Someone dropped a bomb on me here at Slashdot, and I realized I need write out what I think. Said bomb was a chiding for bringing "superstition and mythology into a practical discussion." Since I am an atheism-leaning agnostic, this stung more than a little.
I'll try to keep this light. First, I'm sort of trying to salvage my dignity here. I considered myself a pretty hard nosed realist. But I found myself on a razor's edge, rhetorically. In this thread about a desktop atomic fabricator. Read it if you care to. I got my @ss handed to me by fyngyrz on my own rhetorical stomping grounds. Namely, he said that buddhism is superstition. And that's where I found myself on the other side, wondering how I got flipped. So to sort out my thoughts, and maybe to refer people to someday, here's where I stand on some stuff.
Like I said, trying to keep this light. First, the question of "god". In a debate, I would take an agnostic position. But personally, I think "god" is a contrived idea. Outside, socially, I'm agnostic. Inside, atheist. Chalk it up to Occam's razor in the prime mover argument, and David Hume.
Let me cut to the chase. This is the conversation I had inside myself: How can I be dismissive of religion in general, but think buddhism is cool? Isn't that a huge logical contradiction? Specifically, buddhism has the concepts of karma and reincarnation, which in my own opinion are mystical and therefore unrealistic. Something has to give right?
The focus, the purpose, of buddhism is so-called enlightenment. Call it increased awareness in western terms. This is the difference as I see it between (for example) Christianity and Buddhism. For Christians, there's this big, magical guy named "God", and he defies all logic and physics and you HAVE to believe in him, or ELSE. In Buddhism, you close your eyes and do mental excercises (clearing the mind, or focusing it, as well as metta bhavana which has to do with excersizing compassion) which lead to an altered mental state. Now, I personally haven't achieved "enlightenment" (yet:). I have no proof that such a state exists, but I *do* have experience that meditation *does* result in an altered state. And people have done research showing that advanced students of meditation have brain activity that explains their subjective experiences while meditating (so called meditative bliss). Also, eastern practitioners talk about Buddhism in terms of science, and in terms of philosophy. They do not resort to saying "Oh, have faith" or threats of "believe me or else". Which brings me back to Christianity: I can't disprove "God", but no one can "prove" "God" either. So it's moot. If one takes the bible as a METAPHOR, then there's a lot that can be discussed. But I never hear people discussing it as metaphor- it's always "the word of God". Sorry, too 12th century for me.
Now, here's where I attack myself. Karma and reincarnation: Buddhism doesn't posit them in metaphoric terms. Karma is like a law of physics, and reincarnation is about as scientific as heaven and hell. So aren't I a hypocrit?
Sort of. (Ouch. Thank you fyngyrz! :)
So why don't I go get all baptized and be done with it? :) Okay. Rhetorically, Buddhism doesn't rely on Karma and reincarnation to get anyone to do anything. You can throw them out the window, and still meditate. You don't need to be afraid of negative consequences to have "Duty to buddha, duty to community, duty to self". I've been a little curious about these two ideas (karma and reincarnation) because they run counter to my thinking. Karma I can (if only to myself) let go, because I can think of it as an emergent condition of humanity; that things even out over time, not so much that if you kick an old lady, you'll get hit by lightening. But that leaves reincarnation. TOTALLY UNSCIENTIFIC!!! What do I do about that? This is what I think; Buddhism is about increased awareness through meditation. I read that the when the buddha (or anyone) gained the "final enlightenment", he passed "beyond all rebirth". This appears to be saying outright that people are reborn but enlightenment lets you break out of the cycle. My take is that this "rebirth" is a mental change; that usually people's viewpoints switch as they think about things, but in the "final enlightenment" one has reached a viewpoint from which switching is unneccesary.
This taking of something which is stated as literal opens up the prospect of saying "well yeah, but you could say the same thing about the bible" which unfortunately, means that now I have to look into that :) But I disagree with christians who say that there's LITERALLY a heaven and a hell, and a God and Devil, and that if I disagree I'm going to hell.
Okay, work is out now but I'll finish this later.
BTW, fyngyrz, you're tres cool. Your journal even has a bit about making moderation non-anonymous, which is an idea I had myself. I don't know you, but you made me think, and also, I like people who dismiss superstition as foolishness. I still consider myself one of them, but you've brought the light into my thinking on this area. Although I expect (from our limited back and forth) that you think I'm a monkey dancing around a fire with a bone in my nose :) I don't think buddhism is superstition, but then, neither do the christians I always seem to be at odds with think christianity is superstition.. That's something that doesn't bother me too much but I'll be thinking about it anyway because I'm a pedant too. Oh yeah, one last difference between buddhism and christianity... the buddha specifically told his followers NOT to proselytize or evangelize. *Sigh*, work is out, will flesh out related ideas later.