As the so-called new atheists go toe-to-toe with religious literalists, where do Buddhists and other contemplative practitioners stand? Barry Boyce reports on the middle way embracing both reason and the reality beyond it.
On January 23, 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl disappeared in Karachi, Pakistan. He was scheduled to meet with a source, but it turned out to be a trap. For the next month, his colleagues, friends, and family searched for him frantically, and then a video arrived. It depicted Pearl admitting that he was Jewish and culminated in his on-screen decapitation by Islamic militants. Those who have seen the video have no adequate words for its horror.
It is this kind of violent act, or the murder of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Orthodox Jew, or the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh—events that blend barbarism and religious faith—that have roused the ire of a group of writers known informally as “the new atheists.” Their vehemence jumps off the pages of their books, all of which have been at or near the top of major bestseller lists.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, a well-known geneticist, is donnish and a little sneering. It particularly rankles those who feel that there can be an accommodation between religion and science. In God Is Not Great, journalist Christopher Hitchens sustains an attitude of high dudgeon toward all forms of religion for hundreds of pages. In Breaking the Spell, philosopher Daniel Dennett, who champions a more positive label for atheists as “brights,” attempts an anthropological and evolutionary exploration of why we practice religion at all. As the title makes clear, he feels it is a habit worth shedding. Sam Harris, now in a doctoral program in neuroscience, wrote both The End of Faith and a condensed rebuttal to its critics, Letter to a Christian Nation, and is the most plain-spoken of the group. He focuses on the parts of the theistic canon that strain credulity and asks us whether abandoning one’s rational judgment in the interest of religious faith betrays what it means to be human. Though he only hints at it in passing toward the end of his first book, Harris has studied Buddhism and practiced meditation.
Overall, the “new atheists” excoriate religion and religious practitioners as irrational, unscientific, and barbaric. They take religious liberals to task for enabling and harboring fundamentalists. Religion not only does not deserve any special respect, they claim, it deserves to be exposed as fiction and fraud—a grossly ineffective means for humanity to deal with itself that is way past its best-before date. While the new atheists naturally have theistic religion squarely in their sights, every form of religious expression is called into question.
These are compelling books, and they demand a response from thinking people who have a spiritual practice. Almost all of the debate so far has been between the new atheists and advocates of traditional religious practice, pitting vituperation against vituperation. To take a fresh perspective on this hot issue, I spoke with a variety of spiritual practitioners and thinkers about what kind of practice might be able to reconcile rationality, which many religious practitioners do not want to abandon, and spirituality, which they feel is an essential part of who they are and how they live.
Mary Jo Meadow, co-author of Christian Insight Meditation, is a secular Carmelite who leads a spirituality group near St. Paul, Minnesota. Meadow applauds Sam Harris for denouncing the belief in a God who, from all appearances, is “tyrannical, egocentric, jealous, and altogether ugly.” She doesn’t, however, feel that the theistic traditions ought to be discarded because of flaws in their scriptures. The people who created them, she says, “worked in the framework of the tradition they were born into and did what they knew how to do,” but the scriptures can be understood in many ways. She cites St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and the Gnostic gospels as evidence of a vaster tradition of practice than what is reflected in the orthodox scriptural tradition.
“If you’re born within the framework of one of the theistic scriptural traditions, and you want to stay within your tradition and get to the heart of a make-sense way of working within it,” Meadow says, “you have to look to the contemplative aspects. And if you look for them, you’ll find them.”
Most of what passes for religion, Meadow believes, is “simply a group’s projecting their own image onto the concept of God and worshiping themselves.” This is the framework described by the sociologist Emile Durkheim. But in Meadow’s view, contemplative religious practice transcends the egocentrism and cultural centrism—as well as the irrationality and superstition—that can infect even the most earnest quest for “the ultimate.”
“The contemplative path is the exact opposite of the ego-building approach to spirituality that treats God as an errand boy,” says Meadow. “Rather than building up the self, it empties it of self-importance and self-preference. That allows us to see the interconnectedness of everything, which in Christian terms is called ‘the mystical body of Christ.’” Far from rejecting rationality, Meadow believes, contemplative tradition is compatible with reason and makes use of it. “It is irrational, in fact, not to appreciate how intimately we are connected,” she says.
Contemplative practice, Meadow says, “is ultimately a dying into God. St. John of the Cross said that when we’re not clinging to anything else, we die into the loving knowledge of God. This is very much what you will find in all contemplative traditions. Philosophically and theologically there will be differences, but experientially there’s one path, and a number of languages in which you can speak it. Christians call it grace.”
Reverend Robert Hardies is senior minister at All Souls Church in Washington, DC, one of the oldest Unitarian congregations in America. He also talks about grace, which he says is an “unmerited joy, love, or blessing that is rationally inexplicable in our lives.” Grace is not something you get as a result of doing or believing something in particular; instead, it is “a sense of satisfaction that you cannot put into words, a kind of ‘aaahhh.’”
“Contemplative spirituality is a form of deep reflection on life, on its meaning and its value,” says Hardies. “This kind of deep reflection allows room for certain things that rationalism by itself misses, such as deep love or grace, something beyond words.” Hardies feels that the atheists’ vehement denunciation of spirituality overlooks the kind of spiritual practice most people long for. In this kind of practice, he says, “The rational mind is unable to get its head around something and then at that very moment people receive understanding through something more intuitive, what we might call spiritual. That kind of spirituality, that form of reflection, is to be applauded rather than denigrated.”
Unitarians and their forebears have a long tradition of respecting reason and science, so Hardies has no truck with fundamentalism but he feels the new atheists have done nothing to impede it. “What disappoints me most about Hitchens and Harris and the like,” he says, “is that while they set out to denounce religious fundamentalism, they unwittingly play right into fundamentalism’s hands by buying into its definition of what legitimate religion is. They denigrate liberal and progressive forms of faith that have for centuries sought to respond to the very criticisms they’re leveling against religion. For at least two or three hundred years, Protestants in the West have sought to incorporate the insights of science into our metaphysics and to affirm the importance of reason and experience in the spiritual search.”
Sam Harris’ first bestseller was called The End of Faith, but the faith he denounces, Hardies says, is not faith at all. “To my mind, the problem is faith gone bad, which is really ideology, a closed system. If faith ever brings you to the level of certainty, it ceases to be faith. There’s no leap. No humility. You have all the answers. Real faith doesn’t give you blinders to block out what doesn’t compute with your beliefs. What we need now is a faith that’s suited to the times, that is open to and can come to terms with the complexity, the contradiction, the ambiguity, of our post-modern world.”
The trans-rational forms of spirituality are not really being addressed in this debate, which wastes time telling us that Moses didn’t part the Red Sea. Well, duh!
— Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber is an author of more than twenty books who describes himself as an “integral thinker” and a “psychologist-philosopher.” His extensive work mapping out relationships among a wide variety of traditions can help us break down some of the usual categories we place things in. Wilber thinks we are in the midst of an important “national conversation about science versus religion,” but he says he finds it “very disturbing” that the conversation spurred by Dawkins, Harris, and the others “assumes that everybody knows what we are talking about when we talk about religion. While science is something that we can fairly well agree on the meaning of, religion or spirituality has a very broad range of meaning.”
One of the ways that Wilber likes to talk about spirituality is as “patterns of awareness that unfold in stages.” There are many models that describe the development of consciousness, he says, and one of the most useful was set forth by the German thinker Jean Gebser. Wilber describes these developmental stages as the “archaic, magic, mythic, rational, pluralistic, and integral,” which apply both to historical development and to the individual. People start out at the archaic stage and progress as for as their situation allows, although a person is not necessarily fixed at one stage under all circumstances. One might exhibit behavior indicative of the rational stage in one circumstance and of the mythic stage in another.
The rational stage, which is represented most prominently by the scientific understanding of the world, is the point where the debate between spirituality and science becomes muddled. “What we call ‘spirituality’ applies to both the pre-rational stages of development and the trans-rational stages of development,” says Wilber.
In pre-rational modes, like magic and mythic, we have beliefs in things like Moses parting the Red Sea and Lao Tzu being 900 years old, all the standard mythological stories and narratives we find in traditions all over the world.
“The trans-rational stages,” Wilber continues, “have almost nothing in common with the pre-rational stages. The trans-rational stages of development have much more to do with awareness and the number of perspectives one can encompass. They have absolutely nothing to do with magic or mythic beliefs or dogmas. The trans-rational forms of spirituality are not really being addressed in this debate, which wastes time telling us that Moses didn’t part the Red Sea. Well, duh!
“All religious activity is being lumped together, so that what a Zen master is doing and what Pat Robertson is doing are thought to be the same thing—it’s all just religious stuff. This is absolute nonsense, and it’s a disaster. It takes the contemplative aspects of the world’s great religions and mixes them in with all the magic and mythic accoutrements that also come with the world’s great religions. Nobody is really taking the time to separate these two out.”
Similarly, Mary Jo Meadow suggests that the choice is not simply between the rational and the irrational: “If the mind could contain the deepest mystical experience, then it would not be ultimate in any sense. It would be subordinate to the human mind. It’s not irrational, but it’s maybe a-rational or trans-rational. It has more to do with experience than belief, but experience that has been tested and validated by consensus.” Wilber points out that “the mystical dimensions, the contemplative aspects” of the world’s great religions are “much more open to interior transcendental meditative experiences, to the supreme identity of soul and god in a godhead. They are not so focused on an external God.”
Like Meadow, Wilber believes that experience is paramount. Wilber describes the body-mind disciplines in martial arts and the practices in Buddhism—from the insight meditation of the Theravada to zazen and koans to Vajrayana mantras and visualizations—as trans-rational forms of practice. “These are paths of contemplation or paths of liberation, not dogmatic beliefs,” he says. “As a matter of fact, these traditions have very few belief structures. They’re mostly practices: sit, pay attention in this way, count your breaths like this, use a mantra like this, and so on. These are much more like riding a bike than they are like believing in something. They’re actual practices you do with your awareness and with your mind. They allow deeper experiences to come to the fore. It’s all about experience, not rationality, not dogma, and certainly not about adhering to any sort of narrative.”
Wilber concludes by disputing the bright line that most of the new atheists draw between science and spirituality. “Science is empirical,” he says, “but empiricism refers to that which is experiential, which is narrowly defined in science as that which can be proven using the senses and their extensions, such as microscopes. Interior realities cannot be seen with a microscope, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot be confirmed through evidence. They just require a broader form of empiricism. If you follow the injunctions in Zen, if you perform the experiments properly, you will get the illumination. You will find the data, the experience. Contemplative spirituality is a kind of interior science.”
Sam Harris would have no problem with Wilber’s formulation of an “interior science.” In fact, he talks himself about meditation as a form of “first- person science.” Although Harris is horrified by what is done in the name of religion, toward the end of his first book he includes a chapter called “Experiments in Consciousness,” with section titles “The Wisdom of the East,” and “Meditation.” He tells me, “It’s on this point where I diverge, or at least make a lateral move, from the other so-called new atheists. They aren’t particularly interested in the contemplative life, haven’t said much about it, and probably wouldn’t entirely agree with what I have to say. I haven’t spoken with them individually about it, but I have the sense that they certainly don’t have the same background of interest in these methodologies or in sitting retreats as I do.
“Dawkins and Dennett and, to a certain degree, Hitchens talk about scientific awe and just how flabbergastingly complex and beautiful the cosmos is when you actually look at it through the lens of twenty-first-century science, and how impoverished it is when you look at it through the lens of first-century Abrahamic religion. But it’s pretty clear that there’s more to spiritual life and mystical life, to use two loaded words, than simply having scientific awe or trying to reconcile yourself intellectually with how vast and inscrutable the cosmos is. There’s clearly more that Buddhist contemplatives, and contemplatives in all traditions, have experienced than the mere pleasure of figuring things out or apprehending a natural law. I think we should definitely be interested in the kinds of experience that the Buddha and other patriarchs of our contemplative traditions have spoken about and the methodologies they put forth to have those experiences.”
Harris shares the skepticism of his atheist colleagues about “unjustified beliefs” and their negative effects. “In science,” he says, “we tend to have good reasons for what we believe in, and in religion we tend to have terrible reasons to believe what we do.” But he parts company with the rest on where to draw the line concerning “unjustified beliefs.” Whereas the other writers would “include mystical experiences in the set of unjustified beliefs,” Harris says. “I happen to think they’re not.”
Nevertheless, in keeping with the title The End of Faith, Harris remains devoutly skeptical about religious belief. He’s not all that comfortable with the words “mystical” or “spiritual,” but says, “we really have no other good words. ‘Contemplative’ is probably safer, although that emphasizes how you got the experience, as opposed to what the experience is. In general, spirituality and mysticism need to be separated from a lot of the baggage they’re carrying, a lot of the New Age willingness to believe in almost anything. People do manufacture many unjustified metaphysical beliefs on the basis of their meditation experience or their experience of prayer and so forth. And that need not be done. I’m not endorsing a metaphysics when I endorse meditation, but I think there is a methodology that reveals some surprising and counterintuitive things about our own minds. There are liberating features of our own subjectivity that can probably best be engaged through practices like meditation.”
I find the best of the atheistic writers helpful in causing me to question ways in which I may have become fundamentalist.
— Joan Sutherland Roshi
While belief per se tends not to be a central concern for Buddhists, how we see the world—what is sometimes known as “the view”—is. How we see the world determines how we will act within it. Joan Sutherland Roshi, a Zen teacher in the Rinzai tradition who founded the Open Source, a collaborative network of Zen practitioners and communities in the western United States, says that all beliefs within the buddhadharma—including the four noble truths—are provisional. They are meant to be tested, and, Sutherland says, “There is no one true narrative of the way things are.”
She likes to discuss belief in terms of the three pillars of Zen: great faith, great doubt, and great perseverance. “These three pillars depend on each other and have equal weight,” she says. “For example, you can’t have great faith without great doubt. You can’t just take things for granted without being willing to discover what your own experience tells you. If great faith is more important than great doubt, as it is in many spiritual traditions, then great doubt would be undermining. But if the two go hand in hand, then something quite different occurs.”
In Sutherland’s view, the koan tradition provides a good example of how faith and doubt work together. “We all have deep longing, spiritual experiences, ecstasies, and dark nights of the soul,” she says. “Koan introspection is a radical process of inquiry into all of these experiences, and it results in a marriage between the experience and the rational mind that gazes upon it. A conversation is allowed to take place. We use the dynamic power of the mind as part of the meditation, rather than as something you have to struggle against.”
In many spiritual paths, she adds, we are encouraged to take consolation from a story about the world. While she does not reject the helpfulness of mythologies and great narratives “that attempt to give meaning to the deep experiences we have,” she believes that if you “take up a radical process of inquiry as a way of life, you may give up some kinds of consolation and comfort, but you’re going to have the deep and abiding consolation of not needing stories for things to be OK.”
Sutherland concluded our conversation by analyzing, in Buddhist terminology, why many spiritual people find what the atheists have to say compelling, and yet also insufficient. “I find the best of the atheistic writers helpful in terms of causing me to question ways in which I may have become fundamentalist,” she said. “But it seems to me that they do not take into account all three of the kayas. They obviously get the nirmanakaya, the world of form, and they also seem to kind of get the dharmakaya, the perfect empty world that needs no story overlaid on it. But they have lots of trouble with the sambhogakaya, the realm of the supernatural, the transpersonal, a fluid world between the other two, where things don’t quite have solid form yet, a realm of dreams, imagination, art, and creativity. To them, this is simply the realm of superstition, and therefore they deny sambhogkaya experience, which is a vital part of who we are.”
The Buddha encourages inquiry, but also says that we don’t need to have everything nailed down. Scientific materialists are often frightened of uncertainty and not knowing.
— Ajahn Amaro
Ajahn Amaro, who has been a Theravadan Buddhist monk since 1979 and lives at Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California, talks about belief in terms of the first aspect of the eightfold path: right view. “‘Right’ in Pali, the language of the suttas, is samma,” he points out. “This doesn’t just mean right as opposed to wrong. It’s also right as in ‘upright,’ in a state of balance, whole, perfect, complete. There’s an intrinsic sense of something not tilting to either of the extremes, and yet the state of balance is not just halfway between the two extremes but transcends them.”
One comes to know right view not simply by being told, but through a process of discovery, which is central to the way the
Buddha taught. This is why many of his teachings are presented as dialogues. Amaro cites the Kalatna Sutta as a prime example of a teaching on open inquiry. He tells the story: “The local people of Kesaputta, the Kalamas, asked the Buddha how they should place their religious faith. The people said, ‘We have all kinds of religious teachers coming through here, and they all say I’m right and everybody else is wrong. So how do we know who to believe?’ The Buddha tells them, ‘It’s quite appropriate that you’re in doubt because you doubt that which should be doubted.’
“After listing a number of unsatisfactory criteria, including hearsay, tradition, scriptures, logical inference, weighing of evidence, personal preferences, eloquence, and so forth, the Buddha says you should take the ideas being presented and explore them for yourself. When you put them into practice, if they lead to your own harm and suffering and to that of others, then lay those aside. Those teachings that lead to your own inner peace, and harmony between yourself and others, are the ones to be followed. That mode of investigation is the framework within which all the other Buddhist teachings are contained. The insight of the individual is the final arbiter of reality and truth.”
Amaro feels that part of what makes scientific materialism, which would aptly the describe the atheist view, unrealistic and therefore unappealing is “the incredible conceit that sooner or later we’ll have the whole thing figured out. The situation is more like what is manifested in the infinite fractal patterns of the Mandelbrot Set: the further in you go, the bigger it gets. It keeps going on and on and on and on. The Buddha encourages inquiry but also says that we don’t need to try to figure it all out, to prove everything or have everything nailed down. Scientific materialists are often frightened of uncertainty and not knowing.
“We try to fill up the unknown with a concept or a belief or a deity or a whole gang of deities or a materialistic description of the universe and its origins. But it is also possible to greet uncertainty as the well of potential, which is where I feel Buddhist practice is particularly strong. You can also find that attitude in mystical Christianity and the mystical strands of Islam and Judaism, and in Vedanta. The unknown is not the great enemy. It is a great blessing. When we meet the unknown from a place of selflessness or self-effacement, then it is not frightening but rather full of wonder.”
According to Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a teacher within the Kagyu lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism and president of Nalandabodhi, certainty in the view is a key component in Vajrayana Buddhism, but it is a different sort of certainty than the kind that allows people to carry out heinous acts, certain in their religious conviction. “How can you be certain without first being uncertain? Certainty must be born from uncertainty,” he says. “It’s as the Buddha says: the path is half certain and half uncertain, half pure and half impure. If things are completely certain, there is no path to tread.”
Ponlop Rinpoche talks about the problem of certainty in terms of emptiness (that things have no fixed, inherent reality) and appearance (that phenomena nevertheless appear). Like Sutherland, Ponlop Rinpoche acknowledges that scientific investigation lends itself to a certain understanding of the view of emptiness—hence the atheists’ rejection of spiritual narratives—but the world of appearance presents problems.
“We have misunderstandings in both of these realms,” he says, “but the world of appearance causes us to be even more confused and fixated. We perceive appearances and we begin to label them, and we can label based on anything—religion, culture, what have you. Then we begin to take the label as reality. We fixate on the label and it becomes very real to us, but the appearances themselves have no label and no fixation.”
Ponlop Rinpoche feels that Buddhist practice is quite compatible with science, since science also begins with doubt and questioning, whereas “religion begins with an answer.” Like Ajahn Amaro, he feels there is no need to be attached to any kind of ultimate answers, in either religion or science. “Science is helpful, but of course what is scientifically true evolves over
time. The Buddha taught that it is fruitless to try to get all the answers to all the big questions, like the complete workings of karma. You will waste your precious time. It’s not that he’s saying you’re not allowed to try; he’s just saying, ‘Good luck with that.’”
Ponlop Rinpoche dismisses the popular notion that meditation is about calming or complacently removing ourselves from the world, as some of the atheist writers have suggested. “The calming of the mind,” he says, “is simply what allows the mind to be a good objective instrument. An unsteady mind is not a good rational instrument to use for investigation, but in fact when we investigate, we find that the mind is actually already calm. It’s the labeling and fixation that has made it otherwise.
“We need to deconstruct all these labeling processes and get to the bottom of the fixation,” he concludes. “Then we can realize what our mind actually is, see its true nature, and relate with the world in a more effective and compassionate way as a result. The thing for us to do is to become scientists ourselves and analyze our internal mind.”