Life as an Extreme Sport

why “but buddhism is a philosophy” is obnoxious

Earlier today, my Twitter buddy Tauriq Moosa retweeted a link to Martin Pribble’s lastest blog post, titled What’s the Harm in Religion? I find a lot of the atheist blogger output to be interesting, and trust that anything Tauriq retweets will at least be thought-provoking, so I clicked and read.

And sure enough, thought-provoking is one way to put it. Right in the first paragraph is one of those things that has me gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes, hard:

And herein lies the problem with religions; they, by their nature, encroach upon the non-religious areas of life and influence decisions on a social and political level.

Uhm. Okay. And from there, Pribble goes on to make some pretty gross generalizations about religions, period, which of course, by virtue of being gross generalizations, are wrong. And being irritated and pre-coffee and armed with Twitter, I fired off a quick and admittedly snide reply, figuring that if nothing else, another day spent doing very little in order to not aggravate my exceedingly unhappy lungs would be brightened by a brief fiery debate with a respected atheist voice.

And while I did engage with Mr. Pribble, I should note that he was at all times exceedingly respectful, open to my criticism, and conceded points. (I was, to say the least, surprised. Clearly Mr. Pribble doesn’t know that you are supposed to attack internet opponents with pitchforks and fire.) But there was one deviation that just stuck in my craw, as it were, because it’s something that I hear a lot: Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy.

For all the things out there that irritate me – and you don’t need to be the most eagle-eyed reader to realize it’s a relatively long list – one of the ones that gets under my skin faster than about anything else is the insistence that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. This is, as I noted to Mr. Pribble, obnoxious. Why? Because it’s a way of invalidating a data point that doesn’t agree with the point or argument that the person – generally of an anti-religion bent – is trying to make. And if you can’t support your position without ignoring the deviations that invalidate the position being argued, then you need to consider coming up with a new argument for that position.

As for whether or not Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, I was in a philosophy program for a couple of years. I still regularly talk to philosophers. And while some might be forgiven for thinking wine is our sacrament, philosophers as a whole don’t have ritualized ceremonies, meditations, or any great need to burn incense while talking shop – no, not even us odd Continental philosophers. Buddhism, on the other hand, can have almost as much pomp, circumstance and flash to it as Catholicism, which, when you think about it, is saying something.

Being religious is not synonymous with theism. It’s understandable that atheists would be most vocal against the Abrahamic, theistic religions because those are the dominant religions in the world. But this is still positioning in opposition to a specific subset of religion, rather than all religions. And if atheists mean truly being a-theistic, then they need to leave room to embrace those who are religious and atheistic, as well. And if the atheism movement’s problem is with all religions, rather than the theistic ones, then they need to come up with a better word to express that concept.

And any which way, people need to stop attempting to negate the fact that, uncomfortable as it may be to some people’s world views, it is entirely possible to be atheistic, non-proselytizing – and religious.