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Beyond Buddhist Exceptionalism

Evan Thompson

Confusion reigns in the debates about science and religion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the special treatment Buddhism receives. People say Buddhism is the most science-friendly of religions. According to a widespread view, Buddhism at its core isn’t so much a religion as it is a philosophy, way of life, or therapy based on a “science of the mind.”

This view, which I call “Buddhist exceptionalism,” is a myth. Buddhist exceptionalism rests on mistaken ideas about Buddhism and equally mistaken ideas about religion and science.

Buddhist exceptionalism is central to what historians call Buddhist modernism—the dominant strand of modern Buddhism that downplays the metaphysical and ritual elements of traditional Asian Buddhism, while emphasizing personal meditative experience and scientific rationality. Buddhist modernism presents itself as if it were Buddhism’s original and essential core, when in fact it’s historically recent, originating in the nineteenth century.

“Religion” is a term created by European scholars; it isn’t native to the languages of premodern Asia. Nevertheless, from the perspective of the scholarly study of religion, Buddhism qualifies as a religion, and it’s no more or less inherently compatible with science than any other religion. Religions consist not just of beliefs and doctrines but also of social practices of meaning-making, including rituals and contemplative practices, such as prayer and meditation. Religions instill a sense of transcendence, a sensibility for that which exceeds ordinary experience. Every form of Buddhism, including even so-called secular Buddhism, contains these elements.

Science isn’t a monolithic edifice of final principles and established facts. Rather, it’s a system of orderly and testable public knowledge comprising multiple and sometimes rival views about the universe, life, and the mind. It includes not just experimental investigations with increasingly sophisticated technologies but also epistemology, linguistics, logic, and mathematics. In a broad sense, science is a form of public knowledge based on testable, empirical observations and rational principles that can be intersubjectively agreed upon.

Science can devolve into narrow-minded ideology no less than religion can, and religion can nurture and inspire science. Asking whether science and religion are compatible or incompatible is like asking whether art and science or art and religion are compatible or incompatible: it all depends on the larger culture that contains them.

Buddhist exceptionalism presents Buddhism as uniquely suited to the modern world, but we can sanitize any religion in this modernist way. Consider modern Christian humanism, which stresses the humanity of Jesus, unites Christian ethics with humanist principles, promotes science, and calls attention to the Judeo-Christian and ancient Greek sources of scientific ideas such as the “laws of nature.” Or consider Liberal Judaism, which regards the Torah as written by human beings, not written by God and given to Moses on stone tablets, and emphasizes the progressive Jewish intellectual tradition.

Religion and science have never been separate and autonomous spheres, or “nonoverlapping magisteria” in Stephen Jay Gould’s famous phrase. On the contrary, they constantly intersect, usually with friction. Often the friction leads to conflict; sometimes it leads to cooperation and new insights. The culture and historical epoch determine the forms conflict and cooperation will take. Gould’s proposal to reconcile religion and science by treating them as independent realms, each with its own authority, is a nonstarter.

The “new atheists” recognize that religion and science can’t be separated in the way that Gould proposes, but their campaigns to stamp out religion in the name of science misunderstand the meaning-making activities of religion. Religions don’t explain the universe as science does; they create meaning through rituals, communities, textual traditions, and ways of understanding life’s great events—birth, aging, sickness, trauma, extraordinary states of consciousness, and death. The new atheists also misunderstand science. They fail to see that when science steps back from experimentation in order to give meaning to its results in terms of grand stories about where we come from and where we’re going—the narratives of cosmology and evolution—it cannot help but become a mythic form of meaning-making and typically takes the structures of its narratives from religion.

Buddhist modernism encourages a kind of false consciousness: it makes people think that if they embrace Buddhism or just pick out its supposedly nonreligious parts, they’re being “spiritual but not religious,” when unbeknownst to them religious forces are impelling them. These forces include the desire to be part of a community organized around some sense of the sacred, or the desire to find a source of meaning that transcends the individual, or the felt need to cope with suffering, or the desire to experience deep and transformative states of contemplation. The actions people undertake to satisfy these desires, such as practicing meditation or going on retreats, are also religious. People use the word “spiritual” because they want to emphasize transformative personal experiences apart from public religious institutions. Nevertheless, from an outside, analytical perspective informed by the history, anthropology, and sociology of religion, “spirituality without religion” is really just “privatized experience-oriented religion.”

Since I’m a modern Westerner who does not wish to renounce the world and become a monastic religionist, there is no way I can be a Buddhist without being a Buddhist modernist. But Buddhist modernism is philosophically unsound, so I see no way for myself to be a Buddhist without acting in bad faith. That is why I’m not a Buddhist.

Instead, I uphold philosophical cosmopolitanism, the ancient idea that all human beings belong to a single community regardless of their religion or ethnicity. Cosmopolitan thinking stretches from ancient Greece and Rome through the European Age of Enlightenment and into the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. South Asia and East Asia have their own versions of cosmopolitanism, as does Africa.

Contemporary philosophers such as Kwame Anthony Appiah and Martha Nussbaum have reinvigorated cosmopolitanism. They argue that the values worth living by are many, not one; different people and societies can and should embody different ways of life; we ought to care about the welfare of the individuals engaged in those different ways of life; and the insights of any one tradition are not the exclusive preserve of that tradition or any other.

Cosmopolitan thinkers move across different religious, scientific, philosophical, and artistic traditions and explore the presuppositions and commitments of these traditions. Cosmopolitanism offers a perspective from which to adjudicate the complex relationship between religion and science. It provides a better way for us to appreciate Buddhism’s originality and insights than Buddhist modernism.

Evan Thompson is professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, among other books.

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