Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Dalai Lama, Jerry Falwell, Richard Dawkins: Which One Doesn't Belong

I'd written before about the evolving atheist view of Buddhism, which was recently the subject of posts at Unreasonable Faith and Andrew Sullivan's blog. Essentially, I've noticed that Buddhism gets something of a free pass from secular-minded Westerners otherwise intolerant of religion as a political institution. After all, Sam Harris was once a bodyguard for the Dalai Lama (no kidding!)

John Horgan's 2003 Slate piece on why he quit Buddhism prompted this interesting response from a Sullivan reader:

The readers' responses you posted were extremely interesting in the degree to which they tracked, often nearly verbatim, many of the more "rational", or "intelligent" criticisms of the Big Three "Angry Atheists". You know what I mean - Horgan must not be aware of this or that understanding of this or that doctrine; Horgan obviously doesn't understand what this or that adept was talking about; Horgan ignores the temporal good thoughts/works/results of Buddhism/Buddhists; Horgan (and Florien) are insultingly simplistic, dismissive and glib in the face of a vast and ancient philosophical tradition; Horgan is arrogant and Buddhists are humble; blah blah blah.

I mentioned in my previous article my own post-adolescent dalliance with Buddhism, and how Msr. Hitchens was able to disillusion me, even at this late date, of the sentimental thoughts I still harbored for it (here's one example of Buddhism's warts). I feel I must echo Sullivan's reader and Hitchens, having just heard an interview with Robert Thurman recorded a few months ago. Thurman is a Buddhist and academic who is probably one of the Dalai Lama's strongest spokespeople in the U.S. Among other bromides he stated that atheists are just as fundamentalist as Christian evangelists ("Wow! We've never heard that before!") and referred to Richard Dawkins as the atheist Jerry Falwell. Even getting beyond that, Thurman was making ludicrous claims that would have been pointedly questioned were he an authority on anything but religion. Forget the unproveable celestial mutterings: he even got basic quantitative, factual information wrong: Ming treasure ships were not 10 times the size of Columbus's ships.

Although Buddhism still doesn't have the fetish for getting into fights about the nature of those parts of reality we understand pretty well (like evolution), its practitioners still demonstrate the bad habit of making ludicrous claims and expecting everyone else to believe them. If you want to stay in touch with reality, why clutter your head with sutras? Why not, you know, just stay in touch with reality?

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