Science writer John Horgan has reprised the anti-Buddhism critique that he first published on Slate.com eight years ago. Slate has reissued the original article, and Buddhists are again berating him for his ignorance. So he wants to have another go at explaining his misgivings.
Horgan's recent book Rational Mysticism looks at attempts by scientists to account for mystical and religious experience, from a materialist perspective. As part of his research he checked out Zen Buddhism and attended meditation sessions. However meditation never really tamed his 'monkey mind', he says. He was also distracted by a classmate who kept asking 'unbearably pretentious questions'.
There were intellectual qualms:
One of Buddhism's biggest selling points for lapsed Catholics like me is that it supposedly dispenses with God and other supernatural claptrap. This claim is disingenuous. Buddhism, at least in its traditional forms, is functionally theistic, even if it doesn't invoke a supreme deity. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation imply the existence of some sort of cosmic moral judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with nirvana or rebirth as a cockroach.
Horgan goes on to point out that research on meditation suggests its effects are variable. Meditation is supposed to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, but it has been linked to increased negative emotions, he says, while brain scans yield inconsistent results.
As for the 'deep truths' perceived through meditation or mystical experience, Horgan complains of a lack of consistency. Some find that mind, not matter, constitutes the deepest level of reality and is in some sense eternal. However he inclines to the view of meditators like Susan Blackmore, who are strict materialists and deny that mind can exist independently of matter. (Blackmore even rejects the concept of free will, holding that there is no self to act freely.)
Then there's the claim that contemplative practice will make us gentler, more humble and compassionate:
Given the repulsive behavior over the past few decades of so many gurus-including Chogyam Trungpa, who was an alcoholic womanizer and bully-you could conclude that mystical knowledge leads to pathological narcissism rather than selflessness. Instead of shrinking to a point and vanishing, the mystic's ego may expand to infinity. Did Buddhism deflate the ego of Steve Jobs?
...Like an astronaut gazing at the earth through the window of his spacecraft, the mystic sees our existence against the backdrop of infinity and eternity. This perspective may not translate into compassion and empathy for others. Far from it. Human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. Instead of becoming a saint-like Bodhisattva, brimming with love for all things, the mystic may become a sociopathic nihilist.
Horgan also thinks some 'bad' gurus have 'fallen prey to mystical nihilism', corrupted by 'that most insidious of all Buddhist propositions, the myth of total enlightenment'.
This is the notion that some rare souls achieve mystical self-transcendence so complete that they become morally infallible-like the Pope! Belief in this myth can turn spiritual teachers into tyrants and their students into mindless slaves, who excuse even their teachers' most abusive behavior as "crazy wisdom."
A final misgiving is about the glorification of male monasticism. Hogan notes that the Buddha himself started on his path to enlightenment by abandoning his wife and child. For him, by contrast, 'spiritual' means life-embracing. So a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexual love and parenthood is 'not spiritual but anti-spiritual'.
It's Christianity that usually gets atheists hot and bothered, with only the barest of nods to eastern mysticism. So I was interested in Horgan's complaints, some of which I've had to deal with myself. The last one, for instance. It must be tough on the families when the breadwinner goes off to find God. It seems true too that spiritual practice can lead people in the wrong directions, inflating their egos.
But over the years I've come to realise that the insights of Buddhist psychology are timeless, and essential to a healthy mind. Nor are they culture-dependent. The writings of Jack Kornfield have been particularly influential. He understands the obstacles, both practical and intellectual, that bother newcomers, because he has experienced them himself. At the same time he has seen people get past them to them to turn their lives around.
It's easy to be misled by archaic thinking. For instance anyone who becomes immersed in spirituality literature, or who just listens to what near-death experiencers say, should eventually recognise that the 'cosmic moral judge' idea is a misunderstanding. We judge ourselves: our future experience will be determined by what we are now and what we have made of ourselves. That may not have been obvious to our ancestors, but in our age we can transcend their ideas - if we choose to.
So why does someone who, on some level is open to spiritual ideas, close the door on them? Why does he gravitate so firmly to the negative aspects of religion?
It must be hard to avoid, if you spend your time interviewing top scientists and are firmly embedded in materialist culture. Then there's the traditional religious upbringing. Mine was no big deal, and it did not take much to break from it. Even so, I was well into my thirties before I was able to consider any kind of religious thinking on my own terms. I guess Horgan's experience with Catholicism was more intense. Atheists who had to fight to win their freedom of thought don't willingly surrender it.
However there's a sense in this sort of reasoning that, in order to keep resisting something, one has to keep reminding oneself of its worst aspects. Otherwise one might give in. Horgan's complaints have a certain truth, but they are the exceptions not the rule. He can't really believe that mystical truth seeking typically turns a person into a sociopathic nihilist. And why meditate if it makes you more anxious, not less? But if he allows himself to think these things, it's easier to justify turning his back on the whole thing.