Sunday, October 4, 2009

Buddha, God, & Richard Dawkins


I recently finished reading the British scientist Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The God Delusion’. In it, the Darwinian biologist decries theistic religion as being more trouble than its worth, inspiring conflict, bigotry, and ignorance. He cites many examples for each of these points, including the 9/11 attacks to illustrate God-inspired violence, anti-gay tirades by evangelical Christians, and the Creationist denial of the science-backed theory of evolution. He decries fundamentalists of any faith who take there scriptures as absolute truth inspired by God, rejecting scientific evidence in favor of dogmatic belief.


Dawkins criticizes those religionists that fill gaps in scientific knowledge with God, giving the example of the as yet unexplained evolution of the eye. In a kind of simpleton’s logic, many theists claim that because the eye’s evolution isn’t yet known, it must have been God that designed and made them! This is a sort of variation on the “God works in mysterious ways” declaration of religionists who can’t explain certain aspects of their own faith. ‘The God Delusion’ also criticizes scientists that believe in God, seeing them as not accepting the full implications of scientific knowledge, instead ignoring those aspects of it that contradict the belief in a supreme deity. In contrast to this, Dawkins promotes a quest for truth that involves open-minded investigation before the facts. So, how does Buddhism fare in all this? Dawkins himself does not consider Buddhism in the same class of religion as Christianity, Islam and Judaism, seeing it as more of an ethical system or philosophy of life. Indeed, Buddhism is only mentioned three times in the whole book, about the same number of times as Hinduism, and Dawkins doesn’t give a definite opinion on either of them.


Dawkins does have criticisms of monotheism, in comparison with which we might also take a look at Buddhism in the light of his scientific perspective. Does the Way of the Buddha promote conflict, bigotry, and ignorance as the British biologist says is found in the Bible and the Koran? Well, the Buddha promoted pacifism of course – as did Jesus Christ in the New Testament, arguably – and Buddhism is a famously tolerant faith, the Buddha himself sometimes advising people not to convert to Buddhism but retain their original faith. As for ignorance and deliberately turning a blind eye to any facts that contradict one’s beliefs, the Buddha taught us to investigate for ourselves whether his teachings are true. Indeed, ignorance, or avijja, is seen as the cause of our suffering, and is to be banished with the light of insight.


What of fundamentalism in Buddhism? Do Buddhists take the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures) literally, as absolute historical facts that must be believed in, say as many Christians view the Bible, or Muslims the Koran? Well, some may well do this, but generally speaking Buddhists see the Tripitaka as a set of teachings to reflect on, and use to develop wisdom regarding the impermanent, unsatisfying, and selfless nature of all phenomena. Whether the Buddha actually said or did exactly what it says in the Tripitaka isn’t really the point, as Ajahn Sumedho has often stated.


One way or another, ‘The God Delusion’ has inspired a lot of reflection in this Buddhist, encouraging the exact kind of investigation into the facts that Dawkins (like his hero Charles Darwin) has based his scientific career on. This investigative spirit is totally ion line with the Buddha’s teaching regarding the Dharma as ehipassiko, ‘inviting investigation’, rather than belief. For this alone, the book has been a wonderful read, prompting the continued search for the truth of the way things are – the Dharma. I thank Richard Dawkins for this, as well as the Lord Buddha, who has inspired millions of people through the centuries to see the truth for themselves.

Following on from reading Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, here are some further reflections. Firstly, as a Buddhist who doesn’t believe in God, why discuss ‘Him’ at all? Well, considering that maybe two thirds of the world’s (human) population believes in a supreme deity of one description or another, it seems only wise to give ‘Him’ some thought. As a Buddhist I do not believe in God, however, unlike Professor Dawkins in The God Delusion, I do not actually disbelieve in God, either. Buddhism doesn’t require me to take either position, but if I did choose to believe in a personal god, that would be in contradiction to the teachings found in Buddhist Scripture. On the other hand, to actively disbelieve in such a deity is clinging to the opposite position, creating suffering around attaching to a concept. And in truth, it doesn’t really seem relevant to Buddhist practice to hold on to such belief or the rejection of it. As Ajahn Chah was so keen to say, “Let go! Let go!”


Returning to the point above, that most of the world’s people believe in a god, and that they do some pretty wonderful and terrible things as a result of their faith, how does this relate to Buddhism? Well, the Buddha didn’t always try to convert his new listeners to the Buddha Dharma, but actually supported them in the virtuous practice of the religion that they already were living. Such practices would have included those who believed in supreme deities, as well as the Jain community, who don’t believe in God, but do believe in a permanent soul (of sorts). This belief is in direct contrast to the Buddha’s teachings which state that all is impermanent, including our selves, whether we take them to be material, mental, or ‘spiritual’. Yet, if it suited the particular individual that he was addressing, the Buddha would not attempt to turn that person to the Buddha Dharma, but encourage them to perform their current religious duties to the best of their ability. Did Jesus, Muhammad, or any other founders of major religions say the same?


So, bearing in mind the Buddha’s above attitude towards those who weren’t ready, willing or able to adopt the Buddha Dharma, how should modern Buddhists respond to the idea of God, and those that make this idea the heart of their religious lives? Well, I can’t peak for any Buddhist but the one sat here typing these words, and his response to theists is one of tolerance and respect. The Buddha Dharma has helped me to tolerate the sometimes forceful opinions of theists, even when those opinions have severely criticized the Buddha, Buddhism and Buddhists. It has also enabled me to be respectful of people that hold different views to my own, focusing on the good things that their beliefs lead them to do and say. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and others have done much good in this world.


Some of you might think of all the bad that’s been done in the name of God, as Richard Dawkins does in his book, and to this I would respond with the following: There are bad Buddhists, doing some pretty awful things in the world. For example, there are Buddhists in Sri Lanka who have killed those they perceive as their enemies in the defense of Buddhism as well as for ethnic and nationalistic reasons. (Of course, equally evil acts have been done by Hindus on that island, and there are many good Buddhists living in Sri Lanka, as there are Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.) There are also bad atheists, who have killed in the name of atheistic and materialistic philosophies such as Stalinism, Maoism, or Nazism. Buddhists and atheists are potentially just as guilty of committing evil acts through clinging to views than those that believe in a god. Such is human nature.


The Buddha, unlike many of the world’s main religions’ founders did not claim to be related in some way to God. Jesus Christ is believed to have been God and the Son of God simultaneously; the Prophet Muhammad was said to have been inspired by God, and Hindus consider that Sri Krishna was an avatar (incarnation) of God. It’s not my place as a Buddhist to make some pronouncement about whose god was the real one – taking the conventional view that they can’t all be somehow right – nor is it my concern to state that they are all wrong. Both attitudes seem to smack of ego and a grasping of views. Incidentally, some mystics have taught that the various versions of God point to the same ultimate Reality, but again, focusing on the impermanent, unsatisfying, and selfless nature of everything, this doesn’t greatly interest me.


As a Buddhist, I consider it my duty to live in peace with those who live around me, whatever their religion or lack of one. The Buddha taught how we can extend metta (loving-kindness) to all sentient beings, not just Buddhists and cuddly rabbits, but also born-again Christians and snakes. There may be times that this mind is averse to what a theist might be saying, but I don’t have to act on that aversion; I can observe it, watching it arise, exist, and die, just like all phenomena. Replacing such aversion with metta towards whoever is present seems a truly noble and truly Buddhist thing to do. And I thank the Buddha and subsequent masters for teaching such a profound message.


The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

13 comments:

Café Zen said...

Buddhism is the only non-theistic religion.
The idea of a Divine Creator of the universe simply isn't on the menu. All bodhisattvas and other "deities" are seen ultimately as expressions/manifestations of the human mind.

I admire Richard Dawkins's work (read The Ancestor's Tale) but he suffers from the malady of privileging reason and logic over direct experience and gnosis. Put another way, he privileges the Apollonian (mathematics) aspects of the mind over the Dyonisian (art). As a result he can't grock that logic and reason are limited-- profoundly--when trying to understand the world, mostly because they tend to cement the notion of a separate I apart from its subject. Zen Buddhism urges us to take hold of reality directly. Our birthless, deathless nature is right here, right now. We just have to be able to see what's in front of us all the time. We just have to be able to see (not with logic) that we and the universe are one, seamless whole. It's not something that's conjured by the human mind. It's simply what's there when we have the courage and perseverance to step beyond intellection. And this is all profoundly more than some esoteric exercise in having spiritual experiences. When we can step beyond intellection (easier said than done for most of us) compassion replaces us.

They call him James Ure said...

I liked this book too and found in interesting that he didn't say much about Buddhism. I have found Atheists don't really pay Buddhism much attention. I agree that Dawkins can be too extreme in how to sticks to Atheism, which can be yet another attachment no different that Christianity or another -ism.

My "Creator God" is science. However, I do not worship at the altar of science as some atheists and others do. Attaching too much to it. I see it as an impersonal force that holds everything together. Cosmic glue that has both nothing and everything to do with us.

Nothing in the sense that it's non-sentient unlike a God, which obviously means we do not have a personal relationship with it. At least not the kind you'd have with a physical, sentient, Creator God.
Therefore on that level it has nothing to do with us.

It also has everything to do with us because life would be impossible without it. Science runs through our very veins.

They call him James Ure said...

The same goes for the gods and Bodhisattvas in Buddhism. I do not believe in their literal reality. I see them more as archetypes of what I wish to become. So I believe in them in so far as I believe that I have their same potential with me.

So I keep some Bodhisattva statues around the house like Avalokiteshvara/Kwan Yin because in part, I am a visual learner.

I like having a visual representation as reminder to live more compassionately, etc. It's kind of like having a note up on the door to remind you each day to "Smile more" or "be nicer."

Yes, having those statues isn't necessary to be nicer, etc. However, for myself I forget easily and having that physical, visual reminder helps a lot.

Plus the statues are beautiful art to have around the house.

Yan Charette said...

Why dont Just let it go .The dont know mind ?

If not ? We are just creating another wall.. Them ( guilty ) You ( the great one )

Who killed the most Religious ideas or Science ? ( sword , tank , gaz chamber , atomic , ect ect ) ? I dont care .. they are human .. I am .. guilty to . May they be well in body and mind .

G said...

Yes, 'Zen Cafe', direct seeing is always the wisest! I'm familiar with 'The Ancestor's Tale' also - what a fantastic work that is.

Is Buddhism the only non-theistic religion? Jains would claim that they too follow a path of liberation that is essentially non-theistic, though they do believe in some sort of eternal soul. So would many (most?) Daoists, surely.

The statement 'when we can step beyond intellection...compassion replaces us' is excellent!

G said...

Essentially, I share your enthusiasm for science, James. And, yes, Professor Dawkins does seem to cling to his understanding of science the way many Christians cling to Dogmatic views of their faith (and the way many Buddhists cling to theirs, also!).

Your use of statues seems to be an example of skillful means, James, utilizing them to further mindfulness & awakening. Certainly no hint of idol worship here, as many theist fundamentalists might accuse you of!

G said...

Thank you Yan for the reminder to "Let go, let go!" - a favorite encouragement used by Ajahn Chah.

Gladstone said...

One would think that as we have our humanity in common then having the same notion of ‘the highest good’ (to quote a few Buddhist teachers) in common would naturally follow.

For Buddhists, ‘the highest good’ is nirvana, the void; words which really say nothing much about what it really is because it is beyond words. However, what it comes down to is that the highest good is ‘that which is beyond everything else’.

For some this explanation may also represent god, however making this god into someone that looks and acts just like another human being could only be regarded as a devilish joke among monkeys.

As for science, it’s like being completely attached to the senses and living in Las Vegas; you can come up with whatever realities you like but in the end it’s only Las Vegas. The only important external realities in life are food, clothing, shelter, and medicine.

If, in general, we were not all as thick as bricks (including the lauded scientists who despite their so called genius qualities and their 'Mr.Dynamite' prizes end up contributing to the proliferation of so many destructive weapons and the notion of salvation in materiality), then we would notice our common humanity, accept our differences, and be able to live relatively peaceful lives.

As for 'Dorky', one can sympathize with his predicament, but not enough to buy one of his books, nor even read one for that matter.

G said...

Thanks for the comments, Gladstone.

Yes, being "as thick as bricks" does have its drawbacks!

Jeewaranga Gunasekera said...

The one who search the path tought by Buddha are essentially non-thestic. and they go beyond that, not having any believes but there is a truth.
atheists are pretty busy disproving god and careful of not to get labelled them as being Buddhists as that itself is embarking on another "...sm".
May Dawkins attain Nibbana...

G said...

Yes, Jeewaranga, may Richard Dawkins - and all sentient beings - attain nirvana. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

I am out of job over a year. During a year, I pray and recite the Buddha name so that I can get a job to support my mom. I also donate a little bit here and there. I volunteer to help monks. However, I am still unemployed. My mom is still in my country where there are a lot of poisonous and criminal things. So, I do not believe it anymore. The 2nd reason is that Buddhism and Christianity have nothing proved. I do not believe a baby that was just born knowing how to walk. I do not believe Jesus was born without being inside his mother's womb.

Non-sense lengends. I am getting exhausted in Buddhism.

G said...

Thank you for your comment, Anonymous. I am sorry to hear of your problems. I hope that things get better for you soon.

As to expecting being Buddhist to lead to you getting a job, the two are not necessarily related. In truth, it's up to you to go out and find a job, and don't give up trying until you get one. Reciting Buddha's name has nothing to do with this. Buddhists recite his name to show respect, gain mindfulness, be reborn in heaven (if they believe in such a place), or to become awakened.

I, too, do not believe that the Bodhisattva walked upon birth; I understand it as a myth or parable to inspire us. Buddha taught us to practice mindfulness, meditation, compassion & kindness, not to blindly believe in supernatural tales.

I wish you well in the future.
G