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.