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(Still) more on science and religion

November 26, 2011

A little while ago, I couldn’t help commenting on a post I reshared on Google +, even though the content is maybe more suited to some of what I’ve been doing here. (Very possibly why, at the time of writing this, nobody has responded there; it’s kind of dense by many people’s standards.) I tried to keep things short over there, believe it or not ;), but I thought I’d repost it here where it is more relevant, and probably expand a bit.

I’m trying to avoid nesting blockquotes here, but will set it off with dividing lines for clarity. And change the formatting a bit, so I’m not top-posting before there’s any context to wrap around it. (I ended up having trouble getting some line break/paragraph spacing formatting in particular right after pasting that in, and ran out of spoons to deal with it. So, sorry it’s kind of ugly in places.)


via +John Pappas [of Sweep the dust, Push the dirt–which I haven’t been able to keep up with well lately! But, very thoughtful blog.]:

Science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can…

I enjoyed the article but any religion practice is defined by an individual’s need, perspective and inherent skepticism. In that way there is a spectrum of religious people even within one particular static belief system. This is also why organized religions are so fearful of “picking and choosing” aspects of the religion you “belong” to. When you choose for yourself you disintegrate the power structure that religions built around themselves to secure their position in society. You, in essence, state that they are not needed.

And you are correct. It becomes the goal of the individual to align their spiritual self with the stark (but wonderful) realities that science unfolds.

Gareth John's profile photoGareth John originally shared this post:

At last:

“All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.”

Brilliant piece on why Buddhism shouldn’t be awarded ‘special status’ by the skeptical community. Like all religions, it’s got its fair share of woo too.

For a 2,500-year-old religion, Buddhism seems remarkably compatible with our scientifically oriented culture, which may explain its surging popularity here in America. Over the last 15 years, the numb…
______ My response:______

+John Pappas raises some excellent points. I would add explicitly that the tendency to wrap certain kinds of rigid structures and types of mysticism around a philosophical system, should not be confused with the underlying philosophical system itself.

While John Horgan does make some interesting observations about tendencies in Western Buddhism specifically, I kept getting frustrated reading the article because the author seemed to be bringing in many of the same preconceptions about the way the world works which lead to some of tendencies he was describing. Including filtering this through the kind of oppositional dualistic worldview which is kinda incompatible with Buddhist philosophy. This includes the assumption that somehow science and everything that gets described as religion are inherently incompatible and ultimately irreconcilable.

If your philosophical system gets in the way of trying to understand the world around you–whatever the details may be–you’re doing it wrong.

Something I wrote about that general theme, from a different philosophical perspective, a while back–though most of the points apply equally well to Buddhist philosophy:

Illusions getting in the way? Hrm. I didn’t get the impression that he developed a very thorough understanding of the actual philosophy involved, before rejecting some of the outward trappings and, indeed, ways that philosophical concepts and the terms for them are commonly interpreted by people coming from Western systems–which may or may not say much about, say, anatta itself. (Which does not have much in common with Western nihilism, no.)

These days I identify more as Buddhism-inspired, myself, but seem to have put a lot more time and effort into trying to make sense of a philosophical system I might or might not more fully identify with.

[Added as a comment:]

I totally forgot to mention the assumptions of some kind of conflict between individual and wider community interests. Which, particularly for people who have grown up with the common emphasis on rugged individualism pushed in dominant US culture, I can well imagine is hard to get past as a base assumption about how the world must inevitably work. This applies equally well to some of Horgan’s observations–and to some of the frankly narcissistic behavior I have personally witnessed in some Western convert communities. (While this level of it is, indeed, not the norm, it is kind of hard not to notice.)And none of this meshes too well with a Buddhist (or other) emphasis on interconnectedness.

There is another view: that strong individuals kinda by definition make for strong communities, and that you can’t do much to help other people have good lives unless or until you deal with your own stuff. Emphasis on the two levels of organization is not mutually exclusive.


I didn’t want to clog things up there with links back to posts here–out of my usual desire for thorough explanations before anybody can misinterpret what I’m trying to say :)–but I wrote some about this no conflict required kind of approach to individuals and wider communities especially toward the end of .

Buddhism has, for most of its history, run up against and needed reconciliation with different cultural outlooks; one of the strengths of the philosophical traditions there is that they have the built-in flexibility to do that. I was trying to find a good link to something going into how the initial monastic approach clashed big time with the rather different Chinese emphasis on community–and the compromises and changes in approach and presentation to reconcile this, through emphasis on individuals helping their families through getting their own shit sorted out–but didn’t have much luck finding something suitable right now. But, some of the results, from a decent more general discussion of some of the philosophical conflicts:

The most Daoist of Chinese sects is famously the Chan sect. We can understand its Daoist character by returning to the paradox of desire. Laozi’s analysis says artificial desires are those created by learned distinctions. If we are to eliminate the desire for Nirvana, it must be by “forgetting” the dichotomy of Nirvana-Samsara. This realization is both the inner reality of enlightenment and corresponds to a mystical answer to the being/non-being of Nirvana. It underwrites the Chan/Zen emphasis on practice, the here and now — “every moment Zen” — and the signature “realization” that we are already Buddha. The Buddha nature is your self-nature—again exemplifying the Neo-Daoist “Sage within, King without” spirit…

Chinese Zen was dominated by the notion of “sudden enlightenment” which consists of the denial that any process leads anyone closer to the Buddha-nature. You can’t get any closer — you’re just there.

(Not surprisingly, I was more drawn to Zen/Chan takes on philosophy, and that led me to learn more about the Taoist philosophies that got blended in.) But, this is one of the most common schools of Buddhism taken into the West. It’s unfortunately easy for me to see how some people manage to pretty much miss the whole point–unconsciously–and fall into self-absorption.

Horgan mentions Stephen Batchelor’s works in his article, but seems to have missed one of the major points Batchelor keeps making in Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening (I have not yet read any of his other books, though that one made me think a lot): enlightenment is not some kind of mystical occurrence, but a gradual and continuing process of developing a better understanding of the nature of reality and the world around us, and how we really fit into all this. Much as mentioned in the above quote (with basically becoming able to see one’s “Buddha nature” through all the layers of unhelpful stuff we’ve learned and made up individually), or indeed the closely related processes I talked about some in .

Michel Clasquin-Johnson made some good points in his essay “Buddhism, science, and other world views”, in Common or Garden Dharma. Essays on Contemporary Buddhism, Volume 2 . A sample relevant here (bolding added):

From a Buddhist point of view, it seems that the whole question of the relationship, for which we should read the clash of ideologies, between religion and science is a peculiarly Judæo-Christian problem. As I shall try to make clear, to the Buddhist it is as senseless to say that religion and science are in conflict as to say that mathematics conflicts with English grammar. Both are symbolic languages that attempt to describe reality from a specific perspective. But those initial perspectives are so different that one cannot really talk of a relation between the two unless one posits a higher-order meta-language of which both are subsets…

On a more strictly academic level, one could mention that Buddhist philosophy has addressed many of the same questions as other religious and philosophical traditions, but starting from often radically different starting points. This provides us with a unique vantage point from which to examine our own beliefs and arguments, and discover the often well hidden presuppositions, prejudices and apparently self evident “facts” on which our arguments are so often based

From the Buddhist point of view, the enterprise of physics may well be interesting in a theoretical way, but the origin and composition of the universe has nothing whatever to do with the goal of religious practice. The existence of the universe is, of course, a prerequisite for our existence and hence for the possibility of religious practice, but Buddhism takes this existence as a given and proceeds with no further consideration of the matter to its real concern, the state of the human mind…

And the three central Buddhist themes of impermanence, insubstantiality and unsatisfactoriness are, if not directly applicable as scientific concepts, at least congenial to them. In a later development, these three were conflated into a single concept: “emptiness”. When Buddhists say that “everything is empty”, this does not imply that nothing exists. It does mean that while everything in reality is real enough, no part of it could survive without the simultaneous presence of all other parts. It points to the radical interdependence of all that exists. It denies the existence of any form of reality that occupies a unique place, that exists solely by its own power. It applies this understanding of reality strictly to everything. There is no privileged place in this scheme for homo sapiens. There is no “ghost in the machine” – to classify ourselves as part ghost, part machine is to show an inadequate concept of the complicated nature of existence. We too are part of this unbelievably intricate web of causality, within and without, in which a myriad of causes, known or unknown, shapes what we are and what we become. This does not lead, in Buddhism, to a strict determinism, for volition is recognized as one of the empirically discernible factors that go into making a sentient being. But there is no soul or self in Buddhist thinking, no irreducible core  of human-ness that transcends the vagaries of empirical existence. In fact, what I have called “insubstantiality” above, when read more literally, is “not-self” (anatta).

Much more quoted material than I had intended, but it’s all very relevant. Buddhist philosophy, per se, may not be focused on the same questions as science, but the original emphasis on “question everything” would tend to encourage curiosity about how things are really working in areas more relevant to the sciences.

Personally, I see it all as hard to divide up neatly, and prefer to take pretty much the same approach to all of it. Which seems to me to be kind of the point of all the philosophical influences I’ve chosen to work with, including the Buddhist side of things. That kind of complexity, though, is hard enough to approach with any hope of understanding if you are not relying on common Western philosophical approaches, which are ill-equipped to deal with radically interdependent complexity.

And, yeah, I hope to have the spoons available soon to get back to boring people with the explicitly philosophical series, and maybe even finally get around to the actual chaos and complexity bits. 😉

One way in which Malslow’s hierarchy of needs does not adequately explain reality, BTW: having disability-related trouble, with trouble getting some needs met, can leave you with more time and energy to devote to philosophical questions–not to mention a more pressing perceived need at times.  Kind of like one person put it, in a Muskogee context:

If something is denied the body, the mind and spirit must be in the intake mode. If the mind and spirit are denied something, the body must be fed. It’s a matter of maintaining whole-person balance in our understandings.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2011 10:52 pm

    The idea that religion (of any type) is narcissistic, really seems to stem from the fact that any religion can be practiced in a narcissistic way. But (just about) any religion can also be practiced in a way that is profoundly the opposite of narcissism. People who choose to only look at the narcissists are not going to be able to figure out the reality of what religions can be used for in the right context. (They’re also not acting in the way I’d expect people to act, who go around saying their worldview is about challenging their own preconceptions. This ought to include preconceptions about religion, too.)

    • urocyon permalink*
      November 26, 2011 11:29 pm

      All very good points. I was actually trying to be semi-polite in criticizing the author’s ideas, but, yeah, they are far from uncommon. And end up coming across as very obnoxiously intolerant.

      (They’re also not acting in the way I’d expect people to act, who go around saying their worldview is about challenging their own preconceptions. This ought to include preconceptions about religion, too.)

      That has struck me about “movement atheism” in general. Lots and lots of sloppy thinking, lumping anything that might look remotely religious in together in a not-so-critical way, and getting all self-righteous about it. Not so different from the crappy end of what they’re opposing. (But, yeah, setting up a good bit of your identity in direct opposition to something else just doesn’t seem balanced in the first place–and rests on a lot of the same assumptions.) More One True Wayism, at the bottom of it.

      Then there are the ones who specify theists–without examining what diversity that term covers… *sigh*

      People who choose to only look at the narcissists are not going to be able to figure out the reality of what religions can be used for in the right context.

      Well said. Seeing only what you’re expecting to see is not exactly helping anybody.

  2. S@Amorpha permalink
    December 13, 2011 9:52 am

    Er, hi, drive-by Amorpha here, making a rare (for our recent track record) public comment on a blog! This is mostly by S, speaking for myself, and I used the echolalic I through most of it, but Yarrow did help me out in a few places (mostly with wording things/sharing thoughts she’d had on her own that made sense to me, since we think really closely to the same level about religion/spirituality). I hope this all makes sense, because aside from my existing language problems, it just feels like a lot of it is really imprecise because every time I try to talk about certain things in English, I have to tape words like “spirituality” and “deities” onto concepts in my mind that don’t necessarily line up that well with what most English-speakers assume these things to mean. But you’ve also mentioned having the same problems re: terms like skepticism, so… yeah, feeling kind of like I’m trying to sketch some vague shapes behind a smokescreen right now.

    I think a lot of this kind of thinking comes directly from trying to… reify (argh, brain! I don’t usually use words like that, but I recently read something that defined it in a way that made it seem useful) “religion” as something that’s inherently separate from the process of just living, just because it turned out that way in the Abrahamic monotheistic religions over time. And I know you’ve talked about that before too, but it still absolutely baffles me that so many “logical, philosophical thinkers” don’t apparently notice that actually, most of the rest of the world didn’t do it that way, or didn’t until they came into contact with those models. Or they seem to assume that somehow because those cultures, at least the Christian ones, went on to dominate and control much of the world, it means they’re… somehow the best model to use for defining what “religion” is. What. It’s more like… maybe you should be viewing that as the “deviation” rather than the “norm,” since the majority of cultures that didn’t end up separating “religion” from everyday life did not try to colonize the rest of the world with great violence?

    And I’m not trying to downplay or minimize instances in which they did. I know, for example, that there’s a lot of unresolved bitterness in China and Korea against Japan, since the Japanese government has basically done the equivalent of the German government trying to claim the Holocaust was just a minor skirmish, regarding the atrocities they committed in Asia in WWII. Every instance of such things happening is terrible. But I’m also not surprised that most worldwide examples of it came from cultures which originally divorced “humanity” from “nature” with a religious pretext, and then went on to keep that division when switching to “science” (their concept of what science was, anyway) to guide their ideas instead.

    There’s a book we’ve been meaning to recommend, which has some really disturbing quotes in it from “Enlightenment” scientists, who continually talk about “nature” as female and “science” as male, and use what basically sound like rape metaphors in talking about it, repeatedly. “We must force open Nature and make her yield her secrets/make her open her bosom to us,” things like that. And these weren’t just one or two authors but widely used metaphors and genderings (…if that’s a word). The author’s conclusions were basically “why do we think modern Western science is completely uninfluenced by this kind of thinking when this is how it got started?”, but… better written than I can right here. Why so many people believe there are no problematic ideas that are deeply rooted in the Western concept of science that need to be unpacked, at all.

    But… so yeah: originally a division between “humanity” and “nature,” and then later on the divide between “science” and “religion” which kept that earlier division and still considered it an objective viewpoint. And… a lot of arrogance that grew out of that, thinking that religion meant the same thing in every culture that it means to them, and that science could only ever be what it was in their culture, also. And see all other “religions” as just variations on European-style Christianity, in some form or another, rather than… seeing that many other cultures’ worldviews forms of spirituality are running in completely parallel but different dimensions, almost, and are not just simple mix and match boxes where you just swap different colored pegs in the holes.

    And… I’ve noticed this in some of the places where (some) Westerners seem to treat Buddhism as a non-theistic variation on what they think religion is. Not all of them do this, but… they miss a lot of stuff about how Buddhism is and historically has been lived in the places it originated. To the extent where, I think, if they saw how Buddhism was practiced in a “syncretic” way with various local spiritual traditions in a lot of parts of China, for instance, they wouldn’t even recognize it. They seem to see it as “the good parts of religion without the bad parts.” And that kind of… says more about what they themselves want out of religion, what they call religion, than it does about Buddhism. And their ignoring of the fact that Buddhism in, say, rural Southeast Asia looks very very different from what they’re practicing makes it seem kind of… appropriative? I don’t know if that’s the right word, since Buddhism is a religion that actively invites converts. Just, if you try to take it in while keeping fundamental ideas that actually conflict with the original spirit of it, and dismiss or ignore other worldwide variations in how it’s practiced as being somehow lesser, or “tainted by superstition,” or whatnot, then… something about that seems appropriative in a way I can’t describe in words.

    And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to have or create a “religion minus theism”– I mean, I know a lot of modern Unitarians consider themselves that, and I definitely think they do a lot more good as a group than fundamentalists as a group do. It’s just, when a lot of people talk about “what religion is,” it seems to me like they’re actually talking about what THEY want religion to be and what THEY expect out of religion, or did at one time, and when they say things like “religion is to make people feel good about themselves/feel there’s something greater than themselves in the universe/that the whole universe is designed around them,” they’re basically revealing what THEY wanted out of religion, but decided those things were wrong/immature/childish/etc.

    I have no problems agreeing with the part that there’s something seriously wrong with that way of thinking. I have the problems with defining that as The Reason For All Religion Everywhere, and… willfully ignorant arrogance of refusing to really look outside their own cultural paradigm. And assuming that those desires, if they had them, reflect universal human desires and are somehow rooted in our very neurology. Rather than ideas that got trained into them very early by a culture with fundamental beliefs that the job of humans is to conquer everything in some way or another, and that humans are intrinsically more important than any other kind of being in the world.

    And this is about the part where I feel like I’m in the freaking Twilight Zone when people start going about “what religion is” and “what religious people want.” Because… I’ve never felt that I need to have a purpose given to my life by an omnipotent, omniscient being who created the universe in order to have meaning. The idea that the rest of the universe in some way exists for my benefit comes across as one of the most grossly narcissistic ideas ever, and I don’t think it’s ever even crossed my head except during periods of time when I was going to extremes of solipsism in thought-experiments, like “what if everything I thought was my life is just a dream I’m dreaming.” (Which I think a lot of people think of at least once in their lives– in the end though, I found out that considering it too seriously made me really paranoid and even a bit crazy for a while, so I stopped doing it because there was really no point to it.)

    And yet, spirituality is a crucial part of my life, and not in the Religion-Minus-Theism sense either. I have a relationship with a goddess that is a very important guiding factor in my life. It’s just that I’ve never expected her to shield me from all harm or decided that her purpose was to make me feel good about herself; I expect her to be honest with me when I need to change something in myself, even if the changing is rough, and make me confront various aspects of reality that I’m trying to run away from when the time has come that I need to face them.

    And none of this… crosses any wires, either, with my understanding of how vast the universe truly is. It doesn’t make me feel that I, or she, are unimportant. If everyone has their rightful place in the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if that scheme is tiny or huge beyond human comprehension. I like to look at pictures of space, and see the newest estimates of just how big the universe really is, how many galaxies are really out there. It doesn’t frighten me, or bother me, or make me feel my life is meaningless. In fact, it feels wonderful and amazing to discover these things, and that the universe really is stranger and more complex than human minds can really comprehend.

    And… there is something seriously wrong, too, with the idea that individual humans, individual lives, are automatically meaningless in a vast universe, no matter what your beliefs. I don’t understand it either when people decide the size of the universe and our relative smallness is a painful truth and that we “must ultimately face our cosmic insignificance.” Just because you feel insignificant in the face of it (and define significance, also) doesn’t mean I do. Or that anyone who thinks they’re significant has just come up with some lie to string themselves along on. I think it says more about the people who think everyone everywhere must want a Daddy God type of deity just because they did, or grew up among people who did, or think the idea of having one is appealing and so they must resist it.

    And then draw conclusions about others’ beliefs about deities from that. And don’t seem to get that for some people, it’s more like taking advice from a very wise grandmother. That a person can be theistic, in some sense of the word, but not expect their deities to be omnipotent or omniscient or shield them from all harm or make them feel good about themselves, and view them instead as… part of a connected everything, not as “magic people in the sky,” things that sit outside the rest of creation and watch. And that trying to establish a single physical location or presence for them is just a… “does not compute” thing, and that their more anthropomorphic manifestations are not even close to the entirety of what they are. (To be honest, some varieties of chaos magic actually come closer to my beliefs than any mainstream religion in this culture does, or at least the parts about… belief and existence being sort of a two-way street in some cases. But then I don’t hold with any attempts to make rigid rules about it. It’s just… different paradigm, with a few things in common that most mainstream religions don’t have in common with my beliefs.)

    There are definitely people who want to believe that Someone Up There Has A Plan and use it to skiv off responsibility for things down here on earth. I think the Christian Evangelical idea of the “rapture” is probably the best example of that kind of thinking, but there are lesser versions of it. And I agree that that is a dangerous and irresponsible way to think, and that “subdue and conquer the earth and let God sort the rest out” has caused a lot of immense damage. On the other hand, I don’t see that we’re doing all that much better with the idea that science will “someday” find solutions to various problems, so we don’t really have to worry about them now. Like, I’ve seen people insisting that we don’t need to worry about things like corporations dumping toxic waste because “they have scientists figuring out how to fix it, it’ll all sort itself out somehow!”, and accusing you of being anti-science and a Luddite if you disagree. Someone Up There Has A Plan is actually a lot more worrisome to me when the Someone Up There is a human CEO and not a being assumed to be omniscient, for some reason.

    And… well I’ve seen other people objecting to the same parts of transhumanism that I objected to, the reasons I can’t really call myself a transhumanist in good conscience, so I won’t braindump that here. Just, it puzzles me when people think they’ve totally broken away from the destructive underpinnings of Western society because they don’t believe in an omnipotent omniscient god who controls every detail of our lives or that a virgin gave birth to a man who was the son of that god, and place all the blame for colonialism/genocide/other forms of destruction on those specific beliefs, and then go on to spin out plans for their vision of the future where humanity colonizes the entire universe. Without ever bringing up where the resources for their theoretical space colonies and whatnot are going to come from, for instance. And think that, somehow, the patterns of what happened when that underlying basic mentality tried to colonize the rest of the Earth will not repeat themselves (especially if we do encounter sentient life at a distance we can contact).

    Heck, even people who are less ambitious– I’ve seen people defending industrial agriculture, for instance, on the grounds that it could make the whole world vegetarian (which they assume is best for everybody) and seriously having no clue at all that there are very real destructive consequences of industrial agriculture, believing that it’s very “scientific” and therefore safe and sustainable. It all seems to come down to, we don’t have to think too hard about the long-term repercussions of what we’re doing right now. And that’s one of the scariest things in the world to me, whatever the pretext is.

    I don’t believe in the “singularity” any more than I believe in the rapture. And anthropocentric thinking of the kind that insists human existence is meaningless if we’re just “specks in a vast cosmos,” is equally bothersome to me whether it’sconcluding that life is meaningless unless there is some anthropomorphic entity controlling every last bit of our lives, or by saying that we have to become the omnipotent gods and conquer the entire universe ourselves. (Again with the conquest talk.) I don’t rule out that there might be some very, very powerful beings out there, that some of them may have influenced humans in ways we couldn’t fully discover, but I also think that they’d be so incredibly different from humans that it would be very difficult for us to even really imagine what they are like, so it isn’t something that weighs on my mind a lot.

    So… yeah, all of that. I’m just glad when I do see people talking about this stuff in public because it is really difficult to impossible to bring it up in many places, if you don’t have unlimited time/spoons/reliable cognitive skills to argue on the internet. Because people who do think there’s some essential conflict between science and religion will so often do the “it looks like X so it must be X” thing and tell you that you’re saying that “science is just another religion,” when you aren’t, at all. And then argue against… their illusion of what you’re saying. And I think we’ve griped about this privately elsewhere but we’ve had people patronize the crap out of us before, thinking we needed to be “educated on what science is” if we question any aspect of this paradigm, and Don’t Really Understand Science if we do. (As opposed to, we spent six years self-educating about the scientific university major we wanted, when we couldn’t take university classes, and have met people who did get actual university degrees in the subject, who apparently know less about it than we do. :\)

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