Should Buddhism Get a Pass?
by Noah Lugeons
I’ve never been one for ranking the relative inanity of religions. Some will point to the beliefs of the Mormons or the Scientologists with a mocking finger, but neglect to point the same finger at the myriad of other equally untenable religious systems that surround them. But is magic underwear really any more ridiculous than transubstantiation? Are engrams any sillier than original sin?
I’ve always been of the mind that any belief that is presented without evidence is equally invalid. Whether it is a belief steeped in millenia old traditions or the improvised ramblings of a street-prophet, neither brand of nonsense is any more or less deserving of my scorn.
In many ways, this is the crux of the gnu atheist vs. accomodationist debate. Where the accomodationist is focused on the impact religion has on society, the gnu atheist is more often motivated by idealism; the simple notion that lies should be called lies. While I certainly count myself in the unapologetic ranks, I make no value judgement on either approach. In truth, the two groups need one another. The uncompromising position of the gnu atheist would be all but useless were it not tempered by the accomodationist and the position of the accomodationist would be all but impotent without the vitriol of the gnus.
So like it or not, the accomodationists are stuck with us and we with them. The only way to move forward is to work our varied approaches toward the same goal. Two groups hunting the same prey will hinder one another, but two groups herding the same prey can be a benefit to all. The latter tactic doesn’t even take much coordination. We need only agree on the prey and the goal and then we can work in as contradictory of manners as we choose and still get the job done.
By and large, we all agree on both subjects. The prey is gullibility and untruth and the goal is a more secular and less superstitious society. And thus we work in chaotic tandem, each arm of the atheist movement herding the gullible closer and closer to the promised land. Sure, we occasionally question each other’s methods. The accomodationists have their carrots and we our sticks but ultimately we both keep the flock moving the right way.
It’s an uneasy but productive marriage as is evidenced by the swelling popularity of atheist conferences, blogs, meet-ups and books. But that’s not to say things don’t go wrong. When you define a problem as broadly as “gullibility”, there will be some questions. There will be a few animals in the flock that may or may not be sheep. And there will invariably be some disagreement from the shepherds about what does and does not constitute prey.
The most common example in my mind is Buddhism. Most atheists direct their vigor toward Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism but very often Buddhism and many of the new age psuedo-eastern faiths of the west get a “get out of reason free” card from the community of nonbelievers.
In a sense, it’s easy for me to see why. Buddhism very rarely presents the type of threat to secular society that the Judaic faiths do. We are far less often confronted by militant Buddhism and don’t see many Buddhist terrorists on the news each night. We aren’t harassed by Buddhists in shopping center parking lots or in front of movie theaters and we rarely hear about Buddhists trying to dumb down public education.
What’s more, the dogma of Buddhism, at least as much as is known by the average Western atheist, does not conflict with our secular ideals in the way that Christianity or Islam does. The focus on deeds and nonviolence is hard to fault and that is as familiar as most people in this country get with the religion.
But is it true?
Buddhism still fails my litmus test of acceptability: It is bullshit. It doesn’t matter much to me that it is bullshit of a more benign smell, bullshit is still bullshit. It would be intellectually dishonest for me to say that I can overlook this one form of lying to the masses because it does less harm than this other set of lies. Reincarnation and karma are basic tenants of Buddhism that stretch back the Buddha himself. They are no more or less observable or evident than heaven, hell or god caring about your foreskin.
Neither are they harmless. The 2006 documentary “Blindsight” highlights some of the horrible abuses and mistreatment of blind children in Tibet. Because of the rural belief in karma, most people assume that children born blind are paying a karmic debt for some horrible deed in a previous life. This attitude that the disabled deserve their disability can attenuate one’s natural compassion to such a degree that many of these children spend their lives chained to beds.
The notion of reincarnation is no less harmful. Like the crippling effects of the notions of eternal bliss, believing that one will be given another (or even infinite other) chances to get it right could easily dampen the desire to get it right this time around. Is it fair to lie to somebody about something that important?
We also largely make the mistake of assuming that Buddhism is not prone to the types of abuse that other religions are. We forget that Buddhist monasteries have had abuse scandals just like the Vatican. We forget that Buddhism has been used to justify acts of violence just like Islam. We forget that Buddhism is every bit as sexist as all the other major world religions.
So in what way is Buddhism less harmful than the other faiths? We can no more judge Buddhism by the teachings of Buddha than we can judge Christianity by the teachings of Christ. Following the words of either man would lead one to an ethical and selfless life. But we’re not talking about philosophy, we’re talking about religion. As soon as a philosophy becomes applied, it turns into a dogmatic faith. It grows institutions of power, it empowers some human beings over others, it insulates a lie.
All that being said, I will still spend remarkably little of my time on this blog trashing Buddhism. But make no mistake, my enemy is religion and no religion is safe from my scathing ire. I will largely leave Buddhism alone because it largely leaves me alone, but that is not an endorsement. It’s a necessary byproduct of prioritizing.