The Buddhism dilemma
#1
Among contemporary freethought ranks, there are thinkers like Peter Singer who credits Buddhism with first taking compassion beyond species barriers, Tom Clark who acknowledges affinities of naturalistic notions of connectedness with Buddhist intuitions of dependent origination and Sam Harris who calls for salvaging certain practices which may have demonstrable benefits again in a naturalistic sense from accretions of later legend. Closer home, Buddhism has been employed a potent tool of empowering social mobilization by Dr. Ambedkar who cited the historically demonstrable primacy accorded to Reason and Compassion in Buddhist practice as his arguments for choosing this affiliation over other contenders. In any case, the historical Buddha's teachings are poorly understood in the land of his birth, thanks to their frequent conflation with other more metaphysically and ritualistically laden 'Dharmic faiths' and ongoing historic revisionism.

‎'Buddhism' represents the following dilemma to freethought advocates today. On the one hand, there is the imperative of seeming to be equal-opportunity offenders of religious dogma, sparing none on account of lingering cultural affiliations. On the other hand, there is the imperative of intellectual honesty which would preclude setting up False Equivalences (of the sort freethinkers regularly accuse their opponents of making between Stalinist excesses and contemporary secular humanism outreach) between different manifestations of religiosity scarcely resembling each other in virulence.

Such a dilemma crystallizes itself in questions like, "While there are unsubstantiated claims in all faith positions, isn't there a difference in the centrality and primacy of those positions? For instance, is the number of individuals drawn to and converting to Christianity precisely because of the doctrine of 'vicarious redemption', comparable at all to the numbers of those drawn to Buddhism precisely because of 'reincarnation' rather than other secular practices in that tradition they find useful?' So the dilemma is actually one between appearing to be a cherry-picker versus appearing to be a churl and an inveterate professional fault-finder like the Cossack in this story. (NB: I have linked to that post only for the Cossack story and NOT out of support for the political agenda of the linked article)

Here is one way out of the dilemma. Adopt a policy of 'defending Reason and Compassion against any affronts to it, wherever it arises from', rather than a policy of 'being an equal-opportunity offender to all religion'. 'Religion' as Sam Harris explains here is a conflating blanket term which ends up setting up False Equivalences, which can be as ludicrous as Thai kickboxing and snooker being described as comparably aggressive activities simply because both are under the blanket term 'Sport'.

All faith traditions can therefore be subjected to unremitting scrutiny of their record of violations of Reason and Compassion, with the intellectual honesty to subject ourselves as freethinkers and the organizations that enjoy our confidence and affection, to the same scrutiny.

So we have a choice. We can either take the line of 'Look-how-smart-I-am-to-see-through-Buddhism-which-even-some-famous-freethinkers-give-a-free-pass-to' simply because it is a 'religion'. Such a blanket dismissal would end up being very prone to accusations of a sort of history-denial that would be unbecoming of an informed freethought advocate. Or we can refrain from letting the Buddhism label interfere with our ongoing defence of Reason and Compassion. Over here, folks like Tom Clark, Eugenie Scott, Susan Blackmore and others, no slouches in freethought advocacy, are able to remain defenders of Reason while acknowledging mixed histories and historically religious influences on, or religious parallels of, some contemporary views. This is a sort of homework that doesn't seem too much to ask of a freethought advocate.

As mentioned above, 'affronts to Reason and Compassion' ought to be called out and combated, irrespective of whether their origin is in Buddhism or anywhere else. On that point itself, there seems to be no disagreement at large among freethinkers. One question though, in the larger context of the freethought movement in India, is this : When the freethought movement in the West has made space for folks like a Susan Blackmore or a Peter Singer that allows them to make significant contributions to the cause of advancing Reason and Compassion, does the fledgling Indian freethought movement also allow space for individuals with such leanings or are they inadvertently being alienated outright? What might the movement lose quantitatively and qualitatively if such an alienation occurs?

The more interesting question here, rather than what any freethinker thinks in an individual capacity, is a question of strategy and inclusiveness of those who may self-identify as Buddhists for whatever reason, but maybe closer to the freethought end of the belief spectrum than the faith end. Admittedly, the question of what approaches are best suited to negotiate and foster such coalitions with freethinkers with different but not grossly incompatible stances to ours, is not one that is discussed with any sense of urgency by organizations involved either in superstition-battling or miscellaneous empowerment movements. It is understandable that there seems to be no obvious urgency of discussing this question in freethought groups, since our groups or forums are yet to be overrun or infiltrated by 'Buddhist fanatics' or 'Buddhist reincarnation apologists'. Parking the questions raised above, the business of fine-combing Buddhist and other beliefs for irrationality, which is more fitting in settings like this, can and should of course continue regardless.

Edit (04/04/2014) : Replaced inactive links.
[+] 1 user Likes arvindiyer's post
Reply




Users browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)