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Can religion survive without all the hocus-pocus?

by Mano Singham Story Source January 26, 2012

Scientists and atheists tend to be naturalists. Owen Flanagan, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, has written an article titled Buddhism Without the Hocus-Pocus in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 13, 2012, page B4, unfortunately behind a subscription wall) which provides as good a definition of naturalism as any.

Naturalism comes in many varieties, but the entry-level union card—the famous empiricist David Hume is our hero—expresses solidarity with this motto: “Just say no to the supernatural.” Rebirths, heavens, hells, creator gods, teams of gods, village demons, miracles, and divine retribution in the form of plagues, earthquakes, and tsunamis are things naturalists don’t believe in. What there is, and all there is, is natural stuff, and everything that happens has some set of natural causes that produce it—although we may not be able to figure out what those causes are, or were.

Why be a naturalist? World historical evidence suggests that naturalism, vague as it is, keeps being vindicated, while the zones “explained” by the supernatural get smaller everyday. Naturalism is a good bet.

The more sophisticated religious people realize that the supernatural is getting steadily squeezed out and they often make the case that all the magical and supernatural elements of religion that run counter to science are not what gives their religion its value and can be dispensed with. Rather they claim that it is the moral and ethical teachings that the religious texts espouse that are central to the religion. I hear this claim all the time in the circles that I move in.

But can religions really be drained of all the magical and supernatural elements and still retain any coherence? If you systematically eliminated the hocus-pocus from the religious texts of (say) Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, what would be left? In general, it would be a complete mess, with stories, aphorism, and teachings that are all over the place.

You could, of course, comb through the debris and pick out bits and pieces to construct some kind of coherent philosophy but what would be the point? You would, in essence, be using some external philosophy as a template to decide what aspects of that religion were worth saving and what to discard. But if one already has that template at hand, what is the need for those religions at all?

It is the supernatural elements of those texts that give them any authority. How many Christians would take Christianity seriously if they were told that the resurrection of Jesus did not happen? Why would Muslims venerate the Koran if it had been composed by a mere man? Without Yahweh behind them, the ten commandments would be seen as a fairly pointless, and even silly, list of suggestions. All the religions would be reduced to some banal version of the golden rule that could just as easily be found in any basic ethical system.

But what about Buddhism? Flanagan poses the following question:

It is a fair question to ask of Buddhism, or any other great spiritual tradition, whether it contains a useful and truthful philosophy for our time, a philosophy that is compatible with the rest of knowledge as it now exists. Can Buddhism be naturalized, tamed, and made compatible with a philosophy that is empirically responsible and does not embrace the low epistemic standards that permit all manner of superstition and nonsense?

Flanagan, while not a Buddhist himself, thinks that it would be possible to carry out that exercise in the case of that religion and that Buddhism can be demythologized to appeal to those like him who are allergic to ‘hocus-pocus’. He says that its metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics are philosophically sophisticated and not merely superstitions or karmic mechanisms for moral control or an opiate for the masses.

Imagine Buddhism without rebirth, without a karmic system that guarantees ultimate justice, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying around on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without deities, without realms of heavens and hells, without oracles, without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas. What would be left? What would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is; an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know what we know and what is possible to know; and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live.

This philosophical theory is worthy of attention by analytic philosophers, scientific naturalists, and anyone who wants to lead a good life. It is plausible, even philosophically defensible. Buddhism naturalized, if there could be such a thing, is compatible with the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution and with a commitment to scientific materialism. Buddhism naturalized would be a total philosophy, if it could credibly be called “Buddhism” after subtracting the superstition and magical thinking (although those aspects are psychologically and sociologically understandable).

Such a theory might shed light on the human predicament, on how finite material beings such as human animals fit into the larger scheme of material being. Buddhism naturalized, if there could be such a thing, delivers what Buddhism, possibly uniquely among the world’s spiritual traditions, promises to offer: no false promises, no illusions, no delusions. False, self-serving belief, moha, is a sin for Buddhists.

I grew up Sri Lanka, a majority Buddhist country, and it was obvious that most practicing Buddhists had drifted far away from the austere philosophy envisaged by Flanagan. The religion was riddled through and through with hocus-pocus, followers having adopted many of the beliefs and practices of theistic religions. So the demythologized Buddhism that Flanagan admires would likely be as hard a sell to practicing Buddhists as Christianity without a divine Christ.