Sunday, April 24, 2005

Splinters and beams

"We must love them both - those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in the finding of it."
--St. Thomas Aquinas

In today's mainstream Western News, Benedict XVI was formally inaugurated as the new Pope, there were more deadly car bombings in Iraq, and there is ongoing criticism of reports clearing top level officials in recent scandals: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in culpability in the "oil-for-food" scandal and Donald Rumsfeld in the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Right now: Outside it overcast and blustery with snow flakes falling. Yes, the date is correct, and there is snow. The rat terries are looking for some kind of mischief in which to involve themselves.
I find open worldwide communication, as provided on the internet through blogs, message boards, and chat rooms, to be very interesting and to possess great potential for increasing awareness and understanding (in spite of the misinformation and distraction they also sometimes generate). In observing the interaction of some dialogue between (primarily Western-based) religious and non-religious people, I find there are some underlying assumptions each group tends to have about the other. These are not universal, nor are they always overtly expressed. They primarily apply to people who (whether they admit it to themselves or not) tend to look down on "the other side" of the debate:

Non-religious people...

Tend to see religion as (one or more of the following)--
  • being theistic, or primarily theistic, and so talk about theism and religion interchangeably
  • a collection of outdated explanatory models for things like the movement of the sun, moon and stars or mental illness
  • a means of 'coping' with existence from an ego-centric point of view, giving 'unwarranted' special meaning or importance to individual human existence and alleviating the fear of non-existence at the point of death
  • a institutionalized means of controlling ideas, feelings, and societal norms
  • a scam to take money and power from the gullible

Tend to see religious people as (one or more of the following)--
  • uneducated or poorly informed about science
  • emotionally weak or damaged people who need the 'crutch' of religion/who can't face 'naked' reality or truth
  • moralistic schemers and their sheepish followers who want to use their faith to push a particular (anti-progressive) social/religious agenda
  • snake oil salespeople and suckers

Religious people...

Tend to see non-religious philosophies as (one or more of the following)--
  • unrooted in any kind of foundation outside of individual whim or passing fad
  • hostile and prejudicial toward religion and anything associated with religion
  • as a means to justify a hedonistic, immoral, or "non-traditional" lifestyle
  • as a form of intellectual elitism

Tend to see non-religious people as (one or more of the following)--
  • opponents of religious liberty
  • arrogant and condescending towards religious people
  • deluded or willingly ignorant about spiritual matters
  • hypocritical in claiming to be open-minded about everything but religion

These beliefs can be deceptive as they mix truth and innaccuracy. It is true, for example, that many religions incorporate explanations of things such as illness in terms of supernatural agents, but it is also true that this is not the core or substance of religion. It is true that some non-religious folks do see their non-belief as a form of intellectual superiority, but that is not the defining quality of non-religious philosophy. The profiles of the religious and non-religious people are equally problematic, but what is more unfortunate than these prejudices is the fact that all too often they appear to be accurate. Of course, internet forums seem to have a higher percentage more opininated and confrontational people than the general population, but even the more popular broadcast and print media tend to emphasize such polarizing perspectives. I recall on one program someone suggesting that religious moderates were the "true problem" in having a dialogue about religion!

I recently discussed this issue when I interjected myself into an online debate over whether Buddhism should be considered a religion:

I have observed that people raised in societies dominated by Judeo-Christian cultures tend to look at the current forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and use them for the basis of "what religion is". I do not find that to be unreasonable given their circumstances, but I also find it to be short-sighted. Moreover, many beliefs are which are not separately institutionalized in some small-scale (and even some large scale) societies involve concepts and rituals which would otherwise be called "religious" by this type of methodology. It's basically taking things that are vaguely similar in different cultures and forcing them under the same label for comparative purposes. For example:

  • If it has to do with meaning or purpose, it might be religious.
  • If it has to do with explanations or truths best described in parables or myths, it might be religious.
  • If it involves unseen supernatural agencies or powers, it might be religious.
  • If it involves some concept of transcendence, it might be religious.
  • If it has organized rituals and ceremonies dealing with liminal periods in cultural life (birth, becoming an adult, marriage, death), it might be religious
  • If it involves dogma, it might be religious

The “degree of religiosity” required to be considered “like a religion” as opposed to being considered “an actual religion” is not really fixed, and while the cultural components for all of the above are universal they are not always found packaged together the same way. This has prompted philosophers (professional and amateur) as well as (typically liberal) religious leaders to speculate on what is really important and distinctive about religion. In a brief article in The Humanist on the original Humanist Manifesto, author Jack Sechrest points out that “The manifesto generation saw religion as that system of beliefs, attitudes, and practices that assist us in our attempt to become our best selves. Spirituality was seen as that personal quality of being aware, connected, and committed to a life of wellbeing for others as well as ourselves." This type of thinking has had a profound affect on the Universalist Unitarian Association which states that “religion is an ongoing search for meaning, purpose, value and spiritual depth in one's life.”
Bringing it back to Buddhism, the current Dalai Lama on religion:
“I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with belief in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another--an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of meta-physical or philosophical reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or hell. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayers and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit--such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony, which bring happiness to both self and others.” (from Ethics for the New Millennium)

And on another occasion he wrote:
“There is real value in finding the spiritual resources you need in your home religion. Even secular humanism has great spiritual resources; it is almost like a religion to me. All religions try to benefit people, with the same basic message of the need for love and compassion, for justice and honesty, for contentment.” (from interview in "Mother Jones", available online here)

Now obviously HH the Dalai Lama does not speak for all Buddhists or all forms of Buddhism, but I think it nicely brings the issue back around to the question of whether or not Buddhism is a religion. And the answer must be—it all depends on how you define a religion. There are rituals and ceremonies and teachings about transcendence. It encompasses a “system of beliefs, attitudes, and practices that assist us in our attempt to become our best selves”. It certainly is centered on benefiting people by promoting the cultivation of love and compassion. Yet it has no required role for a sentient Creator God. It’s concepts of Heavens and Hells aren’t event permanent conditions, and what’s more, there is no eternal soul to go to an eternal damnation or paradise anyway. It doesn’t even have an “official” wedding ceremony (though Buddhist monks or priests will certainly offer their blessings). Buddhist leaders and authors, both the ordained and laypeople, have at times said that Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, both a religion and a philosophy, and neither a religion nor a philosophy. I would submit though that understanding and appreciating the variety of Buddhist teachings and practices, however, is independent of the label it is given and that it cannot be properly assessed by any form of gross characterization.

What assumptions to do you carry around about religious or non-religous people? What do you imagine such people think about you? How important are such labels to you personally? Do you think Buddhism is a religion? Why? Does it matter?

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