Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, March 03, 2011
The problem with atheism, a Buddhist perspective
by Massimo Pigliucci
No, I have not converted to Buddhism. And yes, I am still an atheist. That said, I’ve been reading a book recommended by a friend of mine, Brad Warner’s Sex, Sin and Zen, which has given me the opportunity to run a little informal experiment about which I’ll tell you in a minute.
Warner is a Zen Buddhist monk, and the book is a light-hearted exploration of what Buddhism has to say regarding one of the things we care most about in life: sex. But this post, alas, is not about sex. Instead, it is about the reaction I got on my “official” Facebook page when I posted the following quote from the book (you can find the exact thread here):
Atheism, as rational and sensible as it is, will never be an adequate substitute for religion. It's like trying to substitute actual eating with a superbly argued essay on food.
The quote comes from a context in which Warner was discussing an article by Elisabeth Cornwell entitled “Why women are bound to religion: an evolutionary perspective,” which makes the commonsense argument that “in order for women to abandon religion and its securities, there needs to be something tangible to replace the support it offers.” Warner then goes on to explain that Buddha realized that “religion and spirituality were pretty much fucked up. But he also understood the very important role they play in human society. As Cornwell points out in her article on the evolution of religion, religion serves a need much, much deeper than anything the intellect can ever hope to reach.” And it is this passage that is followed by the quote I posted on Facebook.
I thought this was all obviously true, and in fact reflects a standing debate within both the atheist and secular humanist communities (they overlap, but they are most certainly not identical) to explain why religion — pace Nietzsche — is still very much alive and well in the 21st century. The response I got from my Facebook friends was somewhat surprising. There were more than 20 comments within a matter of minutes (35 as of the time of this writing), with 3,666 “impressions” (a number that Facebook provides to give you an idea of how many people have seen your post on their Wall —- the 666 figure is, I take it, just a coincidence).
If you scroll through the comments, two patterns emerge: first, most people missed what I thought was the obvious point of the quote (granted, I had the advantage of having read the full chapter, but still); second, the overwhelming majority of the posts were defensive to the utmost degree. Here is a sample:
"Avoiding wood alcohol, as rational and sensible as it is, will never be an adequate substitute for wood alcohol. It's like trying to substitute actual eating with a superbly argued essay on food."
"Whoever said that atheism is supposed to be a substitute for religion? I am an atheist and I do not want a substitute for religion. If I missed religion, I'd get myself some."
"This is a silly analogy. One could just as well say it's trying to substitute injecting yourself with syphilis with a superbly argued essay on not being a jackass."
"And I suppose that not collecting stamps is not a substitute for a hobby either..."
"If you really want baloney, you can still go to the supermarket."
"An aphorism can never be an adequate substitute for more complex writing. It is an argument from authority which uses a specific poetic approach to make the ideas more appealing."
"We're all born atheists. It' religion that's the substitute."
"Atheism does not contain ritual, ceremony, or practice, and so is not like eating."
"Avoiding poison, as rational and sensible as it is, will never be an adequate substitute for eating poison."
"Atheism could never be a substitute for religion, in the same way that not stamp collecting could never be a substitute for stamp collecting."
"This implies an unsubstantiated hunger that is not recognized by fulfilled agnostics."
You get the gist. There were, of course, also some readers who took the quote as an indication of a serious problem:
"Instead of substituting religion, if we start reflecting upon the need to fill the void it may get us some where... and in the process, hopefully, not fill the void with magic and wishful thinking."
"The bare thesis of atheism provides none of the social supports, ethical guidelines, or cosmological-metaphysical closure of religion. Humanism, however, can and does."
"There is a hole that needs filling (physical and metaphysical explanations, justifications for moral codes, social cohesion, sense of community, belonging, purpose, common goals, etc.) and religion just happened to develop in order to fill that hole."
"Atheism isn't in the business of replacing religion. Humanism is. Atheism is the demolition phase. Humanism is the new foundation."
The first set of quotes (and similar others on the thread) reflect an all too common reflexive attitude by several of my fellow atheists, a “(rhetorically) shoot first and understand later” sort of approach which is not exactly conducive to constructive discourse. This reflexive attitude seems to be based on two underlying assumptions: first, that whatever comes from religion must be bad, by definition; second, that atheists don’t need to do much more than point out how silly the other side is, and we are done. Both assumptions are highly questionable.
Without getting into a long history of both Western and Eastern thought — a history in which religions have played a major positive as well as negative role regardless of how much we would like them to play only a negative one — it seems to me undeniable that religions do indeed, as Buddha recognized and Warner re-articulated, fill a fundamental human psychological niche. That niche has to do not just with explanations of how the world works (an area in which science has steadily and inexorably overtaken religion even in the mind of many religious people), but with meaning, emotions, ethics, and the specter of final and total annihilation of the self.
It is these latter dimensions of the niche that most people refer to as “spirituality,” and neither science nor atheism can do a damn thing about them, unfortunately. Science can tell us which parts of the brain are responsible for our emotions, or are used when we engage in moral decision making, but that’s a completely different set of questions that has only a superficial bearing on the real issues.
Before you start furiously hitting your keyboard to pen long and angry responses to the above paragraph, please pause to think that nothing I am writing here can reasonably be construed as a defense of religion. But it is a (partial) explanation of why religion persists despite literally millennia of attempts by the secular-rational community to get rid of it. It is a fact that we better face and analyze, rather than run away from.
Which brings me to the second assumption that seems to underlie many of my readers’ responses: surely once we explain to people that there are no gods, once we break the spell to use my friend Daniel Dennett’s phrase, people will flock to atheism in droves and we’ll be done with religion once and for all. Hence the popularity in certain quarters of the New Atheists’ attacks on religion — as well as their abysmal failure to make a dent in the phenomenon of religion itself. To be fair, one can hardly expect a handful of books to change society (well, except for the Old Testament, or the Christian Gospels, or the Quran, or the Vedas, or the Theravada, or...), but the disheartening fact is that there really isn’t anything new in the New Atheism. As documented by Jennifer Michael Hecht in her super Doubt: A History we have been going at it for millennia, and yet religions persist, largely unperturbed by the barrage of rational arguments against them. Do you see why Warner is right, that we do have a problem?
The quotes from my Facebook responses which struck closest to what I think is a good analysis are those that present atheism as the first of two punches that the secular movement is attempting to deliver to the religious juggernaut, what philosopher Francis Bacon (in the context of how science works) called the pars destruens (the project of destruction). Bacon then argued that one doesn’t get very far by just demolishing things, one has to build something in their stead, what he termed the pars construens (the construction project). Here the pars construens can be played by secular humanism, which — unlike atheism — is a philosophy with positive values.
There are a couple of problems, however. I have already nodded at the most obvious one: not all atheists are secular humanists. This is because it is easier to agree on what we all do not believe than on what we do believe. Secular humanism, at least as presented in the various Humanist Manifestos, adopts a number of positions that are clearly reflective of European style progressive liberalism, which means that our libertarian friends (a sizable minority within the atheism movement), not to mention the comparatively few (in my experience) conservative atheists, immediately (and ill advisedly, in my opinion) jump ship. I know a good number of atheists who proudly distance themselves from secular humanism.
The other thing is, humanist groups and even humanist inspired congregations have been around for quite some time now, but they haven’t made much of a dent. Think of the American Humanist Association, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Society for Ethical Culture, the American Ethical Union, and even — to some extent — the Unitarians. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t been trying. But have you been at any meetings or platforms of any of these groups? They are usually attended by a small number of people, more often than not with a population characterized by an aging demographic. They are simply not going to be the response to religion that we are looking for, no matter how much good they do for the people that support them.
So we do have a problem, and we don’t seem to know what to do about it. Let me leave you with a few more thoughts from Warner — not because I endorse everything he says (I’m certainly not about to enlist as a Buddhist), but because it provides us with much food for thought, if we can manage to stop the damn knee-jerk reaction that is sure to powerfully present itself a few lines into his writings:
"A lot of people consider Buddhism a form of atheism. In a sense it is, in that it does not have a god in the usual sense of the word. We don’t have a deity figure. We don’t have a creation myth. We don’t fear reprisals from cosmic grandpa if we fail to worship him properly. Yet ... the universe in Buddhist terms is not dead matter or a cosmic void. It is a living, intelligent thing we all partake in. ... If God is a big ‘ol white dude in the sky who smites sinners and rewards football players, then I’m an atheist. If God exists outside the universe, I’m an atheist. If God cares more for one religion than another, I’m an atheist. And if God believes that women are inferior to men, I’m an atheist. ... I don’t worship God as an old man on a throne beyond the orbit of Jupiter, but I do worship the universe. The universe is more than dead matter. It’s more than insubstantial spirit."
Well, I don’t think the universe is any such thing, but clearly our message is much harder to successfully deliver. Is there any way around this, or is secularism forever destined to be a minority position among humankind?