Friday, 5 June 2009

Atheism asks "What's wrong with dualistic thought?"

I try to make it a habit to not critique or criticize others ideas or beliefs from other posts, as I've had it done to me a few times and is rather irritating and sad. However I felt compelled to point out this rather interesting post I found on entitled 'What's wrong with Buddhism?'. Austin Cline, the author and self confessed Atheist, asserts a lot of connections between Buddhism and other religions. Most of the post is spent quoting another source , but somehow he took away from this other persons first hand experience, with what was obviously some cult or dogmatic thing, to be true for everyone who calls themselves Buddhist.

"Although Buddhism seems so different from religions like Christianity and Islam that it doesn't look like it should be in the same category, it still shares with other religions a very basic element: a belief that the universe is in some fashion set up for our sake — or at least set up in a manner conducive to our needs. In Christianity this is more obvious with the belief in a god that supposedly created the universe for our benefit. In Buddhism, it is expressed in the belief that there are cosmic laws that exist solely to process our "karma" and make it possible for us to "advance" in some fashion"

Ummm, ok? I don't understand why he, and many others, try to pigeon-hole all Buddhists, or better yet all people into little different boxes, wrap them up with neat little bows and then proclaim them all wrong, without first seeing or exploring for themselves. I have quite a few self professed atheist friends, including my brother, who are open to the notion that maybe the world isn't black or white, who understand you can't always define every little aspect of reality and who want to see for themselves rather than relying on what someone else says for truth. I greatly admire and respect this trait in those that claim themselves to be Atheist or Agnostic. God or no God, this is the blunder, to think we rely on belief or some holy word or any other extreme view to seek or know truth.

"Although it's more of a problem in some and less of a problem in others, it's still a fairly consistent problem that people are falsely taught that there is something in or above the universe that has picked them out for special protection and consideration."

True enough for most religions, but who told you modern Buddhists are taught this or believe this? If you really think progressive Buddhists think they are picked for some special purpose, then dare I say, you didn't ask any progressive Buddhists? Hell, I may go even as far to say you have a strong opinion about religion itself, as do I, and fit your ideas to match this opinion.

"Our existence is a product of luck, not divine intervention, and any improvements we achieve will be due to our own hard work, not cosmic process or karma."

First off, Luck? Really, luck? Cause God and luck are about the same to me, both words with no real meaning, extreme views on opposite ends of the spectrum. If you believe in luck, why not just believe in a random God, they are both still some belief to be beholden too. Maybe, if you took some time to understand the nature of 'self' you would see ultimately our 'existence' is a product of our own minds. Karma is nothing more than action or cause and effect or as the Buddha said part and parcel to dependant arising. This means we do not exist in a vacuum, but are connected to everything else that is. Time is illusory, and to think things exist as separate objects is the same as the extreme belief of creation or nihilism or non-existence.

"People can try to eliminate these aspects of Buddhism, but they are likely to eliminate so much that it's hard to call the leftover very Buddhist."

You are absolutely correct, I am not a Buddhist; but at the same time I am a Buddhist. If you can see for yourself some truth or logic in this paradox, you will see why we find what is 'left over' to be so valuable.


  1. Kyle,

    I really like this line of yours: "If you believe in luck, why not just believe in a random God ..."

    A clever twist of thought, nice post.

  2. gah. i was so disappointed when i read that piece and discovered that it's sole reference is that old Slate article by John Horgan.

    i read that Horgan article more than a year ago and even post a response on my blog. see:

    i have filed that article under #buddhismfail :)


  3. This is based on an old and badly arged article by John Horgan which I critiqued here.

    The major vehicle for achieving enlightenment is meditation, touted by both Buddhists and alternative-medicine gurus as a potent way to calm and comprehend our minds. The trouble is, decades of research have shown meditation's effects to be highly unreliable, as James Austin, a neurologist and Zen Buddhist, points out in Zen and Brain. Yes, it can reduce stress, but, as it turns out, no more so than simply sitting still does. Meditation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people.

    The purpose of meditation is not to deal with short-term stress, but long-term suffering. In recent decades Buddhist meditation techniques have been adapted for use in clinical settings to treat stress, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and pain. Clinical trials have demonstrated very good results, for example:

    "it substantially reduced the risk of relapse in those who had three or more previous episodes of depression (from 66 per cent to 37 per cent)"

    "people who reported being “more mindful” than others also reported having positive psychological traits as high self-esteem, higher life satisfaction, more positive feelings, less anxiety, and less depression. They next tested whether inducing a mindful state can alleviate stress during an extremely stressful period – the time following cancer surgery. They trained a group of cancer patients to enter a mindful state. What they found was that indeed, patients who were trained to become more mindful did, in fact, report less stress. This suggests that being more mindful can reduce stress, even during the most stressful times of our lives."

    "these results suggest that MBSR may help a broad range of individuals to cope with their clinical and nonclinical problems."

    "Intervention subjects reported significant decreases from baseline in effect of daily hassles (24%), psychological distress, (44%), and medical symptoms (46%) that were maintained at the 3-month follow-up compared to control subjects"

    "findings suggest that mindfulness-based interventions may be helpful in the treatment of several disorders."

    These treatments are approved by health services in the US and the NHS in the UK. MBCT is now recommended in the guidelines of the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) as a treatment of choice for recurrent depression.

    The insights imputed to meditation are questionable, too. Meditation, the brain researcher Francisco Varela told me before he died in 2001, confirms the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, which holds that the self is an illusion. Varela contended that anatta has also been corroborated by cognitive science, which has discovered that our perception of our minds as discrete, unified entities is an illusion foisted upon us by our clever brains. In fact, all that cognitive science has revealed is that the mind is an emergent phenomenon, which is difficult to explain or predict in terms of its parts; few scientists would equate the property of emergence with nonexistence, as anatta does.

    Anatta does not teach that the self is non-existent, but that the sense that we are metaphysically separate and continuous entity, independent from the rest of the universe is an illusion. This is indeed supported by centuries of brain science and philosophy of mind.

  4. But most people are distressed by sensations of unreality, which are quite common and can be induced by drugs, fatigue, trauma, and mental illness as well as by meditation. ...

    Source? This is not my experience or that of the other meditators I know.

    Buddhism holds that enlightenment makes you morally infallible—like the pope, but more so. Even the otherwise sensible James Austin perpetuates this insidious notion. " 'Wrong' actions won't arise," he writes

    This is an error which has occasionally come up in Zen, especially when it first arrived in the West. Fortunately it's quite rare.

    But what troubles me most about Buddhism is its implication that detachment from ordinary life is the surest route to salvation. Buddha's first step toward enlightenment was his abandonment of his wife and child, and Buddhism (like Catholicism) still exalts male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. It seems legitimate to ask whether a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexuality and parenthood is truly spiritual.

    Some forms of Buddhism have the attitude that leaving the wordly life for a while is important and some don't. In all cases, living in a monastery is entirely optional.

  5. it still shares with other religions a very basic element: a belief that the universe is in some fashion set up for our sake — or at least set up in a manner conducive to our needs. In Christianity this is more obvious with the belief in a a god that supposedly created the universe for our benefit. In Buddhism, it is expressed in the belief that there are cosmic laws that exist solely to process our "karma" and make it possible for us to "advance" in some fashion.

    The law of karma is just the law of action and consequnces. Not all forms of Buddhism insist on the same interpretations of the details of this that Buddha taught 2600 years ago.

  6. Well..there you have it. I think the Mythbusters team would call this one busted.

  7. a belief that the universe is in some fashion set up for our sake — or at least set up in a manner conducive to our needs.

    Um, I don't believe that and I'm a Buddhist. I don't think many Buddhists believe this--even some traditional Buddhists.

    Personally I believe in the cyclic theory of the Universe. As for karma, well science has pretty much proven it through cause and effect. As well as the law that nothing ever disappears but simply changes form.

    Oh and how can the universe be set up for our sake if "we" don't exist as we Buddhists believe?

  8. Thanks for all the comments, I think Justin and James said it much more clearly than I.

  9. I identify as an atheist as well as a Buddhist, so the About article was interesting for me to read. It made me wonder if I'm really a Buddhist after all, since almost none of this writer's claims match up with my experience or beliefs. I especially laughed at the comment that meditation doesn't seem to fix problems any better than "simply sitting" - to me, meditation IS simply sitting, in contrast to all of the hullaballoo of the rest of my life.

    However, I found other repeated commentary relevant to my own uneasiness, such as the Buddha's abandonment of his family and the exalted status of male monasticism - I have my own struggles with both. But it's true that in many Buddhist traditions neither abandonment of familial relationships nor isolated monasticism is considered essential.

    I doubt his interpretation of enlightenment and karma. To me, karma is just cause-and-effect, though some cultures have indeed determined it to be a cosmic self-centered cycle, extending beyond death, which is not really any more rational than the Abrahamic religions - so this line of thinking would of course be skeptical to an atheist.

    There is plenty in Buddhist theology, if that is the right word, that places it firmly in the arena of irrational religious discourse, but it's not a necessity to accept it all, and indeed, nothing can be known but what we experience, so it would be foolish to accept it all (in my opinion).

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. Thank you Chandelle,

    I don't think that Buddhism should be by any means above criticism or potential for review. The Buddha chose to leave his family (in the security of palace life). And without him doing so there would be no Buddhism. But we are not required to. He was a progressive in terms of equality of the sexes - even if he didn't go the whole way. Yet do women have fully equal opportunities even in the modern west? The main thing is that we shouldn't feel that we have to replicate the social values of the past.

    I don't feel comfortable either being asked to take implausible-seeming cosmic principles such as literal rebirth and 'judicious karma' on faith, which is why I chose a path (Zen) which was non-dogmatic about such things.

    First and foremost, Buddhism is an investigation.

  11. Chandelle - Thank you for those thoughts! I think you make a lot of valid points and we should examine the definition of what a Buddhist is.

    The reason I took exception to the authors post was his not trying to define himself, but trying to define an entire aspect of Buddhism. He tries to assert that if you say you are a Buddhist than you must believe in X,Y and Z. I'm not to keen on other people telling me what I believe and what I don't believe. I guess its kind like saying if you lived in Germany between 1932 and 1945 you were a Nazi.

    What defines our beliefs and our conceptions is very unquie to each individual and varies greatly from one person to another. I, myself don't believe in the cosmic mystical aspect some Buddhists do, but does that make me less Buddhist?

    You write very well Chandelle, thank you again for you thoughts!

    ps. You were right about the caloric intake of vegtibles. I studied up and saw how it is easy enough to fill the needs I precieve to have with vegetibles alone. Was kind of cool to read that Vegan Bodybuilders blog too.