Since we’re taking the new server for a spin, I thought I’d post a piece I originally published on the Tricycle Ning community blog way back on August 23, 2010, which explains the vintage of the headlines I quote in the beginning.  It contrasts a bit from the live-and-let-live attitude toward religion that typically prevails on the SBA site, and it gets the “Is Buddhism a Religion” kerosene close to the fire, so perhaps it will provoke some discussion.

Three news stories this morning as I surf the interwebs:


  • The angry confrontations near the site of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” yesterday, where lingering anger over the Al Kaida attacks is being vented at Muslims who want to build a cultural and prayer center;
  • A story in the La Crosse Tribune (WI) about the painful fractures among Lutheran churches in the wake of the acceptance of gay clergy by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;
  • The New York Times review of the Eido Shimano Roshi sex scandal and the perception that American Buddhists don’t deal effectively with clergy misconduct.

When atheists speak up about the harmful effects of religion, we’re often asked, in effect, what our problem is. How are we so sure we’re right? What about our own dogmatic beliefs? Isn’t it enough for us to reject religion, without actively opposing it? Why are we, as even Stephen Batchelor says, so “humorless’? These charges are even more pointed for those of us who are secular dharma practitioners. When we inveigh against the religious trappings of Buddhist traditions, we are accused of disrespecting the tradition and its teachers, indeed even of threatening the survival of the dharma in the West (see the interview with Tim Olmsted in the Fall 2010 Tricycle for a good example of this). Why don’t we just relinquish this fixed view and be more open-minded?

The canonical Gotama taught that sīlabbata-parāmāso, attachment to religious views and practices, is one of the fetters that keeps us chained to the wheel of samsara; and every day seems to bring fresh examples of the dukkha that religion brings. Of course, greed, hatred and delusion taint all of our karmic actions. But I would argue that religion is particularly insidious, because it presents itself as transcendent, sacred truth. We can’t understand that truth with our rational minds, we are told, because we lack the divine wisdom to do so; the answer is to lay down our rationality and accept, surrender to, the revealed truth of the Book or the Prophet or the Roshi. And so, as feeble as our rational minds are at separating the wholesome from the unwholesome, even that weak tool is to be cast aside — can we be surprised at the mischief and suffering that results?

This is a particular problem for dharma practitioners, because we do encounter in our practice an experience that goes beyond what we can cognize or speak about. We see clearly the limitations of rationality, and know that, but for the practices such as those Buddhist tradition has brought us, we might have no hope of touching real wisdom. None of that promotes confidence in one’s rejection of Buddhism’s religious traditions, and it’s not surprising that many practitioners go along with activities and beliefs they can’t really embrace.

Ultimately, though, Gotama doesn’t ask us to withdraw from or reject our thoughts and actions in the conventional realm, but to direct them skillfully from the wisdom born of mindfulness. Just as it is appropriate to engage against other causes of suffering — social injustice, substance abuse, a culture of violence, and so on — it’s necessary to take seriously our confrontation with religious greed, hate and delusion, to witness the suffering it causes, and to act and speak from that witness.

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  1. Dana Nourie on April 5, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Mark, thank you for bringing up this very important topic! It’s timely considering what we are going through in the US right now!

    I see this as Engaged Buddhism versus passive Buddhism, in part. I have disagreed when I’ve heard Stephen say, why not just let religion be. If people had their various religions and their own beliefs about them, went to their religious places, did their thing, and that was it, I’d be totally fine with that. People do have the right to practice whatever religion they want and to have whatever beliefs they want. And for many religious people, that’s exactly what they do. I have good Christian friends who do just that.

    My issue is when religion is brought into public policy, such as is happening on so many levels here in the US. I have issue when people’s rights are violated or people are abused on the belief that it’s ok because someone’s religion says that person is inferior for various reasons according to some old text. We see this also happening in the US. I take issue when a supposed charity hands out food, water, ect, but only if those people will also accept the Christian bible. And I intensely object to the church hiding and moving pedophiles around in various churches instead of kicking them out of the church or having them arrested.

    So, my argument is not with religion as a whole, though there is a lot I don’t like about it, therefore reject it, but I am going to make noise when abuses are being carried out under the voice of religion, religious claims, just as I would if the Girl Scouts of America were hiding pedophiles, or rejecting girls who are gay.

    I feel strongly that vile acts have gone ignored for too long because they were committed under the *sacred* guise of religion. When I hear Stephen talk about religion, I often feel he is still respected the *sacredness* of religion even though it has proven itself countless times throughout history to be an abuse of power. *Sacred* is just a word. We do not have to hold religion sacred because they say so!

    What I’m focusing on lately concerning all of that is in being mindful to my reactions. Be mindful of my emotions and be sure my reaction is not stemming from old wounds, but is coming from compassion for those who are being maligned. Be mindful of Right Speech, which is often challenging for me when I hear someone like Rick Santorum attack women’s rights or homosexuals, then turn around and talk about the rights of unborn fetuses, topping it off by going on about the need to bring god back into this country.

    The main problem is religion has been notorious for abusing power and authority, for controlling people in various sordid ways. Obviously not all religious people are a part of that, but I feel that all of us should be educated about those who are abusing power, such as the Pope, those who try to claim god in on their side, such as many of the GOP, and concerning the nefarious violations of church and state within our government.
    We should be made aware just like we needed to be made aware of how the banks were abusing their power.

    Some atheists do scream about religion as a whole. That is an overwhelming and probably unfruitful way to go about it. But I understand the anger, the frustration. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in the Land of Oz, and no one will believe me about the man behind the curtain.

    That said, I’m focusing my efforts on the acts of abuse, often done in the name of god, via a religious institution, or someone claiming to know god in some way. If a person is going to make their religious beliefs public, or they claim their right to violate the rights of others is because of their religion, then they are dangling their beliefs and religion out there for the rest of us to criticize. If they don’t want people questioning their beliefs, then they shouldn’t dangle their beliefs out there or use them as excuses to abuse people.

    Interested in what others thing about Mark’s article!

  2. Mark Knickelbine on April 5, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Dana. Certainly I would not prevent anyone from practicing or advocating for their beliefs. Religion certainly isn’t the only expression of the Three Poisons, nor is it the only cause of irrationality and strife. And, as you wisely point out, one point of practice is to be mindful of our own reactivity toward religion, especially toward rhetoric that seems hateful and intolerant to us. Understanding that whatever people do, they’re just trying to be happy and not suffer, just like us, has to be the basis of a compassionate response to any kind of dukkha. However, there is a reason that religion is associated with so many abuses and so much suffering, and that is because it is designed to short-circuit common sense and make us dependent on external authorities as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. If you give a person or institution that kind of power over you, they will eventually use it in their own interests, whether it’s a priest abusing a child, a politician manipulating voters, or a guru taking advantage of his flock. One of the purposes of an explicitly secular dharma practice is that it gives us a standpoint from which to demonstrate that, since irrational beliefs are not necessary to live a flourishing human life, their potentially damaging side effects can be avoided without losing the positive things people find in religion — connection with others, moral guidance, and personal transformation.

  3. Tom Alan on April 5, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    An atheist is not necessarily dogmatic. Isaac Asimov said, “I don’t think there’s a God. That’s just my opinion.” That point of view is not quite the same as the agnostic’s.

    History shows that the dogmatic stance is hostile to basic human rights.

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