

  38. #38 Jon H
    April 7, 2007

    “Your parents are outliers, but not unique. Many immigrant Buddhists and their descendants in the United States tend to pick up aspects of elite Buddhism, especially if they’re university educated. Buddhist student groups and ecumenical organizations also tend to pick up elements of it as an overlay on the traditional elements. The story of immigrant Japanese Buddhism in America is telling example here.
    Also, Buddhism as it is practiced in places like South Korea, Taiwan and Japan are in general mostly cultural in nature”

    That’s really quite silly.

    Immigrants come from nations that are, Buddhistically, largely homogeneous. Then they come to America, where there is *no* dominant strain of Buddhism, and where the published material is fairly evenly divided between Tibetan, Theravadan/vipassana, and Zen – a mix they may well not have been exposed to in their home country.

    It’s no surprise that, upon entering a heterogenous environment, their practice may change.

    Calling that “elite” is just nonsense.

    Also, razib wrote: “this is precisely why so many philosophical buddhist converts sample and are not particularly attached to a buddhist community, they are extracting what is universally appealing, but not fundamentally a special buddhist insight.”

    This is another aspect of exposure to an heterogenous Buddhist environment.

    As for Americans doing this, you know why they aren’t attached to a buddhist community? Because there probably isn’t one nearby.

    And, really, where’s the requirement to commit? If you’re starting from a clean slate, why *not* pick and choose? “Oh, you’re not a genuine Buddhist unless you’re illogically behaving like a Thai villager who has never met a person with different practices and may not have any idea that there are any other forms of Buddhism.”

    wtf?

    Oh, and by the way Razib, the modal athiest is nothing to write home about.

  39. #39 gazelder
    April 17, 2007

    Seems to me that things have been made to confused.

    What Buddha taught is one thing.
    What people practice is another thing.
    What people intuit yet another thing.

    Some say Buddhism is theistic.
    Some say Buddhism is atheistic.
    Yet others say it in non-theistic.

    And then we have folks who examine it from varying backgrounds and perspectives.

    Is it a religion? Perhap for some.
    Is it a philosophy? Perhaps for some.
    Is it an unknown. Perhaps for some.

    Life is full of changes. How do you deal with them?