Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

27 March, 2006

A Clash of Civilizations?

Sam Harris has a new article out entitled "Killing the Buddha" (PDF) in the March issue of Shambhala Sun. In it, he retreads his call for an end to religious dogma which so bitterly divides much of the world. His purpose here is to aruge that Buddhist philosophy would be better off it were not viewed as a religion.

The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism. even in the West, where scientists and Buddhist contemplatives now collaborate in studying the effects of meditation on the brain, Buddhism remains an utterly parochial concern. While it may be true enough to say (as many Buddhist practitioners allege) that "Buddhism is not a religion," most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced. needless to say, all non-Buddhists believe Buddhism to be a religion—and, what is more, they are quite certain that it is the wrong religion.

To talk about "Buddhism," therefore, inevitably imparts a false sense of the Buddha’s teaching to others. So insofar as we maintain a discourse as "Buddhists," we ensure that the wisdom of the Buddha will do little to inform the development of civilization in the twenty-first century.


Harris does a good, if brief, job of distancing Buddhism from religion. I admit near-total ignorance of it. As Harris has it, Buddhism is about meditation and self-transformation & well-being without the need for faith in a supernatural deity.

His dislike of religion aside, he makes a point which often goes unaddressed.

It seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world simply by multiplying the occasions for interfaith dialogue. The endgame for civilization cannot be mutual tolerance of patent irrationality. All parties to ecumenical religious discourse have agreed to tread lightly over those points where their worldviews would otherwise collide. yet these very points remain perpetual sources of bewilderment and intolerance for their coreligionists. Political correctness simply does not offer an enduring basis for human cooperation.

How far can "mutual tolerance of patent irrationality" takes us? And what does interfaith dialogue really do? Religion has always been a justification for destructive Us vs. Them mentalities. Can a dialogue really change this or is detente the best we can hope for? President Bush and other leaders remind us that our "War on Terror" is not about Islam. Yet there are voices, such as that of apostate from Islam, Salman Rushdie, who tell us that it is about Islam. Riots in Europe, terrorism, calls for the death of an Afghan man who converted from Islam to Christianity, et al really make me consider whether or not there is a clash of civilizations going on right now. Is it all or mostly governments rattling sabres or is there a deeper divide between Islam and the West?

What are the odds of a Reformation in Islam?
|| Palmer, 10:24 AM

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