Thursday, 24 March 2011

Is Buddhism a religion?

In an article largely taken up with defending the loopy, intellectually dishonest evasions of those charlatans Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton ("radical, iconoclastic thinkers" - I ask you), Madeleine Bunting reports this confusing claim about Buddhism:

In the final event, two Buddhist teachers, John Peacock and Stephen Batchelor, challenged all the contemporary understandings of Buddhism. It's not a religion, they insisted, the very word "Buddhism" was invented in the 19th century by westerners who were trying to force it into a Christian model. The Buddha never intended to found a religion, he was deeply critical of the Brahminic rituals of his time. What he proposed was a set of strategies to question experience and live ethically. But within a few centuries of his death, Buddhism had become a religion full of rituals and dominated by institutions in the many cultures where it spread.

Can anyone make sense of that? Let's assume that the Buddha was not intending to found a religion (nor was Jesus), and that it is possible to be a Buddhist without being "religious" - there's still a mighty contradiction here. First of all, we're told that the concept of "Buddhism" as a "religion" is the fault of 19th century Europeans. Then we're told that "within a few centuries of his death, Buddhism had become a religion." So which is it?

I suspect (though I could be wrong, since I know very little about the subject) that Buddhism as appropriated by Westerners in the 20th century and up to the present isn't really a "religion", but rather a form of therapy and self-hypnosis drawing on ideas and practices developed over the centuries by Buddhist monks (some of which might be traceable, in a shadowy way, to an historical "Buddha" - who presumably must have existed; after all, Karen Armstrong has written a "biography" of him). And it's tempting to contrast this pure, philosophical and mystical Buddhism with the divine pantheons, elaborate mythologies and reincarnated lamas that developed in many Buddhist countries. Tempting, but false; for the conclusion that should be drawn isn't that "religious" Buddhism is a degenerate form of an original non-religious philosophy, but rather that the Buddha's teaching turned out to be inadequate and had to be supplemented with all the usual paraphernalia of "religion" to make it work.

There's an important lesson here, but it's the opposite of the one that "sophisticated" (i.e. agnostic) religious apologists like Karen Armstrong tend to make. Religion is basically a placebo: it only works if you believe it, and the institutional and mythological undergirdings that sustain traditional religions are vital to its credibility. Strip them away, and you're left with little more than weak platitudes about "compassion". Armstrong claims that because all religions teach compassion, then compassion must be the core of all religious teaching. But that is reduce religion to ethics. Almost everyone accepts that it's possible to be ethical without being religious (it may even help); so there must be something else that explains the hold that religion continues to exert on most of the world's population. I would locate that something in the "extraneous" rituals, the untrue myths, the falsifiable truth-claims, the appeals to questionable authority. Religion is mainly about religion. Ethics, spirituality and cosmic awe (not to mention the actual ideas of the religion's founder) just occasionally come along for the ride.