Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sam Harris is Right: Buddhism is No Match for Evangelical Religions

Between Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, I often wonder who is the bigger maverick of the Four Horsemen (see link to video at right). Hitchens is the only non-scientist among the four in his literary/political background - Dennett is a philosopher, but tends toward philosophy of science. Hitchens' worldliness and ability to reach a wider audience makes him a particularly valuable member of the atheist gospel-writers.

Still, I've concluded that Sam Harris is the outlier. Although a neuroscientist, Harris alone among the four began his career in the public eye as a professional atheist, and Harris comes from a study of Eastern experiential mysticism that brings a new spark to the debate. His points are often misunderstood, for example his contention that atheists should stop distrusting all talk of mystical experiential states because two thousand years of religion in the west have left us an impoverished and overtly religious vocabulary to describe these experiences. I address the question here; Dawkins himself often describes being awestruck by contemplation of our place in the cosmos.

Furthermore, Harris's interactions with Western adherents of Eastern faiths are fascinating and thought-provoking. I ran across this article of his in the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun. In it, among other things, he argues that if Buddhists think they're above the fray of the religious marketplace, they're sadly mistaken; and that more introspective faiths like Buddhism will simply not stand up to the evangelical onslaught of Islam and Christianity.

This statement made an impression on me. I also have a political blog and after the 2008 presidential election I did a regression analysis to see how closely I could retrodict the electoral outcome by looking at demographic data. (Interestingly, a combined index of % evangelical+Mormon by state predicted the outcome better than any other factor I could find.) Having just read Harris's article as I was compiling data, one statistic I encountered jumped out at to me: in 2000, Hawaii was 9% Buddhist. In 1957, it was 33% Buddhist. This means that Harris is right: under the influence of the Christian American mainland, Hawaii's proportion of Buddhists is shrinking at an annualized rate of just over 3% per year. Granted, pre-1957 Hawaiian residents are being swamped by post-1957 Christian American immigrants - in that time period the population of Hawaii increased dramatically, by 124% - but even keeping that in mind, the population of Hawaiian Buddhists contracted, in absolute terms, by 39% in the same period. At this rate the Buddhist population of Hawaii will drop below 1% around 2079. Here we have an island laboratory neatly supplying quantitative proof of Harris's argument.

As an atheist I don't consider the extinction of one religion in one corner of the world cause for celebration. It's doubtful those ex-Buddhists and their children are all reading Bertrand Russell and Thomas Paine; they're more likely Mormons or evangelicals today. While all religions are bad, the ones that are really bad are the ones that seek political power - and get it. Religious coexistence is lethal to fundamentalism - it's hard to take your own dogma so seriously when your heretic next door neighbor somehow avoids getting struck by lightning. I (and others) would argue that the development of tolerance in Western Europe was no doubt encouraged by the Protestant Reformation and the forced coexistence of Lutherans and Catholics and Calvinists and Anglicans and Puritans. Religious pluralism at the very least ensures that no one sect can achieve dominance. A Hawaii with only one religion will very likely be a worse place than a Hawaii with nine of them.


Paul Fidalgo said...

Fascinating post. There's all sorts of work with data along these lines that I think might yield very telling results. Good show.

Michael said...

I think your speculation about Hawaii's religious future is a little unlikely. It is like me saying I had a kid last year and another one this year, so in 30 more years I will have 32 kids.

There are so many factors influencing the adoption and abandoning religions it is impossible to tell.

300 years ago there were nearly 0% western Buddhists, and today there are perhaps millions. It does not follow that in another 300 years all westerners will be Buddhists, although backlashes against prop 8, disenchantment with overly political churches, and European atheistic influences are bound to fray at the Mormon and Evangelical base.

I have noticed that there is more interest and awareness of atheism in the last 10 years than in the previous 30.

Michael Caton said...

Michael: you're right, I don't think we can really conclude from these numbers that Buddhism will disappear on October 12th, 2081. The point is that if it's 27-3 at half-time, you probably already know who will win the game. and there may be disadvantages to atheists resisting one monolithic state religion than one bigger one with five smaller competitors (including liberal versions of itself) with whom atheists can ally politically. Hitchens has made a similar argument for why it's difficult for any one group to dominate the US today and why demographically this will increasingly be so going forward.
I think the flash point for the Great Atheist Revival hasn't been any systematic demographic trend but rather the Bush Administration, both inside and outside the US. It woke us from our dogmatic and political slumber so to speak, even self-described conservatives like me.

Paul: the data that there's not nearly enough of is finding out from current atheists who used to be religious what caused the shift. Atheist demographics, to apply to atheist marketing, so to speak. That would be even more valuable than Marc Hauser's data showing that religious and nonreligious people behave morally in the same ways.