The Christian Conceptual Box

One of the challenges in explaining Buddhism to people amounts to breaking through the Abrahamist — and mostly Christian, in the U.S. —  conceptual box into which people compulsively shove all things “religious.”

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I discussed conceptual boxes in the last post. In brief, our conceptual boxes are the mental filing system our culture and upbringing build for us, and by which we sort and classify all phenomena so that we can recognize it and know it.* This is a mostly workable system for navigating the world and probably has a lot to do with how human brains evolved to secure the survival of our species. However, the filing breaks down when confronted with something that actually doesn’t fit. What usually happens, then, is that instead of adjusting the filing system we distort the new thing so that it fits the existing system. This is one way to understand what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” but what I’m thinking of is actually a bit broader than that.

Western culture in the 21st century has arrived at fairly narrow and rigid conceptual boxes for “religion” and “philosophy,” and for the most part the “religion” box only accommodates Abrahamism.  Anything else you shove into it, whether Buddhism or Vedanta or something else, has to be rather grossly distorted to make it fit. Those who do recognize that Buddhism doesn’t fit into the “religion” box often then decide it must belong in the “philosophy” box, but it actually doesn’t fit that box either, unless you slice big chunks of it off first. Many Buddhist teachers have attempted to get around the conceptual box problem by explaining Buddhism in terms of psychology, but that’s turning into another kind of problem — see the older post “Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas.” **

This post was touched off by some propositions written by a philosopher named Edward Feser, who has a very nice blog for those of you who are philosophy nerds. The propositions, which I found on Facebook and may be paraphrased, are how he conceptualizes objections to  religion  —

Consider first the different attitudes an atheist might take to the theoretical side of a religion. There are at least three such attitudes, which, going from the most hostile to the least hostile, could be summarized as follows:

1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.

2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations. But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it. Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.

3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism. An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible.

My primary issue here is that “religion” is defined primarily as “belief,” which is the chief issue with the Abrahamist box. In many other religions, not just Buddhism, doctrines are propositions to be confirmed through mystical or other practices. Merely believing them serves only a provisional purpose. In Zen, it’s best to not believe them at all, but rather let doctrines inhabit one’s body for awhile to see how they work. For that reason, intellectual arguments for or against the propositions are also beside the point, since it is understood that what is to be realized cannot be reached by intellect. So these three propositions are hopelessly stuck in an Abrahamist conceptual box.

This is not to say that Buddhists don’t argue, but the arguments can take very odd forms, from a western perspective. See, for example, and old post on a koan from the Mumonkan, “Ryutan Blows Out the Candle.” See also the story of Miaoxin and the koan about flag, wind, and mind.

A Facebook participant paraphrased  Edward Feser’s propositions this way:

  1. Theism is still intellectually defensible — but not as defensible as non-theism.
  2. Theism has no respectable intellectual content at all and obviously never had any.
  3. Theism’s prior intellectual content has been refuted by science and philosophy.

From my perspective the propositions all have an Abrahamist bias, and it could be argued it’s a modernist Abrahamist bias. I don’t call myself an atheist (although many western Buddhists do), but neither am I a theist or an agnostic. I am a nontheist, by which I mean the existence of a God or gods is irrelevant to my religion.

I wrote a long ‘chapter about the existence of God in Rethinking Religion, which boils down to “The question “Does God exist?” cannot be answered until you (a) define “God”; and (b) define “exist.”‘

Buddhism simply does not deal with a person-God or creator-God or a judge-God. Even if such a being existed, in Buddhism, he/she wouldn’t have anything to do. All of the functions of such a God have been assigned to forces or energies that are something like natural law and are not being operated by a supernatural being or intelligence. However, I can appreciate the standard Abrahamist God-concept as something like an archetype of those natural laws.

On the other hand, if you wander into Paul Tilich’s “God as ground of being” territory we might have some agreement. If we define God as something like the force or essence or ineffable something that pervades everywhere in time and space and makes existence possible, we’re looking at what Mahayana Buddhists would call the dharmakaya or Buddha-nature. That’s also one definition of the word dharma as used in Theravada Buddhism as well as Vedanta.

However, worshiping the dharmakaya is kind of pointless. We’d only be worshiping ourselves. There are also huge issues in Mahayana about making the dharmakaya a bigger deal than conventional reality, or the phenomenal manifestations that we recognize as trees, toasters, and us. One is no less, or more, important or “true” than the other. As the Heart Sutra says, form is exactly emptiness; emptiness is exactly form. There is no separation.

And that takes us into the sticky question, “What is existence?” We speak of existence and “reality” as if we all agree what these things are, and we don’t. Trust me.


*(Buddhists will recognize that this is a function of the third skandha, although our opinions or feelings about what we “know” are a function of the fourth skandha.)

**(A big reason I wrote Rethinking Religion is to redefine religion in a way that actually takes in all of the world’s major religions, not just monotheism, without distortion. This is going to be an uphill slog, but I think all religions will benefit.)

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