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Home » editorials

Dawkins Does Religion

Submitted by on May 16, 2009 – 7:55 am14 Comments

buddhaA recent article from guardian.co.uk:

Dawkins strips away religion’s dead wood

By Ed Halliwell
May 11, 2009

I doubt it was his intention, but in 100 years time Richard Dawkins could be hailed as a prime architect of 21st-century religion. Though strident to the point of comic fundamentalism, the New Atheist diatribe has not only laid bare the irrationalities of believers, but forced those of us who favour scientific-spiritual accommodation to sharpen our arguments. And that can only aid the development of spiritual forms fit for the modern world.

When I first picked up The God Delusion, I was a bit disappointed to find it was rather polite about my own tradition. Right up there in chapter one, Dawkins sensibly suggests that Buddhism might be seen as an ethical or philosophical system rather than a religion, and so not a major focus for his ire. We’ve got off lightly from other anti-religionists too – Sam Harris even goes on Buddhist meditation retreats.

The International Buddhist Film Festival, which opened in London last week, has at least provoked a bit of poking at our flabby underbelly. On Radio 3, Martin Palmer accused western Buddhists of creating their own version based on “the religion we don’t want, which is Judeo-Christian, and the religion we would love to have, which isn’t quite religion, which … doesn’t have too many rules, and the rules it does have, like the Tibetan ban on homosexuality, are conveniently forgotten.” Mark Vernon, relaying Palmer’s comments on his blog, agreed, describing western Buddhism as “deeply partial, a pick ‘n’ mix religion”. Their criticisms would appear to be supported by a glance at the IBFF schedule, which includes films – such as Donnie Darko and Hamlet – for which the label Buddhist seems pretty tenuous.

But Buddhism has always changed shape according to place and time. Impermanence, as one of the three marks of existence, must apply also to Buddhism itself. It accepts, even demands, that every culture must find its own unique expressions of awakening. To prevent them becoming pieces of stale ideology, its discoveries must be tested anew by each practitioner, rather than being swallowed from scripture. Whenever Buddhism is embraced in a new location, it has mixed with pre-existing wisdom – hence, for example, why Zen looks so different from Tibetan Vajrayana.

In Buddhism there should be no room for dogma – the ultimate criteria for performing an action is its role in alleviating the suffering of oneself and others. A course of action could reduce suffering in one circumstance and magnify it in another, so the rules are there to be broken and the traditions are there to be changed, provided, of course, you can do it skilfully. When asked to sum up the essence of Buddhism, Japanese teacher Shunyru Susuki replied “Not always so”. The pliability of the teachings means that mistakes can be learned from, and culturally created doctrines or codes of behaviour that are unwise, outdated or harmful – the aforementioned approach to homosexuality for example – can be freely consigned to the bin.

Does that make western Buddhism a pick ‘n’ mix religion? Perhaps it does – but if we pick and mix well, we might create something good. Indeed, if we pick wise insights from the past and mix them with the ever-accumulating knowledge from our own cultural heritage, then what we might have a viable model for 21st-century spirituality. It needn’t even be called Buddhism, which is, after all, just a word.

As a path that simultaneously emphasises both constant change and a relentless search for truth, perhaps Buddhism is in a good position to develop more mature forms. However, the rational onslaught must inevitably spur other traditions to self-question and adapt too. And this is where Richard Dawkins may well be one of religion’s greatest allies. The old code that sacred beliefs cannot be challenged for fear of causing offence has been shattered – and it needed shattering. If the sacred dimension just means articles of faith that provoke outrage when assaulted, then religion and the religious would be better off without them. Dawkins and his ilk may have their sights trained on eliminating religion, but what they are actually doing is exposing its dead wood, the anachronisms that have been protected from critical thinking, and that needed cutting away.

Claims to special privilege in society, indoctrination of belief as fact, repressive or violent acts as a means of evangelism, and the upholding of outdated worldviews on scriptural grounds – all these and many other examples of the misuse of spiritual traditions do them no favours and should be dropped. If that is pick ‘n’ mix religion, can I be first in the queue at the sweet counter?

14 Comments »

  • This article brings up mixed feelings for me. Do we really need a Dawkins to help us think critically about religion? I am certainly not impressed with Dawkins’s ability to think critically about it. He is so one sided. Who among those deeply absorbed in spiritual practice are not as appalled by religious fundamentalism as he is?

    Thoughtful practitioners want their spiritual tradition to be vital and in this sense up to date. So there is certainly room for dispensing with superstition and cultural baggage. Buddhism has been good at this with the beat generation leading the charge. But many in the Buddhist community seem very intimidated by science.

    In the 80′s they tried to argue that Buddhism was rooted in empiricism, employing the Runes’ Dictionary of Philosophy definition of the term that gave them wiggle room to include the extrasensory/mental experience of monks experiencing their previous lives in meditation within empiricism. Runes’: “That the sole source of knowledge is experience … Experience may be understood as either all conscious content, data of the senses only or other designated content.”

    In this way reincarnation was considered by some Buddhists to be empirically observable, and the Buddha did stress concerning oneself with the observable. However, the above definition was shown to be flawed. So what did the concerned Buddhists do? Many have thrown out reincarnation altogether! They have done so by trying to show that the Buddha used the term reincarnation as a metaphor and never intended it to be taken as something that literally occurs. This to me is a stretch and for the Dalai Lama as well! Even if Buddhism does away with literal reincarnation, there is much in the tradition that is believed but not verifiable. The literal life of the Buddha himself comes to mind.

  • Alberto Richardson-Varona (Gopa)

    I truly enjoyed Dawkin’s book because I believe it to give an important counterargument to the dogmatic theism that has been propagated for millenia. I also believe that despite his statement to the contrary (p52) he is primarily reacting to the character portrayed as YHWH who he describes harshly yet succinctly on page 51. I have spent 2 years studying the character YHWH. I have had 46 psychologists and psychotherapists describe the character and am currently quantifying the results. I must say, that as far as I am concerned, a counterargument to the supposed divinity of YHWH and the consequences of his supposed divinity is much needed. Particular Hindu divinities, such as Sri Caitanya, have not been studied in such a formal manner to date, but I believe he would fare much better than YHWH. In my opinion, the personalities of divine characters in literature should be scrutinized by our contemporary human/humanistic standards. I will conduct these studies on several popular divinities over the next few years.

    However, Dawkins own argument (pg52) that any creative intelligence is the end product of a gradual evolution (rather than the source of it) can be used to argue for the strength, complexity and sophistication of any divinity that the modern mind grapples with. If we can look at the divinities we inherit through a creative lens, we can rejuvenate antiquated notions of divinity and establish theologies that do justice to our evolved psyches. It will still not be a convincing epistemological argument but it can be an influential innovation. For starters, how about we move away from divinities whose personalities are abhorrent to modern humanism, and gravitate toward divinities whose personalities are beyond reproach. In my opinion, this is the strength of Buddhism: the Buddha was a great guy! So also was Sri Caitanya a great personality.

  • Alberto Richardson-Varona (Gopa)

    I also agree with Mr. Halliwell: if with “Pick’n’Mix” religion we can do away with hateful, murderous, and body-negative aspects of religion, I am onboard! What smart and psychologically sound person in our post-modern world can tolerate some of the aspects of religion? Gurumaharaja (Swami Tripurari) asks: can the religious practitioner think critically about religion? Undoubtedly. But not without substantial philosophical and theological constraints. Maybe this is why the questioners tend to leave in order to think critically. It would be great if critical thinking were encouraged and the critically minded supported and held through the process. This process would not only yield useful content, but the manner in which it is encouraged and held exhibits great tolerance, love and compassion. Fine qualities for a religious community to possess.

    • “But not without substantial philosophical and theological constraints.”

      But that is what theology is. It is thinking critically about revelation and thereby participating in the eternal discussion, as opposed to thinking critically while unplugged from revelation. The latter is what Smith refers to in his review I cited in “The End of Philosophy” posted here on the Harmonist. The former only appears constraining if the principle of revelation itself is dismissed, and if it is a mistake to dismiss it, doing so is as constraining as revelation says the world of thought is. The principle underlying the notion of revelation is that comprehensive knowing cannot be arrived at without grace. The finite will know the infinite only on the infinite’s terms, not otherwise. Faith (sraddha) is rooted in this premise.

      I see no reason why the faithful as defined above cannot reason their way into a contemporary expression of spirituality that embraces essential tenets of a particular tradition and leaves behind that which is nonessential. I think that I think critically and I have not had to leave to do so. Well, not entirely : ).

      • Alberto Richardson-Varona (Gopa)

        With all very due respect to many practitioner’s standing as mystics, or those with access to revelation, many of the practitioners we are encouraging to think critically do not have access to revelation as you describe it. There can also be some question as to the ontological status of such revelation. This being said, I would refer to Hood, Hill and Williamsons’ (2005) book on the Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, wherein fundamentalism is defined, in part, as a system of thought built around a central text. (they also define fundamentalism as a meaning system for understanding the world). This “intratextuality” limits outside influence upon the system if it does not conform to the ‘absolute truths’ defined by their textual authority and genesis. I believe that in Gaudiya Vaisnavism such an intratextuality (sastra) exists, with the addition of mystics (guru)as another basis of authority and meaning making. It seems rather difficult to imagine “critical thinking” existing within a system of thought bound by both text and revelation. With the appeal to revelation you can only have a fundamentalist system based in divine hierarchies that leave most practitioners in submission to the mystic insight of others. Thus, at best, “liberal” fundamentalism is born, that exists on the same spectrum as radical fundamentalism.

        • I think you overlook the question of the faithful as to the value of critical thinking unto itself. Yes, one can think critically and come to a speculative conclusion that there is no ontological standing to revelation, but that does not make it so. One can question it or one can accept its proposed ontological status, but the latter need not be arrived at by something less than critical thinking in every sense of the term.

          If fundamentalism is a “meaning system for understanding the world” then fundamentalism is not limited to religious thinking. Scientism comes to mind. Dawkins as well. The idea that “‘intratextuality’ limits outside influence upon the system” only holds if or to the extent that the central text does not invite self criticism and seeks to limit outside influence. Not all religious texts do this. Both the Bhagavata and Caitanya Caritamrta properly understood invite criticism and critical thinking and they could very well be considered an exercise in critical thinking intended to foster the same, especially when viewed in consideration of the cultural context in which they originally appeared. One needs to catch the spirit of the text. It is a particular brand of practitioners that seek to limit outside influence even when the text explicitly teaches otherwise: to see God in everyone and everything; to universalize the deity; to listen to nature and love her that she might share her secrets. Fundamentalist practitioners interpret religious or secular texts that their tradition is centered around in a particular way. Look at Marxism and the Communist Manifesto and how it has been interpreted and expressed. Is there communist fundamentalism? Is there critical thinking fundamentalism? If there is, you may be a card carrying member.

          As for mystics making meaning, they certainly do. Again, they also question the value of critical thinking unto itself for good reason. Reason has been on the altar for quite some time now with no solution at hand. Then again, is it not critical thinking to question critical thinking unto itself as a means to wisdom? Is life ultimately rational? Ask the electron. What does love have to do with it? Moreover, mysticism is open to everyone. If I am a mystic, I in my mind am also just like everyone else. We all have choices to make.

  • Alberto Richardson-Varona (Gopa)

    “is there a critical thinking fundamentalism? If so, you may be a card carrying member.”

    Yes, according to this definition science can also be seen as fundamentalism. Any system can be fundamentalist if taken to the extreme of significantly reducing the external data to conform to internal strictures. By this definition I myself have been a cardholding member of several fundamentalist systems, the Gothic, the Gay and the Gaudiya. Then I left all of those and joined the Psychological. I am by nature and nurture an extreme person and fickle to make matters worse! But here I am reading your lovely website and contributing, so something powerful has lingered. Experience is truly the trump card over reason and claims on Absolute Truth.

    I think moving away from fundamentalism is radical. First of all, fundamentalism is not only a corrupt force, like any meaning system it offers significant comfort and makes life possible for very many people. This is meant in a non-condescending manner since we all adhere to systems to make life possible. I just don’t think it is honest or even necessary to find fundamentalism outside of ourselves and believe we are “not it” ourselves. I also find it pointless to say everything is then fundamentalist and soften the blow that way. Non-fundamentalist religion requires a flexibility and innovation that can actually damage the religion it breaks from and it does so with no certainty of it’s own survival. Many traditions have gone that route. Protestantism is one example that then created a distinct fundamentalism that reified the Bible as a textual authority to disconnect itself from Papal authority and fell into the same trap, not without much needed innovation to the system. It is a radical shift to stop being fundamentalist, and may not be possible or desirable for all groups. Judaism has been kept alive for centuries on the strength of the more fundamentalist who preserve it’s tradition.

    On the other hand, Buddhism has wonderful examples of shifts away from fundamentalism while remaining vibrant and relevant. It attempts to preserve several core tennets and then allows everything else to flex to it’s culture (Thai Buddhist even shifted away from vegetarianism as an expression of non-violence). Todays western versions of Buddhism are such good examples. (I am not at all a believing Buddhist). Everyone knows that western Gaudiyas are a fundamentalist sect of Hinduism. A shift away from that will take a lot more than minor changes. I am not even suggesting that this is possible or even desirable. As much might be lost as can be gained.

    • “Non-fundamentalist religion requires a flexibility and innovation that can actually damage the religion it breaks from and it does so with no certainty of it’s own survival.”

      You cite Luther and his Protestant revolution as an example of non-fundamentalist religious expression, but you could have just as well cited Sri Caitanya and his Gaudiya Vaisnavism. You are less charitable at home. But you have confirmed my point that it is not adherence to a central text that is the problem, its the manner in which one adheres to it that determines whether one’s adherence is liberating or confining.

      Buddhism, as I began, has certainly been innovative here in the West and more so in comparison to Gaudiya Vaisnavism, but as you also point out in agreement with me, such innovation can some at a great cost that defeats its purpose. The trick is to be innovative and survive, as you put it, or to remain spiritually vital and viable. Furthermore, religious fundamentalism is better known in Gaudiya terms as a kanistha adhikari orientation to the tradition, which is for the most part a necessary phase through which one must pass and realize that the nature of authentic spiritual life is that it is challenging, rather than being an excuse for not having to think. So since we agree (kind of) I will stop here—I think ; ). Hope to meet you somewhere on here again.

      • Gaura-Vijaya

        In course of my experience with Gaudiya Vaisnavism and speaking about it to intelligent thoughtful people, a lot of people complain about the fact that GV in particular, and Vaisnavism in general, deprecates all other paths very severely. That can be very unsettling for an open-minded person who rejected fundamentalist Christianity for its sectarianism only to meet another trident version of Christianity, albeit with more philosophical depth. I think understanding the history of fights between different sects in India is essential so that we can put in context what Srila Prabhupada or Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati did. It may have been required at a particular point of time but personally I feel this time is more conducive to move to a gathering like Bhagavatam where Sukhdeva is addressing mystics, philosophers etc of different varieties in a cordial manner. Unfortunately, I am considered an outcast in my tradition for being gentle with practitioners of yoga and buddhist tradition. In the mind of current flag bearers of GV,loyalty towards SP and BSST is proved by showing all yogis and jnanis to be envious,mean snakes. Therefore, I will not be considered a honest practitioner of the tradition for not being so trident. I think new books are needed because SP’s books have statements which are related to the history of fights between impersonalists and theists and they find less relevance now.

        Other points to consider is the fact that Sri Krsna and Sri Rama himself employed yoga in their morning sadhana and the source of yoga and jnana is finally in Krsna himself. I understand that these paths are incomplete and Sri Chaitanya gave us suddha bhakti, but extreme deprecation of the paths which the Lord himself practiced before has to be seen as a provisional statement by the lord rather than universal. Afterall why does Sri Rama accept Vishvamitra and Vasista muni as guru and offer them respect if he hates all mystics and jnanis. And why does Sri Krsna offer respect and display affection towards Sandipani Muni and cordially serve Vishvamitra muni when he visits Dwarka if their speech to him is like thunderbolt to his ear. These facts needs to be harmonized in our dealings with other traditions rather than continue a tirade which has known to damage many traditions, especially the Madhavas. Sri Chaitanya himself was cordial with Sarvabhauma and scholars of Varanasi when he met them.

        • When you say “Unfortunately, I am considered an outcaste in my tradition for being gentle with practitioners of yoga and the Buddhist tradition.” Don’t you think you are being overly broad, when in actuality this better describes certain individuals and perhaps the majority in certain sects but not the entire tradition? Indeed that is half the reason this site exists: because many in the tradition are as sectarian as you describe. You are certainly not an outcaste here and this site is published by Sri Caitanya Sangha.

          • Gaura-Vijaya

            Certainly this Sangha is like breath of fresh air and it infuses life into Gaudiya Vaisnavism. I just felt that a huge majority of people in the tradition are brought up in an environment which fosters such sectarianism and this site is a bold step in keeping the Gaudiya tradition vibrant,alive and contemporary for open-minded thoughtful people. I hope many people who are practicing the tradition will benefit from this site and your Chaitanya Sangha and hence secure a place for Gaudiya tradition that it deserves. This site and your Sangha will lead healthy dialogue with other traditions and I hope more people will participate in your innovative effort.

  • Alberto Richardson-Varona (Gopa)

    We do not agree on all points, but I enjoyed the discussion. You are definately correct that It is not the central text (don’t forget the guru) that is of concern in fundamentalism but the manner in which authority is held by these two. Can these two hold authority yet have it shared with other domains? Can the other domains ever win that negotiation? I do not believe I am less generous at home… I love Gaudiya vaisnavism, and in my skeptical heart consider myself a follower of this lineage. I think Sri Caitanya was a major innovator and I am certain I have very little understanding of the radical innovations of the Goswamis. But what is a shift from fundamentalism in the 16th century may easily become reified by the 21st and in need of a shift. I am also not unhenerous in considering Swami Tripurari and significant innovator of the Gaudiya movements having benefitted for several from his social innovations. I still think that western gaudiyas hold central texts and teachers in a fundamentalist system. I mean this descriptively not judgementally.

    Thank you for the discussion. It is nice to be part of the dialogue.

    • Citta Hari

      “I still think that western gaudiyas hold central texts and teachers in a fundamentalist system.”

      I agree with you on this point to some extent, and is for this reason, as well as sectarianism (as Swami pointed out above) that sites like this one are needed. But I think you might do well to be careful of making generalities like this. Your comment should include not just westerners: kanistha adhikaris can be found in all cultural contexts; in fact they comprise the vast majority of practitioners, whether in the west, in India, or anywhere for that matter. If by your statement you mean that perhaps westerners, due to their largely Christian backgrounds, tend to be more fundamentalist in their approach than, say, Indians who are born steeped in the tradition, then I might go with that.

      As Swami pointed out earlier, the texts themselves exhort practitioners to move beyond the fundamentalist mindset, as well as the mystics (gurus) who have done so themselves. We are painfully aware that the Gaudiya (and indeed the wider religious) world is rife with representations of the tradition (its texts and previous mystics) that make it unattractive for a thoughtful person. Sites like this one, and the discussions it is meant to foster can help to change that.

  • Audarya-lila dasa

    I haven’t read Mr. Dawkins book so I can only really comment on the review and the comments here. I liked the main point of the review which seems to be that superstition and archaic ideas should be dropped and ‘dogma’ questioned in search for authentic truth.

    The comments here have ended up centering around fundamentalism, which although possibly an effect of ‘belief’ in God or, as pointed out in Swami’s comment – an aspect of accepting any mata-narrative on the world and meaning, is certainly not the thrust of Mr. Dawkins complaint against religion.

    I’m quite certain that Mr. Dawkins would totally disagree with Mr. Halliwell’s assesement of his efforts when he says, “Dawkins and his ilk may have their sights trained on eliminating religion, but what they are actually doing is exposing its dead wood, the anachronisms that have been protected from critical thinking, and that needed cutting away.”

    From a psychological perspective, it does seem as though the general populace gravitates toward, and needs to hang on to, meta-narratives that ‘give them all the answers’ – that may be due to a basic human need for meaning – but as already pointed out by others in this comment section – true meaning lies beyond the realm of reason and any genuine ego effacing spiritual tradition not only acknowledges that, but has specific practices meant to help facilitate experiencial spirituality. It is only through experience that one can begin to leave the world of doubt and reason behind, and that is certainly not unresonable.

    What is really needed for all progressive traditions is not just critical thinking but critical practice as well. For it is only through genuine, honest and sincere practice that one can gain the proper perspective to think critically about the tradition.

    I do agree with Vijaya Kumara that the dominant voice up until now in western Gaudiya Vaishnavism has been one that is quite rigid and fundamentalistic. However, as this site attests to – times they are a changin….

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