Secular Buddhism, I: Dale Wright in Insight Journal

The Insight Journal’s first issue of 2015 has an essay by Dale Wright titled “A Philosophical Assessment of Secular Buddhism.” It is quite worth reading and reflecting upon.

One reflection on Dale’s essay that I would like to develop is that while he tries to keep Buddhism within the category of religion, I find the category so thoroughly corrupting that it is best abandoned—both as an academic category and as a category within which to think about Buddhism. (note: it is the concept that I am saying is corrupting, i.e., its use entails so many inappropriate connotations as to distort understanding, not that religion per se is corrupting—that is a different matter)

Much of what Dale says in his essay is premised on the universality of religiosity, or as it is perhaps more commonly thought of, the universality of the quest for personal meaning in a world that is apparently bereft of meaning. This is a theme so deeply rooted in American popular religious culture, having its origin in the earliest of the Romantics and formative of the very idea of religion as we now employ it, that it has become naturalized—human beings are thought to be just naturally religious, homo religiosus in Eliade’s terminology.

Dale refers to Tillich’s notion that to be religious is to be “grasped by an ultimate concern, an unavoidable concern that connects directly to the very meaning of life.” Dale goes on to claim that “In that sense, religion is the spiritual dimension of human culture and life, a dimension that will always be present to some extent in some way.” Recognizing that Wright’s focus is on the philosophy of religion, there is value to be derived from other approaches, such as the “social, institutional, or behavioral.”

This is evident when reflecting on his claim that “the spiritual dimension…will always be resent to some extent in some way.” This claim is vague enough to always be true and, therefore, is meaningless. From a socio-historical perspective, consider the work of David Chidester, specifically his Savage Systems: Colonialism and Religion in Southern Africa (University of Virginia Press, 1996). (See also Chidester’s Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion, University of Chicago Press, 2014, and Peter Gottschalk, Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India, Oxford University Press, 2013.)

Chidester demonstrates very effectively that the judgement as to whether the native peoples of southern Africa had religion or not varied directly with their relations with the colonizing powers. When they were passive in the face of the colonizing powers, they were judged to have religion, i.e., cult, belief, morality. When, however, they were resistant, they were judged to be less than fully human, and to lack religion.

Judgements about the presence of religion, including always to some extent in some way, are therefore ideological, or more explicitly, theological claims.This would include any attempt to reject Chidester’s point on the grounds that “Well, of course, they had religion, the colonizers just couldn’t see it—we today know better.” The universalist claim regarding religion that underlies that argument is simply an ideological/theological one, that is, there is no evidence—any number of introduction to world’s religions textbooks notwithstanding—to support such a universal claim.

(tangential aside: One of my enduring problems with the philosophy of religion is that it is almost entirely simply Christian theology in drag—it might look like philosophy, but under the clothes and makeup it’s really Christian theology. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of Jay Garfield’s Engaging Buddhism: Why it Matters to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2015, to see whether the philosophy of religion can be rescued from being simply a poor mirror of Christian theology.)

Such ideological assertions are most effective when directed to those who are already convinced. This is equally true of the analogy Dale makes, citing Richard Rorty, between being sensitive to the spiritual and being musical:

You can be tone deaf in music, to use Richard Rorty’s image, and simply not understand music at all, just as you can be spiritually “tone deaf” and not understand what people are doing when they engage the “great matter of birth and death” as a religious concern. But that deficit is simply an individual’s own lack of awareness, not the absence of the domain of human life that might have been addressed. Thus, on this account, the religious dimension of human culture is no more optional than politics or an economy. That was Tillich’s point, and even if all religious institutions are currently inadequate to dealing with these issues, the human questions themselves don’t go away, just as widespread political corruption doesn’t get us out of politics.

(The analogy derives from Max Weber, and is used by Rorty in his “Anti-clericalism and atheism,” in Mark A. Wrathall, ed., Religion after Metaphysics, Cambridge, 2003).

That may have been Tillich’s point, but it is certainly not Rorty’s. Rorty’s point is just exactly that religiosity is optional, or as he puts it, a private matter. Rorty suggests that when one “gives up the idea that either the quest for truth or the quest for God is hard-wired into all human organisms, and allows that both are matters of cultural formation, then such privatization will seem natural and proper” (p. 44).

Dale points out, quite correctly, that the discourse of secular Buddhism employs the popular religious culture’s conception of secular as anti-religious. The categories of religious and secular, however, are “co-constructed” (if I recall David McMahan’s very useful phrase accurately). Rather than attempting to resuscitate the category of religion for Buddhism—by making it not optional, by universalizing it—I find the semiotics of the oppositional pairing of secular and religious to be so dysfunctional and so culturally hegemonic that in regard to Buddhism, or more correctly in regard to my way of being Buddhist, neither is useful. For me at least, Dōgen’s “great matter of birth and death” is neither religious nor spiritual, but rather the existential dimension of impermanence.


2 thoughts on “Secular Buddhism, I: Dale Wright in Insight Journal

  1. Pingback: General Update | The Non-Buddhist

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