Thursday, July 12, 2007

What is religion?

I am not going to give you a Webster’s definition, nor a Latin etymology-based one. Instead, based on my own academic experience and insight, I am going to offer one of my own, which will also illustrate why, in contradistinction from many of its adherents, I consider Buddhism a religion.

First, I believe religion arises from the juncture of philosophy, psychology and sociology. Most people could readily see the first two, but sociology? Yes, even for a hermitic monk. Even that monk’s idea of religious expression and devotion were originally developed in a communal setting and out of guidelines developed by a religious community.

Second, looking at the main branches of philosophy, I see religion as being concerned with metaphysics, ethics, epistemology and ontology. Even Buddhism falls into the first area, on a couple of grounds. Karma, as a law, is not a law about material substances, but the metaphysical idea of reincarnation. And, even if Buddhists reject the idea of an individual soul or the collective atman, something metaphysical, that is, something beyond the material world, is believed to be reincarnated. Not that I agree with Paul Tillich’s use of words, but if we want to talk about “ultimate grounds of being,” Buddhism has one, as I see it.

Ethics is obvious. By that, I am not saying that it is the primary, let alone sole, preserve of religions, just that every religion has some ethical focus. It may be minor in some, great in others, but it’s there.

Epistemology? Yes. Every religion is teleological in some way, and its mythos is in part, to riff on Aristotle, an attempt to explain either an efficient or a final cause of things.

Ontology connects with metaphysics as to the nature of what that cause might be, the nature of metaphysical objects, and the nature of anything, be it individual soul or individualized soul or not, the nature of humanity.

And, there is where psychology enters. Psychology in religion is about more than faith in the religious sense of “hope in things unseen.” Rather, it’s about how one orients toward the ultimate object of one’s concern, whether a personal God with a salvific-based resurrection, or moving beyond karma and its rounds of reincarnation to a depersonalized nirvana. As part of that, I can’t think of a major religion that doesn’t have prayer or something roughly analogous to it.


anxiousmofo said...

In The Three Pillars of Zen, Haku'un Yasutani is quoted as claiming that there is nothing at all supernatural about Zen. This is, um, inconsistent with the evidence at hand. Zen Buddhists chant the names of bodhisattvas and petition them for help. They believe in a cosmology in which people, animals, gods, and demons continually die and are reborn. Of course Buddhism is a religion.

In your previous post you write that karma is "as appalling as fundamentalist monotheist ideas of hell." Right you are. You also say that when Buddhism "ventures into metaphysical issues as a religion [you] find it no more enlightening than any 'Western monotheism.'" If you replace "metaphysical" with "supernatural," I agree; I'm rather fond of Nagarjuna's metaphysics and some of the metaphysical ideas of Huayan and Dogen, but find Buddhist supernaturalism no less silly than anyone else's.

There is a certain type of Westerner who approaches Buddhist teachers and teachings with much less skepticism than they would approach a Christian with (Sam Harris, maybe?). Buddhist teachers don't always act like Buddhas, and I fear that claiming that Buddhism isn't a religion might cause people to treat Buddhism and Buddhist teachers with less skepticism than they should. The Dalai Lama spoke at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in 2005. It's bizarre to imagine, say, Pope Benedict addressing the same conference; why is it any less so when it's the Dalai Lama?

My position is that there is much in Buddhism that is useful - I practice Zen - but there is also much that is irrational. Unlike, say, Christianity, I think at least some Buddhist practice is useful and coherent outside of its supernatural framework. That does not mean the whole thing should be accepted uncritically.

inkadu said...

Buddhism is a religion. Meditation is not.