Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Reply to Sam Harris’ “An Atheist Manifesto”

Sam Harris has written an essay title "An Atheist Manifesto" that is available on line at

First, a somewhat sophomoric joke:

Q: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with an atheist?
A: Someone who comes to your door for no reason at all.


There is a meaning in the madness of that joke for those with ears to hear. Who comes to your six doors and for what reason?


This is a response from a Buddhist who feels that both theism and atheism are one-sided views, both part correct from their sides but both therefore part wrong.

I certainly agree with Sam Harris about some of the inconsistencies of religious belief and the downright violence of conduct based on the absurd premise of taking religious myth as fact, still, in my mind he goes too far in throwing out the baby of reality with the baptismal bath water. Yes it is obvious to me, as he says, “that much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy,” still that does not confirm any atheist conviction nor does is guarantee that atheists know any better how run a country or avoid atheist taboos and superstitions.

The core problem is that both theists and atheists don’t speak the same language. When either theists or atheists get control of state power, if they are zealots and fundamentalists (yes there are fundamentalist atheists such as totalitarian-minded communists) they will use that state power to oppress others who disagree with them. This connection between fundamentalist theists and atheists can be seen in Harris’ comment, “While fundamentalists justify their religious beliefs with extraordinarily poor evidence and arguments, at least they make an attempt at rational justification.”

Atheists believe that rational language is all that is needed, so they ignore the sources of conflict in the human imagination that arise from the deep image-making roots of consciousness. Theists on the other hand tend to believe that irrational feelings, along with the imaginings that make sense of those feelings, may be taken literally as presented to their consciousness, and not only taken literally by oneself, but should be adopted by others who may even be being moved by their own feelings and imaginings in other directions.

By saying “One wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world’’s faith.” Harris shows that he doesn’t understand the well springs of faith nor does he seem understand the difference between faith and beliefs. Beliefs can be shaken and changed or given up. But faith is lost or found in a different context than belief. Faith is what leads a person to consider what is going on in life on the basis of birth and death. Faith is what leads a person to question catastrophes and their meaning for human life. If that questioning doesn’t lead to an experience of awakening, then it is the fault of beliefs getting in the way, not the faith.

For example, Harris says,”people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering.” That is erroneous. It is people of belief who assure one another that God is not responsible, because that is their belief. People of faith don’t have such assurances about God and their faith leads them to search while in the condition of not having any assurances. Belief creates assurances, faith opens the mind regardless of or in spite of the assurances of belief. People of faith experience what God’s responsibility means without any assurance that God will meet or satisfy their picture of the characteristics for God. Faith is why the mystics of all religions have no quarrels, belief is why the true believers have quarrels with other religions or with atheists.

The Biblical God is definitely a fiction, but it is a mythic fiction that arises from the inherent archetypes of the mind, including the dark, mysterious, and profound areas of the mind called the unconscious. Any atheist who thinks such a fiction can be taken off the air like a T.V. sit-com or drama knows nothing about the grip of the archetypes on the emotions and imaginings. Harris wants to reassure himself by saying “As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor” but that statement is simply not true as for “we all”. It is a flippant denial that presumes the God of Abraham is not Zeus or Thor. It doesn’t recognize the tremendous archetypal influence that the “father God” has even today though he goes by a different name in Christian, Jewish, or Islamic circles. Simply changing the name doesn’t make the God go away or make him into a different God. To paraphrase Jesus, to know a God you have to look beyond the name to the fruits, that is, to the function and activity the God takes in the realm of human dynamics and relationships.

Harris assumes that “The incompatibility of reason and faith has been a self-evident feature of human cognition and public discourse for centuries.” However, as Siddhartha Gautama Buddha demonstrated 2500 years ago in his explorations of human cognition, there is no fundamental incompatibility of reason and faith. The incompatibility is between reasonable and unreasonable beliefs, or diametrically opposed beliefs that both seem reasonable to their bearers. Harris confirms this by saying, “Either a person has good reasons for what he strongly believes or he does not.” Of course, Harris is the arbiter and judge for what is a “good reason.”

Harris correctly notes a dangers in the observation that “Religion is the one endeavor in which us-them thinking achieves a transcendent significance.” Still this confuses religion with transcendence. For example, the transcendent significance of nationalism and patriotism are ignored.

Essentially, Harris presumes that religion has either no reasons or bad reasons for its belief and atheism has all good reasons for its beliefs because he defines what is or is not reasonable to meet his criteria. This type of self-serving premise is unreasonable as it assumes the conclusion..

As stated earlier, in the social realm the conflicts between beliefs arise when someone believes their beliefs should be socially enforced on others. In other words, when someone doesn’t accept that pluralism is the reasonable basis for society. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has said what makes clear sense to me: that in the social context, religion should be a personal affair and governing society should be on humanitarian pluralist grounds that do not oppress the individual’s religion. Here’s how he says it.

“Therefore, for the individual, the concept of one religion and one truth is very important. Without this, one cannot develop genuine faith and follow it faithfully. With regard to the community, we obviously need the concept of several religions and several truths — pluralism. This is both necessary and relevant. This is the way to overcome contradictions between several religions and several truths and one religion and one truth. Thus, I believe that one has one religion and one truth on the individual level, and one has several religions and several truths on the community level. Otherwise it is difficult to solve this problem.” (from Live in a Better Way by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, pp. 132-133.)

The countries that Harris praises as least religious are in fact pluralistic societies that allow for the variety of the nonreligious as well as the religious, which reasonably accounts for their successes, rather than their being nonreligious countries.

Yes, I agree with Harris that “If we want to uproot the causes of religious violence we must uproot the false certainties of religion.” That is a logically circular argument. Likewise if we want to uproot the causes of violence having nothing to do with religion we must uproot the false certainties having nothing to do with religion. It is false certainties framed in us-them contexts of every kind, e.g., religious, tribal, ethnic, national, etc., that lead to violence, not religion per se which is only one arena where false certainties are the cloth that people wrap themselves within.

When someone comes to the door of your senses what false certainties do we have about them? Perhaps the certainty that they are an “other” is one that is false? Do we presume that God or Buddha will look like one thing or another and fulfill our expectations? If the knocker at the door doesn’t meet that picture do we reject God or Buddha? What if the greatest mistake we make as human beings is to presume with false certainty that God or Buddha is an object outside the door who comes knocking for a reason?

God or Buddha isn’t a person with characteristics to be identified like a suspect in a line up. Faith and reason are at home together when we don’t turn to an image of God or Buddha outside of ourselves by which to identify ourselves, but we turn to our mind to discover the identity of the one who is within the doors hearing the knocking.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Difference Between Capitalism and Socialism.

Capitalism regulates greed.
Socialism prohibits greed.

The difference between capitalism and socialism is often, if not usually, presented in terms of ownership with the political and economic homilies that capitalism is private ownership (and thereby control) of the means of production and socialism is the state or collective ownership of the means of production. However, such rubrics do not address the real issues at the root of the capitalism-socialism debate such as the nature of greed and its place in human consciousness. By focusing on the status of ownership, the capitalists have succeeded in framing the debate in a manner that ensures its outcome in their favor.

The fundamental question about any society's economic system must address its relation to greed as a basic aspect of human consciousness. When I look at capitalism and socialism in this light it seems obvious that the basic goal of capitalism is to regulate greed while the aim of socialism is to prohibit greed.

Capitalism thus approves, authorizes, sanctions, and regulates greed in what it's proponents see as socially acceptable ways. Capitalism says that greed as a motivator is a social utility and without it there would be no "progress" in human development.

Socialism, on the other hand, views greed as fundamentally flawed and denies any inherent social utility of greed. Instead of merely regulating greed so that the greedy can have free competition to acquire as much as possible, socialism sees that the desire, attempt, and actions to acquire property beyond what is actually needed for health and comfort are all causes of a multitude of social problems, not the least of which is the basic fact that, when property is finite, the more one person has the less is available to others.

In Buddhism, greed is one of the three basic "poisons" of life, along with delusion and hate. Thus, if taken on the basis of doctrine alone, the outlook of Buddhism toward economics is basically socialist in orientation. However, such things are not quite so simple; since in Buddhism, as with all religions, there has been a distinct and inherent problem when the separation of religion and the state is lost and Buddhism becomes a supporter and rationalizer of the state rather than a teaching for the enlightening of people.

Like socialism, Buddhism teaches the renunciation of greed for its followers, but unlike socialism, Buddhism in itself does not seek to impose its beliefs on non-followers. This short essay is not intended to delve into the deep concerns of what has happened to the Buddha Dharma where it has sought some form of state sanction, but like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, it doesn't take much analytical ability to see that the basic tenets of the religion quickly become perverted when it conjoins with state power.

The obvious reason for this is that the desire for state power is itself a form of greed. Where socialism or Buddhism seeks state power beyond what is necessary, even for the "good intention" of prohibiting greed, then that desire too falls into greed. No state power, whether held in the hands of a king or emperor or in the arms of a political party, will give over that power selflessly. The only result of active collaboration with that state power will be a subtle co-optation into justifying and enhancing that power.

The highest ideals of socialism and Buddhism to overcome greed can themselves become perverted by the state powers-that-be when brought into the tent of power. The adage that power corrupts is true, especially when that power is based on the threat of violence for its enforcement (whether by police or the military). It is an oxymoron to have a Buddhist army, yet in history we have witnessed Buddhist monks, such as in Tibet and Japan, supporting nationalistic and military endeavors even to the extent of personally taking up weapons on the front lines.

Democracy, as the dispersal of power among a sovereign people, attempts to manage this problem of the power of power to corrupt. Unfortunately, political parties such as the Democrats and Republicans demonstrate how easily democracy can be undermined by vested interests becoming political intermediaries selling legislative favors much like the medieval Roman Church selling indulgences for the remission of sins. The two political parties who share control have brainwashed the citizens of the USA into believing that democracy and capitalism are synonymous. The reason for this is obvious: both parties are controlled by capitalists who pay for their political expenses and thus for their ability to secure political power.

The hope for human kind is to find a way to inform and educate the populace to individually renounce greed and then to democratically realize and manifest that personal renunciation in political forms and structures that prohibit greed in society using the most nonviolent forms of enforcement.

Returning to the theme of ownership, the central avenue for this change is the revisioning of the role of corporations in democratic societies. The corporation as originally conceived was a collective form of ownership that bridged the gap between private enterprise and public good works. The various original and historical restrictions on corporations up until the mid-nineteenth century all recognized this unique function of a collective ownership in society along with the concomitant unique hazards of such collectivization of wealth and power.

Since the time after the US Civil War, the people behind business corporations have succeeded in eroding every major limitation on corporate wealth and power and have used corporations as the economic vehicle to amass wealth and control society hiding the damaging corporate greed behind spin control and capitalis propaganda. Today, a corporation may engage in any capitalist business it desires without having to demonstrate, as in the past, that the purpose of the corporation is a benefit to society. Today, the people behind the business corporations use the corporations as vehicle of greed and the driving force behind the arms race at all levels, from large space based missile programs to small weapons manufacture and sale throughout the world. The giant transnational corporations prevent local democracy from limiting their power through the use of international monetary funds and bye supporting and equipping standing armies of intervention.

We can transform society by returning to the original limitations on corporations and requiring that corporate charters be given only for specifically recognized purposes that benefit the public and that no corporate licence will be extended to any organization that violates its charter's commitments.

This short presentation only scratches the surface of the deep interplay of economics and greed, but hopefully it will contribute to understanding and bring some small light on the process of greed in human consciousness as it manifests in social interactions.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Faith and Reason

The new PBS series “Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason,” consisting of seven programs of interviews with writers at a literary festival on faith and reason, is yet another great foray into enhanced human communication by Mr. Moyers.

While, Mr. Moyers has created engaging and wonderful dialogues with interesting people, in the end I’m left unsatisfied by the discussion as it falls short of defining the terms it uses and simply relies on objectified consciousness rather than being an original and explorative inquiry into mind.

Last nights episode interviewing Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn demonstrated the problems with Mr. Moyers’ gentle approach that warmly embraces the interviewees and then fails to question their underlying assumptions and the premises of discussion. There is no radical attempt to get to the roots of their ideas.

For example, the segment interviewing Mary Gordon began with her saying the following:

“Without faith we would be paralyzed. We believe that all men are created equal. That our mothers, or at least our dogs, love us. That the number four bus will eventually come, all these represent a belief in the unseen. The question is not then are we people of faith, which we as a species seem to be. But rather, what then is the nature of that faith? And what actions does it lead to?”

Unfortunately, her statement uses the terms “faith” and “belief” interchangeably and completely confuses them. Mr. Moyers shares her confusion when he asks her, “Mary Gordon, as a Christian, did you feel out of place at a festival of writers so many of whom are not believers?” and said, “Agnostics and atheists however stand outside the frame of belief. They stand outside the language of belief. They stand outside the experience of belief.” Of course agnostics and atheists are “believers” in their agnosticism and atheism! To deny them their belief is exactly an expression of the kind of fundamentalism that Mr. Moyers is so passionately hoping to educate us against.

Using these terms belief and faith as if they are interchangeable is the large lacuna of the program so far. A program on Faith and Reason that fails to distinguish faith from belief doesn’t suggest that much reason is at play either.

Ms. Gordon quite clearly said, “the history of religion proves that religious people are no better than people who are not religious.” As a Buddhist, I accept that the history of Buddhism also confirms this truth. Yet there was not an adequate inquiry as to why this is. Other than a vague reference to the abuse of power by religious institutions the question of this very evocative point was dropped. I suggest that one important reason for this phenomenon is that as many religious people as non-religious people, as do Ms. Gordon and Mr. Moyers, fail to distinguish faith from belief. By confusing faith and belief, there is no clear awareness of why those in power in religious institutions fail to distinguish themselves from those in power nonreligious institutions.

Of course Mr. Moyers and Ms. Gordon are not to be faulted for failing to make the important distinction between belief and faith. The Western world view generally fails to do this. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary treats belief and faith as synonyms meaning to assent to the truth of something offered for acceptance, where belief is used without reference to the certitude in the believer and faith almost always implying certitude even where there is no evidence or proof. This clearly shows that the confusion is created by focusing on the certitude of the person and not on the nature of the truth that is being offered.

I posit that the distinction between belief and faith is exactly based on the nature of the truth being asserted or the question being asked. Belief is about objectified things; faith is inquiry beyond objectification. The items listed by Ms. Gordon, such as whether mothers and dogs love us, the number four bus is on time, or people are created equal, are all items taking things of the world as objects. None of these have anything to do with the basis of faith, which is an inquiry into the nature of the world and of our existence beyond that which determined by things, or that transcends things as objects.

Ms. Gordon showed an inkling of this distinction when she said, “I think there are two major narratives in the world, the narrative of fundamentalism and the narrative of consumerism.” Consumerism is the belief in things without faith, and fundamentalism is the mistaking of faith as a belief in things, such as believing that God is a thing or person. Ms. Gordon is quite right that these two polarities of world view narrative are in major conflict, today as they have ever been, but neither she nor Mr. Moyers seemed to be aware of the importance of this polarity, instead they seem to take this polarity itself as an objectified thing of belief instead as a gate into an inquiry of faith..

The Buddha teaching on Dharma is on point here. The term “dharma” has meanings that include both belief and faith. They are distinguished in the English language by using the word with or without a capital. Capital “D” Dharma means the Truth of the universe, the teaching of the One Mind, the awareness of awakening. The small “d” dharma means the things of the universe, the things of the personal mind, the objects of awareness. In this narrative, to use Ms. Gordon’s terminology, we have belief in dharmas and faith in Dharma. When we see the universe as things then we are seeing dharmas, and when we see the universe as the One Mind of Awakening then we are seeing Dharma.

The narratives of both fundamentalists and consumerists remain within the shared view of the universe as things and objects. This is why consumerism makes money, the valuation of things, into God while fundamentalists make God into a thing to be traded like currency saying, “My God has greater value than your God.” Neither fundamentalism nor consumerism has any faith, they are only expressions of their true believers.

Buddhist inquiry relies on three things: faith, doubt, and perseverance. Faith is the faith in the absolute unity of being; doubt is the question of this unity in the face of the appearance of disunity caused by the belief in things as they appear to be separate objects; perseverance is the undertaking to resolve this apparent dichotomy or polarization of faith and doubt derived from belief in spite of those counter influences, oppositions, or discouragements that are aroused once we are determined to make this journey.

In the Buddhist narrative, the holding of both faith and doubt together is the only reasonable approach to inquiry of the mind and of our fundamental nature. The fundamentalist denial of doubt in the name of belief has nothing to do with such a journey of inquiry. The certainty attained by denial of doubt and belief in God is not the same as the non-attained certainty that comes from awakening to the unified nature of Mind, God, and the Universe.

Without clarifying the difference between belief and faith, Ms. Gordon actually recognizes the essential connection of faith and doubt when she says, “The ability to question, the ability to take a skeptical position is absolutely central to my understanding of myself and my understanding of myself as a religious person. It's very important to experience doubt. I think faith without doubt is just either nostalgia or kind of addiction. And I'm not interested in that.”

Ms. Gordon’s personal inquiry which has included this connection between faith and doubt has apparently taken her past her own Church’s dogmatism of belief for she says, “And I think that I have to go back to a religious position, which is that if reading the Gospel means anything, if Jesus means anything, it's about seeing everybody, every human being as Jesus.” This is of course an awakening of faith to the unified nature of Mind, God, and the Universe. It may be liberal Catholicism, but it is not the belief of the Roman Catholic Church that holds Jesus Christ is God's one and only incarnation, being simultaneously Son of God and God. Seeing every human being as God’s one and only incarnation and simultaneously both a Child of God and God may be Ms. Gordon’s faith, but it is not the belief of the Church, and in another age she would have died like her hero Joan of Arc for expressing that faith.

This expresses quite clearly another difference between belief and faith. Belief, in its extremity, will kill for dominance, while faith will never do so because faith never objectifies truth as something that can be tarnished by false belief. For example, in the first program of Bill Moyer’s on Faith and Reason, Salman Rushdie asks, "What kind of a god is it that's upset by a cartoon in Danish?" It is not a God at all that is upset by such things, nor a mind of faith, but the mind of belief that reacts violently to such things.

In the Brahmajala Sutta, Buddha says that if people should disparage the Tathagata (a title of Buddha meaning “the one thus come”) faithful should not get upset, angry, or resentful, for such reactions are an obstruction and hindrance to them. Instead they should merely state in what way such disparaging remarks are incorrect. And likewise, if people should praise the Tathagata the faithful should not get smug, elated, or pleased because such reactions are also an obstruction to them. Instead they should merely state in what way such praise remarks are about what is correct.

These are the words of faith and reason.