For me, giving up religious addiction isn't done "cold turkey," all at once. It's a gradual process. I discarded the most ridiculous notions early on, but afterwards I find myself letting go of faith-based beliefs bit by bit.
Buddhism and Taoism are examples of this.
I've given away quite a few of my books in these genres that I couldn't bear to read any more. Even Zen books. Just because spirituality comes in an "Eastern" guise doesn't mean it is free of the dogmatism and supernaturalism that infects Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
So now I'm only able to enjoy Buddhist and Taoist writings that make scientific sense. Or at least aren't opposed to a rational, experiential understanding of everyday reality.
Which explains why I've started reading "Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom meets Modern Western Science." I read a review of David Barash's book in New Scientist.
(In case the review disappears from the New Scientist web site, I'll include it as a continuation to this post.)
Here's some excerpts from the first chapter that I resonate with.
Full disclosure: I have been a practicing biologist for more than four decades and an aspiring Buddhist (or "Buddhist sympathizer") for about as long, but I am definitely more the former than the latter. I have no religious "faith," if faith is taken to mean belief without evidence.
Indeed, I have a powerful distrust of organized religion and a deep aversion to anything -- anything -- that smacks of the supernatural. Give me the natural, the real, the material, every time.
...I am a Buddhist atheist, a phrase that may seem contradictory but that has legitimacy not only in my case, but as a description of many others, of whom the former Buddhist monk and current scholar and author Stephen Bachelor is best-known.
...By contrast, it is hard to imagine a Muslim or Christian atheist, since the terms are oxymoronic: they contradict each other.
...a "Christian" who doesn't believe in the divinity of Jesus would seem not only a poor Christian but no Christian at all. Interestingly, Jewish atheists are comparatively abundant, probably because unlike Islam and Christianity, whose followers are defined as those who espouse the tenets of their religion, Jews are defined as much by their ethnicity as their religious beliefs. There are also many "Jew-Boos," people who identify both as Jewish and as Buddhist.
...High on the list of Buddhist absurdities are the phenomenon of iddhi, supernatural events that are supposed to be generated by extremely skillful and committed meditation. They appear often in Buddhist texts and I don't believe a word of them.
...The traditional Buddhist cosmology is, however, very specific, and more than a little weird, with the world composed of thirty-one levels.
...A final example in which I (and many other Buddhist sympathizers) part company with traditional Buddhist beliefs concerns the doctrine of reincarnation.... For those of us interested in reconciling Buddhism with science in general and biology in particular, traditional reincarnation remains a pronounced and irreconcilable outlier.
...the present book will likely trouble those otherwise gentle Buddhist souls who so revere Tenzin Gyatso that they append to his name the honorific "HH," His Holiness. "The Dalai Lama" is okay with me, since that is how this particular gentleman is widely known, but even though I greatly admire him for his kindness as well as his wisdom, I cannot swallow the notion that he is any holier than thou, or me, or Charles Darwin, or anyone else. Either we are all holy (whatever that means), or no one is.
...I hold to the position that Buddhism in its most useful, user-friendly, and indeed meaningful form is not in fact a religion in the standard Western sense of the term. Rather, it is a perspective, a philosophical tradition of inquiry and wisdom, a way of looking at the world that is often perverted into a kind of "sky-god" faith complete with other nonsensical rigamarole, but, in its more genuine form, is anything but that.
Here's the New Scientist review:
In Buddhist Biology, David Barash highlights parallels between these empirical systems of thought, and suggests that together they can show us how to live
AT FIRST glance, Buddhism and science seem natural bedfellows. Both seek essential truths about the world and the human condition and both set great store on their empirical approach. Yet the perception of a growing affiliation notwithstanding, at a deep level they are some way apart.
The Buddhist approach to understanding is largely subjective: no one can meditate for you. And certain Buddhist principles, such as reincarnation, are blatantly unscientific. Science, on the other hand, requires verification and is often poor at quantifying personal experience (note the "hard problem" of consciousness). Above all, whereas science strives for objective knowledge, Buddhism offers an ethical framework in which to apply it.
In his new book, Buddhist Biology, evolutionary psychologist David Barash is candid about this misalignment. His main aim, however, is to do for biology what other Buddhist-inclined writers have done for neuroscience, physics and psychology – to highlight the parallels between the two disciplines, which he says "complement each other like a pair of powerful searchlights illuminating the same thing from different angles".
He homes in on three areas where the commonalities are most evident. The first is individual identity – our sense of having a fixed self – which Buddhists claim is an illusion (many brain and behavioural scientists would agree; see New Scientist, 5 May 2012, p 44). Barash sees a biological equivalent in the understanding that we are a product of the genes we inherited and the biological processes that sustain us, nothing more.
Likewise, you don't have to look far in nature for affirmation of the Buddhist principle of impermanence, which holds that all things are in a state of flux: life is growth and decay, organic material is constantly recycled, even genes mutate.
Finally, the Buddhist idea that nothing exists as an independent entity but rather arises through multiple causes and conditions is a fundamental tenet of ecology. Decades of field studies have shown that organisms are shaped by their environment, and by the community of other species that make up their ecosystem. "Food webs, such as those connecting mouse, acorn, and gypsy moth, do not merely describe who eats whom, but trace the outlines of their very being," Barash writes. No wonder that Buddhism, more than any other religion, is a natural ally of environmentalism: interconnectedness is written into both their creeds.
Barash presents all this with an infectious enthusiasm that more than makes up for the book's occasional shortcomings: it is repetitive in places, and the lengthy quotes from Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and other scholars sometimes feel indulgent. Mysteriously, he waits until the final chapter to reveal his true motivation, which is to find meaning in a world in which life is defined by the success of our selfish genes. He hopes to go beyond the science, to transcend what he calls "the brute biological fact of being alive".
This is what the American psychiatrist Ernest Becker labelled humanity's "terrifying dilemma" in his 1973 classic, The Denial of Death. Mankind, he wrote, "has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness. And yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever".
Barash's preferred solution to this uniquely human conundrum is to coalesce aspects of biology, Buddhism and existentialism into a kind of manifesto to live by. It reshapes his trajectory considerably, so that by the end the book feels more like a philosophical treatise than the sophisticated analysis that it largely is.
This is not in any way a weakness, although it says a lot more about the limits of science and its divergence from Buddhism than perhaps Barash intended.
Another happy customer of religion.
Posted by: Skeptic | January 19, 2014 at 05:47 AM
Hi Brian, thanks for this info on Barash's book. I might read Buddhist Biology (when it comes out in paperback) as it appears to compliment my interest and background as a naturalist/ecologist.
It was my early(amateur)interest in the interconnectedness of life (later to become popular in the 1960's as ecology), that prompted me to study religions to see what they had to say. The faith religions I soon realised divorced man and nature so immediately alienated me from them.
Buddhism though did express this connection and also pointed to the study of the mind. The 'religious/belief' aspect was off-putting but leaving that aside I found their views of the mind/self issue interesting. This was long before neuroscience and fMRI scanning later complimented some of the Buddhist findings.
So along with Stephen Batchelor's approach of being an athiest Buddhist, I think I may find Buddhist Biology 'enlightening'.
Posted by: Turan | January 20, 2014 at 01:48 AM