An outdoor picture of a buddhist temple in Thailand

REBUTTAL – Why I Ditched Buddhism (Slate Magazine)

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By Jeff Delaney

This is a rebuttal to Slate’s article Why I ditched Buddhism published in February 2003

Background

Although this article is approaching 10 years of age, I feel it deserves a proper rebuttal. I am not a Buddhist, but I appreciate the philosophy of Buddhism and it’s logical approach towards discovering spiritual wisdom. The Slate article is severely flawed both factually and logically, yet remains a popular piece among Christians and Atheists alike who use the piece to outline the flaws of Buddhism. The Slate article is written by an author who claims to have experienced a failed attempt at reconciling Buddhism with Science. Let’s break it down flaw by flaw.

Flaw 1 – Functionally Theistic

Slate contends that although Buddhism avoids the belief of a “God”, it remains fundamentally simliar to religions that do recognize a “God”.

From SLATE: Actually, Buddhism is functionally theistic, even if it avoids the “G” word. Like its parent religion Hinduism, Buddhism espouses reincarnation, which holds that after death our souls are re-instantiated in new bodies, and karma, the law of moral cause and effect. Together, these tenets imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama.

This excerpt fails to acknowledge a fundamental belief of Buddhist philosophy; that one should only accept the teachings of Buddhism as truth after one’s own thorough investigation. The student of Buddhism is free accept or reject any part of the teachings. This contrasts with other mainstream religions that require a “submission” to the truth as explained by the Bible, Koran, etc.

Furthermore, one of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is that there is no such thing as a permanent soul nor reincarnation. Perhaps from a lack or research or experience, the author has confused concepts of Hinduism with Buddhism. Also, Hinduism is NOT the “partent” religion of Buddhism as the author puts it. Although Buddhism arose in the same geographic region, its teachings were formulated independently through the insight obtained by Gautama Buddha’s disciplined search for enlightenment. The author attempts to trick the reader into thinking the two religions are nearly identical, when it’s the opposite that is true.

Flaw 2 – Downplaying Meditation

An attempt to devalue meditation.

The trouble is, decades of research have shown meditation’s effects to be highly unreliable, as James Austin, a neurologist and Zen Buddhist, points out in Zen and Brain. Yes, it can reduce stress, but, as it turns out, no more so than simply sitting still does.

Nowhere in my extensive research of Buddhism have I seen the goal of meditation to be simply “stress relief”. The goal of Buddhist mediation is about discovery and focus, and these things will not always be pleasant. Dumbing down meditation to stress relief is not a fair interpretation of how it’s used in the Buddhist practice.

In addition, the book Zen and Brain points out many major scientific changes the brain undergoes during meditation and the search for enlightenment. The Slate author chose to cherry-pick an insignificant finding from this work to further his own argument, while failing to acknowledge overall message of Zen and Brain that meditation is capable of creating significant neurological effects. By the way, Zen and Brain is an excellent book of the advanced reader of Buddhist works.

Flaw 3 – Unreality is Bad

The author then attempts to draw a parallel between the Buddhist idea of unreality with uninvited episodes of unreality.

From SLATE: But most people are distressed by sensations of unreality, which are quite common and can be induced by drugs, fatigue, trauma, and mental illness as well as by meditation.

Feelings of unreality forced upon the mind by drugs or trauma would scare the hell out of anybody! Reaching a state of unreality and egolessness takes years of meditative practice by devoted Buddhists. This is vastly different from an experience of unreality that strips your ego away in one fell swoop.

Flaw 4 – Chogyam Trungpa as the Norm

The author uses a rare negative example of Buddhist lifestyle, while failing to acknowledge the abundance of positive examples.

From SLATE: This may explain why some Buddhist masters have behaved more like nihilists than saints.Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987.

Chogyam Trungpa was a promiscuous drunk and bully, I can’t argue that, but his demeanor is extremely rare among practicing Buddhists. In fact, he even encouraged his pupils NOT to imitate his actions.  He justified his actions by saying he was trying to “wake people up”. True or not, it’s a fact that every school of thought will have those who take advantage for personal ambitions. Just as there are priests who take advantage of followers for personal gain, there is no shortage scientists who skew the truth for personal gain. The bottom line is that you will find unscrupulous individuals anywhere you go in this world.

Flaw 5 – Science as Truth

Comically, the author saves the biggest flaw for last. Despite the blatantly anti-theistic tone of the argument, the author makes a closing statement of putting full faith in the methods of science.

From SLATE: All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental.

There is no scientific conclusion or discovery that tells us human existence accidental. Don’t get me wrong, I too believe the scientific method is the most logical path to discovering truth. However, jumping to such a major conclusion from our current scientific knowledge is no more truthful then saying there is an all-knowing wizard who lives in the clouds. It may be portrayed as an infallible practice in schools and media, but science is nowhere near the point of understanding the truth behind the existence of life.

I hope this sets the record straight for Buddhism to some degree. If you have any other thoughts or opinions, I’d love to see your comments.

  • H. Robert Bellemare

    I stopped reading the Slate article when the author showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of karma—to me, there’s not much point in trying to follow an argument if one of the premises is flawed, since that also falsifies the conclusion, to one degree or another. I’m glad you have more patience than I do, and were able to lay out an organized rebuttal.

    My big problem with his argument is this: in reality, karma is not a “cosmic judge”. Although this is a common interpretation—in part because Buddhists have the ability to be superstitious, just like anybody else—it’s not accurate. The word “karma” means “action,” and it refers to a complicated web of causes and conditions that may lead to a given result; it’s nothing magical, just cause and effect. Karma merely extends our common understanding of cause and effect to cover the causes and conditions that have led to every aspect of our current experience, and not just a single event (e.g., an apple falling from a tree). What we end up with is a system that tries to encourage us to think about everything that brought that apple into being, and lead us to an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. There are many authors who have been able to explain this better than I have.

    Unlike many other religions, where followers are meant to observe strict laws of behaviour, Buddhism doesn’t regulate behaviour in that way. Instead, we are presented with guidelines for ethical conduct that have been demonstrated over time (and the experience of trusted others) to make life smoother/to reduce suffering. It’s up to us to decide what’s realistic for us to take on in terms of responsibility. A good example of this comes from the Buddha’s advice to butchers and prostitutes. Because of their professions, they can’t be expected to follow the advice to refrain from killing and sexual misconduct, at least not all the time. The proposed solution is for them to commit to not engaging in these actions when they aren’t working, the reasoning being that reducing the amount of harm one does to oneself and others is more important than taking the unrealistic stance of prohibiting something. This is in line with the points you’ve already made. (Buddhism is called “The Middle Way” for this and other reasons.)

    I hope more people see this article!