Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Materialists Bliss Out

A rare thing, here is a good article about religion at Salon, and one that even calls to task one of the heroes of atheism, the same one I dissed yesterday,  Sam Harris.   The religion is Buddhism and the criticism is the current campaign of Westerners to hijack it, in the form of "mindfulness", strip the religion of its essential nature and to sell the repackaged product as a new, improved, scientifically "vetted" (I hate that word) substitute.   Of course, this being the decade it is, the whole thing is being sold through pretty fMRI images and the currently fashionable neuro-sci both of which I've been on record as being skeptical of from before I started blogging.   I'm even more skeptical about the peddling of "mindfulness" meditation to people who are not already on a road of renunciation of selfishness and fixation on their egos.   I remember back when a more general sale on the usefulness of meditation to businessmen and other fixtures in the military-industrial-banking complex was begun in the 1960s,  with the promise of it making them more efficient and relaxed that I couldn't see how a more efficient M-I-B complex whose cogs felt all comfortable and relaxed would make the world a better place.

This attempt first came to my knowledge with the Brit-atheist-"buddhist" claims of Steven Batchelor,  someone who, if I were a Buddhist, I'd certainly consider a materialist apostate.   For anyone unfamiliar with Batchelor and his campaign to redefine Buddhism to make it fit his Brit-atheist world view, here's a good place to start:

To get a clear picture of Batchelor’s agnostic-turned-atheist approach to Buddhism, there is no need to look further than his earlier work, Buddhism without Beliefs. Claiming to embrace Thomas Huxley’s definition of agnosticism as the method of following reason as far as it will take one, he admonishes his readers, “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”1 He then proceeds to explain who the Buddha really was and what he really taught, often in direct opposition to the teachings attributed to the Buddha by all schools of Buddhism. If in this he is following Huxley’s dictum, this would imply that Batchelor has achieved at least the ability to see directly into the past, if not complete omniscience itself.

Some may believe that the liberties Batchelor takes in redefining the Buddha’s teachings are justified since no one knows what he really taught, so one person’s opinion is as good as another’s. This view ignores the fact that generations of traditional Buddhists, beginning with the first Buddhist council shortly following the Buddha’s death, have reverently taken the utmost care to accurately preserve his teachings. Moreover, modern secular Buddhist scholarship also has applied its formidable literary, historical, and archeological skills to trying to determine the teachings of the Buddha. Despite the many important differences among Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism, traditional Buddhists of all schools recognize the Pali suttas as being the most uncontested records of the Buddha’s teachings.

In the face of such consensus by professional scholars and contemplatives throughout history, it is simply an expression of arrogance to override their conclusions simply due to one’s own preferences or “intuition” (which is often thinly disguised prejudice). To ignore the most compelling evidence of what the Buddha taught and to replace that by assertions that run counter to such evidence is indefensible. And when those secular, atheistic assertions just happen to correspond to the materialistic assumptions of modernity, it is simply ridiculous to attribute them to the historical Buddha.

Sound familiar?   A mirror of the atheist attack on Christianity and other religious traditions, going back to the late 18th century?*

The Salon article concentrates on the would-be scientific improvements on Buddhism in the form of the currently fashionable "mindfulness", the secular presentation of which I suspect is about as deep as Madonna's publicly taking up the study of Jewish mysticism - does anyone know how far she got?   It concentrates on Sam Harris and Jon Kabat-Zinn, but also mentions the ABC news-flack, Dan Harris, someone who used to work as the statehouse reporter for a TV station in my state.   Finding out that he'd eased his troubled mind with "mindfulness" even as he worked to propagandize for the GOP didn't come as that much of a surprise to me.   As the article points out, the "mindfulness" industry isn't so big on a moral foundation before it teaches you to drug your conscience.

One of the most interesting things I got from the article were links to papers questioning not only the validity of current neuro-science and the claims made for it, but, also, a fascinating paper, The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations,  about how including neuro-sci can lead people to favor inferior data.  Whenever I hear someone on the radio, on TV or online gassing on about "neuroscience" the very low probability of them knowing enough to believe what is being claimed, is the first thing I think about.   Which would bring me back to the prominent place that belief, of necessity, takes in science, to the total denial of even sophisticated believers in the idea that science is a different order of thought, when it isn't and a belief it is lessens the likelihood of getting closer to the truth.

All in all, the recent atheist grab for more of the market they clearly take human culture to be is not based on clear thinking and scientific reliability, it is based on the opposite, PR, PUBLIC RELATIONS, it's a sales pitch and a snake oil salesman dressed in a lab coat like the old figures in some very old cigarette ads. That isn't something that wasn't known to even some very anti-religious, very invested atheists.   In a description of one of the events in the early years of the pioneering effort in the new atheism, CSICOP,  one of its founders, Dennis Rawlins said:

A few minutes later Christopher Evans (since deceased) came by and took the empty fourth chair at our table Within seconds of his joining us Abell had told him of his BBC television series and all three were talking of such matters. Right then it dawned on me I had come to promote open-ended scientific research -- but the real purpose here was media wheeling and dealing And that is why we were meeting at the temple of CSICOP's faith, the National Press Club 
The subsequent afternoon proceedings dealt primarily with international organizing and publicity schemes But no one seemed interested in defining what all the hoopla was for. Which was reasonable enough -- because that was what it was for.

And, in the end, I suspect that is what most of this combination of Western imperial takeover of Buddhism and distorting it into a materialist form is all about.

*  It never ceases to astound me how profoundly ignorant atheists are of even their own, atheist, tradition.  Not long ago I got into an argument in which the callow boys were unaware of the atheist critique of religion, and they were even more profoundly unaware of the fact that religion has been self-critical from the start of the written record, including within both The Bible and in the various other, early scriptures, the Vedas, the Upanisads, the writings of the Buddhist tradition.  As compared to atheism, the amount of self-criticism and self-questioning among religious folks is massive.  Any journal or auto-biography by a religious person which is worth reading will be full of self-questioning.  No less a figure than Jesus, as he was dying on the cross asked "Why have you forsaken me?"   Compared to that the smug, self assurance of atheists is about as banal as can be.

Update:  Answer to a complaint.

I read and studied Buddhism for a number of years, beginning with a course in the late 60s using Charles Moore and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan's Sourcebook In Indian philosophy, progressing on to reading a number of the Suttas and many, though a tiny number in the oceans of Buddhist commentaries and, yes, critiques that are exant, going over the past 2,500 years.  I have credited my study of Buddhism and practice in Metta and physical meditation with my return to the Jewish tradition and I am grateful to it.  So I have a smattering of knowledge in this area. I know enough to know Western colonization and usurpation of that non-western tradition when I see it.   It is ironic that in the period when Christian and Jewish scholarship have tried hardest to understand the scriptures in that tradition in greater depth that atheists, who generally deny or deride those attempts, are trying to hijack another venerable tradition by peddling a superficial version of it with all moral content removed.   In that they remind me of nothing so much as the fundamentalist hucksters and the salesmen of the "prosperity gospel".

Update 2:  I added a picture after an expression of skepticism.  Here's another one.


  1. Well, if I can reduce the subject to something no bigger than me, I'm still the center of the universe, right?

  2. Never ceases to amaze me how the on-line atheists (and Dawkins and Harris and Dennett) are wholly ignorant of the traditions of critique and even scholarship that have existed in the world's major religions for millennia.

    Bluntly, where do these idiots think the tradition of scholarship came from? Do they imagine it was finally "true scholarship" when it was wrested away from its religious roots?

    They probably don't even think about it. They're that stupid.

  3. Hi - I'm having trouble posting here, don't know why. And this is a cavil, so feel free to delete when you have read it - but isn't your verse at the top wrong? Sidrach (my favourite BotB) 34:22 is one of those odd verses that is up for debate, but it's not about depriving the poor of their labour. "Dominus solus sustinentibus se in via veritatis et justitiæ." -> Lord is only for them that wait upon him in the way of truth and justice which the rich and self-designatingly pious might think refers to them.

    now 24-27 is germane:

    24 Qui offert sacrificium ex substantia pauperum, quasi qui victimat filium in conspectu patris sui.
    25 Panis egentium vita pauperum est: qui defraudat illum homo sanguinis est.
    26 Qui aufert in sudore panem, quasi qui occidit proximum suum.
    27 Qui effundit sanguinem, et qui fraudem facit mercenario, fratres sunt.

    which Google translates as

    24 He that offereth sacrifice of the goods of the poor, is as one that sacrificeth the son in the presence of his father.
    25 The bread of the needy is their life: he who withholds it is a man of blood.
    26 Whoever takes away the bread gotten by sweat, is like him that killeth his neighbor.
    27 He that sheddeth blood, and he who cheats the laborer of his hire, are brothers.

    Shame not to have the full lot up there. Hope this is useful. THank you for the wonderful posting on the baroque guitar, which is how I found the blog

    1. I've had to institute comment moderation because I get a massive amount of trolling, which I won't host.

      Like all of Sirach, its canonical status and the numbering of it, as well as the translations are variable. As I recall, after reading that it was that verse which converted Bartolomé de las Casas from a slave holder to one of the first opponents of the enslavement, murder and dispossession of Native Americans I went with that translation and that numbering.

  4. OK no worries, I was mentioning it only because I didn't want someone unsympathetic to. Since you have a good reason for that numbering there's no reason to change and all the reason to keep. It's a passage I quote to the smugger of my country(wo)men who think that screwing the poor is a worthy Catholic pastime, and it is nice to see it featured so prominently. de las Casas' tale is wonderful, I didn't know it, thank you for that. As it is I steered a few people this way to read the Harris repudiation, for which I thank you.
    And thank you (once again) for the Baroque Guitar stuff