Four strategies for naturalizing religion

I’ve noticed four strategies for “naturalizing” a religion—for making it compatible with the scientific worldview.

Two strategies get rid of supernatural aspects: ignoring and denying. Two other strategies reinterpret supernatural aspects in natural terms: psychologizing and mythologizing.

My aim is to naturalize Buddhist tantra, but these apply to any religion. The innovators who naturalized Sutrayana (mainstream Buddhism) used all four strategies. All four can be useful for Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) too.

Interestingly, the first two strategies correspond to the fundamental method of Sutrayana: renunciation, or rejection of harmful stuff. The second two correspond to the fundamental method of Vajrayana: transformation of harmful stuff into helpful stuff. This makes me think reinterpretation strategies may be particularly useful in naturalizing Buddhist tantra.

Renunciative strategies for naturalization

Modern Buddhism simply ignores most supernatural parts of traditional Buddhism. Teachers rarely mention the Pali Canon’s discussions of the magical powers attainable through meditation, like walking on water. As long as students don’t know or don’t care about these, it’s mission accomplished.

Most of the supernatural parts of traditional Vajrayana can also just be ignored. For example, some tantric scriptures are full of spells for practical magic, like how to fly on the back of a vampire by drawing a magic symbol on its chest. Probably nothing needs to be said or done about this, because no one is going to ask “can you really do that?”

When a question about the supernatural does come up, it can be denied explicitly. All modern teachers will deny that hell is a cave, inhabited by demons, that you could get to by digging in the ground—although Buddhist scriptures clearly say so.

To naturalize Vajrayana, we might issue a blanket denial of all its supernatural traditions, and reconstruct it without any mention of them. That would be the hardline approach. We’d get a squeaky-clean, sleek, modern religion that way—which many people might like.

Is this possible? From a naturalistic point of view, if Vajrayana practices work, they work naturally. Perhaps they don’t work at all—but I think they do. So I believe a “renunciative” approach, rigorously purifying the religion of all contaminating hints of the supernatural, is possible. In later posts, I’ll sketch how this might work.

This might be the most broadly-accessible presentation for modern Vajrayana. It is not my preferred option.

Some might say removing all mention of the supernatural throws the baby out with the bathwater. I’d say it is more like a stew. If you fish the potatoes out of the pot and wash them off carefully, they’d make an edible meal—but potatoes by themselves are not very tasty, and you’d waste most of the stew’s nutritional value.

Psychological transformations

Psychological transformations of Buddhist traditions are common, in both Sutrayana and Vajrayana. For example, Lama Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons is a psychological reinterpretation of the tantric chöd practice:

[A] demon might be addiction, self-hatred, perfectionism, anger, jealousy, or anything that is dragging you down, draining your energy. To put it simply, our demons are what we fear… anything that blocks complete inner freedom is a demon.

In general, we can reinterpret tradition’s external, supernatural entities as internal, mental ones. This may have great value for modern people, because we find our selves shattered into fragments that can be hostile and uncommunicative. (That is much less true for people in traditional societies.) We can translate supernatural realms (such as the heavens and hells) into psychological states or ways of being. Supernatural powers and mysterious forces become metaphors for emotional energies.

There’s no obvious reason this should work. Why would concepts and practices concerning imaginary external beings prove useful when applied in an entirely different domain?

Some say it is because the supposed demons were always internal: tradition misunderstood mental phenomena as supernatural ones. Shamanic systems such as Vajrayana were primitive forms of psychotherapy. They developed methods by trial and error that may be powerful and useful, despite their total misunderstanding of what they were up to. I’m somewhat skeptical about this explanation; it’s too tidy.

In any case, it’s more important to know whether these psychological transformations work than why. Many people’s experience—including mine—suggests they do. Still, I’d be happier with stronger evidence than anecdotes.

Mythologizing

The fourth naturalization strategy is to declare supernatural parts of Buddhism to be myths: religious fictions. Mythologization is close to my heart, and I believe it has enormous potential. It’s a complex topic, and little understood in modern Buddhism, so I’ll say a bit here, and more in future posts.

Myths are stories about religiously significant events that did not actually happen, usually involving people who did not actually exist. As statements of objective fact, myths are false. That does not mean they are worthless.

Many Christian sects are obsessed with the claim that their mythology is actually true—and that’s what makes them special. Westerners unconsciously transfer this silly idea to other religions. Having realized the Christian myths are untrue, they go looking for true ones. This misses the point. Truth and belief are irrelevant for most religion.

Novels, dramas, and paintings are not true, but the best have great aesthetic value. Myths are not true, but the best have great religious value. Religious and aesthetic value are not the same, although the best myths have both. Myths are not mainly entertainment, although they may be that too.

Myths unclog energy by provoking wonder. “Wonder” is the union of passionate interest and open receptivity. I have defined the path of tantra as “unclogging energy by unifying passion and spaciousness”—so you can see why myth is particularly important here!

You do not need to believe in magic to be inspired, moved, and perhaps permanently transformed by The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Their creators were both deliberately making modern myths. These fictions are major influences on many people’s spirituality—though not many recognize that.

Still, both have limited religious impact—and not only because they are taken to be mere entertainment. The religious/philosophical ideas their authors used as backgrounds to their stories were limited and muddled.

In following posts, I’ll explain that myths, as stories about people doing things together, are particularly important for tantra—which is about how to do things together. And I’ll explain ritual as the enactment—the doing—of myths, so they are felt in the body.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

34 thoughts on “Four strategies for naturalizing religion”

  1. The theories I’m familiar with around why psychologization works are mostly evolutionary in nature. Spiral dynamics is one, a simpler system (perhaps less linear) is found in Gebser’s Ever Present Origin, Jung had some similar ideas as well. The basic gist is that as human evolve, the way we see the world evolves as well. According to Gebser this evolving view includes the way we see ourselves, society, the world and even time. To a person living in Gebser’s mythical epoc, the world around them is alive with spirits (helpful and unhelpful, human and non-human) which one can have a relationship with, time is cyclic in nature (moons, seasons, life-death-rebirth, etc.), etc. The stories that are passed in the tribe’s oral tradition are the facts of history and the world. There’s not a question of belief, it’s just the way it is, always was and always will be. According to Jung, the spirits and forces and other things in nature are projections of the psyche (fears, hopes, beliefs, other archetypal forces) and as we evolved into the rational/mental age we stopped projecting those internal experiences onto nature. So it makes perfect sense to see demons, gods, etc. as representing internal forces, conflicts, and more. Are we going to be able to find objective scientific proof of that? I doubt it. Side note: there may be some value in studying the evolving psyche of children as some theorize that the two processes are similar.

    From this perspective, mythologizing is a very similar process. Myths talk about archetypal forces and processes which we relate to because we’re human. They serve more than inspiring awe. Myths can be teaching stories, they can support us when things are difficult and inspire us when we need direction. Myths are especially important in times of transition when they can offer insight, comfort, support, etc. Perhaps most importantly, myths create a container within which we can make meaning of ourselves, our lives, our experience. I think Jung would say that much of the fragmentation you’ve pointed out in previous writings is the result of the loss of a containing myth. It might be that this would be an important contribution of a Western Tantra – a new containing myth that fits the postmodern age.

  2. Thanks, Eran! Yes, this fleshes out the “tradition misunderstood mental phenomena as supernatural ones” explanation.

    My outline says an upcoming post is about Jung. He wrote an introduction to the Evans-Wentz (mis)translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in which he interpreted Tibetan Buddhism in terms of archetypes. I don’t think that’s totally wrong, and it does provide a usefully naturalized understanding, but it’s off-target in various ways.

    On a different tack, I think you are right about what Jung would say about fragmentation. Or, anyway, it is what many of his contemporary followers do say!

    Again I don’t think it’s completely wrong, but I think it’s too late for any containing myth to function. The post-modern condition of “skepticism about meta-narratives” is permanent; we can’t go back.

    I think we do still need myths—badly—but they’ll have to work in quite different ways than they did in traditional societies.

  3. Jung’s interpretation of Eastern spiritual traditions is valuable yet flawed and limited. At the very least, there is value in the methodology he employs. I think that if someone with a better understanding of the tradition and deeper personal experience with the practices were to use similar methods, the result would be very valuable indeed. Especially in regard to naturalization of the tradition but also in insights into the human psyche in general.

    A myth for this age would have to reflect the nature of the age. I think that taking some of the Existentialists as a starting point would be good. Frankl’s way of thinking about meaning, it seems to me, is very apt for the post-modern world. From what little I know of him, Heidegger seems to speak to the post-modern condition quite well (lostness in the they-self, nature of being, etc.). My problem with Frankl was that his seeming obsession with meaning seemed to ignore emptiness as I understood it at the time. So it might be that a containing myth that’s based on an understanding of both would be useful today. (Side note: perhaps some of Otto Schramer’s work can be useful here?)

    Of course, the relationship to a containing myth would have to be different as well. We need to include the participatory aspect of “believing” in a myth. The way that we co-create and perpetuate the myth we choose to participate in, or the myth we are thrown into (because, like it or not, we’re participating in the process). Taking responsibility for that, IMO, is key to a healthy post-modern society. I think this is the currently emerging meaning of leadership – being conscious of and taking responsibility for what we help to create in our actions, thoughts and speech. And I think this is actually not very far from Tantra – realizing that every act is a creative act, everyone is a creator God, and we’re all in this together whether we like it or not.

  4. Hi David,
    The issues you are discussing here remind me a lot of Jung’s Red Book (his record of his visions)–certainly more than his psychological writings & disappointing attempts to analyze Eastern traditions. The characters Jung meets in his visions repeatedly insist that they are not inside of him but outside, and that magic is real, even more real than he is. Jung struggles with this. He goes along with it because he finds that it makes the journey more effective, but never totally accepts it. He ultimately attempts to reconcile it through a story about how the relationship of gods and man have changed over time. To simplify his story: External gods have outlived their usefulness and modern man has killed them, but modern man now needs to find and listen them on the interior and to accept psychic processes as true.

    Jung doesn’t really follow up on this idea of accepting the images and characters as independent beings in his ‘scientific’ writings. Or else he buries it under dense analyses of alchemy and mythology, or tries to generalize them as archetypes (In the Red Book the characters are very concrete and filled with personality, the archetypal interpretation is imposed later). But James Hillman is especially good at drawing attention to images as images rather than psychological concepts, and insisting that the images should be accepted as real things that are outside of us, not just part of personal psychology.

  5. @David Chapman
    Perhaps my question has escaped your attention in this connection.
    I repeat it:
    “Is it not an attempt at corrupting the Buddhist scriptures? Or it is an attempt at corrupting Buddha’s teachings?”

  6. Thank you Eran and unhistoricist for more on Jung. Before replying to specifics I should say that I don’t know his work at all well; that I’m significantly influenced by it; and that I’m wary of it, and would like to dismiss it (although I don’t think I can). This will make anything I say problematic :-) .

    To expand on those three points first: I know Jung mainly through secondary sources and through pop-Jungians (e.g. Hillman, von Franz, and especially Robert Bly); I’ve read little if anything by Jung himself. (Perhaps now is the time to rectify that!)

    What I’ve learned from pop-Jungians has fed into my personal process and was a major influence at times. (My incomplete vampire novel is based on spontaneous eruptions of unconscious material, some of it quite raw, from that process—although my subsequent conscious “cooking” doesn’t involve Jungian ideas.)

    I’m wary of Jung because (speaking from ignorance) his work seems heavily influenced by the Romantic-Idealist-Protestant German tradition, which I find highly problematic. I would guess that the value in his work arises at the points where he diverges from that tradition; but it’s so woven into his preconceptions that it’s hard to separate.

    I was a Neopagan before I was a Buddhist, and I expect that Neopaganism was heavily influenced by Jung in its development in the 1960s and 1970s. (I don’t actually know that… a book on the history of Neopaganism is on my to-read-soon list.) I was a naturalist as a Neopagan, which was common—most Neopagans did not “literally believe” in the mythology that we often were making up as we went along. So this combination forces some sort of naturalistic understanding of mythology. What I learned from pop-Jungians was some ways of working with that.

    I’ve brought both the Neopagan and pop-Jungian tools to bear on my understanding of Vajrayana. That could certainly introduce distortions. I’m not the only person to have done that, and I think some other people have made a mess of it. (Jung himself being only the first example!) I’m trying to be careful, but I may screw up.

    One major philosophical problem I see with Jungianism is the tacit assumption that “it’s all about the psyche.” Its naturalizing move is to declare that mythological stuff is actually psychological stuff. This seems to me importantly wrong. Mythological stuff is cultural and social stuff, which is not the same kind of stuff at all. It doesn’t live in the head; it is enacted in social action. Maybe I am wrong about understanding Jung this way? Hillman and Bly certainly understood the enormous importance of group ritual, and the problems American society has due to loss of it.

    I liked Frankl’s book a lot; I think he got the central point right. I see it as a response to the particular problem of the 20th century (the threat of nihilism), though, and therefore not so relevant now. Heidegger was a huge influence on me, and yeah he’s the prophet of the post-modern. Although again he was obsessed with the problem of nihilism, as was the subsequent Existentialism. I don’t think that’s a serious issue any more. Now that I come to think about it, Jung was probably also wrestling with the pseudo-problem of nihilism?

    The way that we co-create and perpetuate the myth we choose to participate in, or the myth we are thrown into (because, like it or not, we’re participating in the process). Taking responsibility for that, IMO, is key to a healthy post-modern society. I think this is the currently emerging meaning of leadership – being conscious of and taking responsibility for what we help to create in our actions, thoughts and speech. And I think this is actually not very far from Tantra – realizing that every act is a creative act, everyone is a creator God, and we’re all in this together whether we like it or not.

    I like that a lot!

    In the Red Book the characters are very concrete and filled with personality, the archetypal interpretation is imposed later

    That’s extremely interesting!

    One of the ways in which tantric yidams are very different from archetypes is that yidams are extremely specific. That is probably a necessary part of their functioning. Misinterpretations of tantra in terms of archetypes makes everything vague and intellectual in a speculative, free-association-of-concepts day-dreamy sort of way. That mental mode may be valuable in some way, but it’s utterly different from yidam practice.

  7. paarsurrey:

    Is it not an attempt at corrupting the Buddhist scriptures? Or it is an attempt at corrupting Buddha’s teachings?

    I am not sure what you are asking—and, more importantly, why you care.

    Your blog says you are a Muslim. If you were a Buddhist, I would ask some questions about what your Buddhist background was, and then I would be be able to answer. I would give different answers to different sorts of Buddhists. I’ve really no idea how to answer a Muslim.

    Your question appears to assume that Buddhism is based on scriptures that supposedly record the words of a historical founder, as Christianity and Islam supposedly are. That is not the way Buddhism works.

    It’s especially not the way tantric Buddhism works. The tantric scriptures mostly don’t even pretend to have anything to do with Shakyamuni/Gotama Buddha. And, tantric Buddhism has only a tangential relationship with the tantric scriptures.

    You also seem to think that what I’m doing here is in some way new or unusual. Mainstream Buddhism has been naturalized, in the way I describe in this post, for 150 years. All I’m doing is applying the same strategies to Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) that were developed long ago for Sutrayana (mainstream Buddhism).

  8. Re Jung: I believe there’s a lot of useful stuff in his work. It’s limited. It’s not perfect. But if you look at his methodology (for example in his intro to Secret of the Golden Flower), the process itself is powerful and, I believe, still applicable. You may not end up with the same conclusions because you don’t have the same assumptions but there’s value there. Maybe take a look at Lionel Corbett’s work (The Religious Function of the Psyche) for a more up-to-date presentation.

    Regarding the “all about the psyche” vs social enaction: I’m gonna say it’s absolutely both. They’re all just lenses. You can also look at this from a systems perspective, a memetic perspective, a transpersonal perspective… They’re all useful. Each lens has some unique contribution. If we want to go beyond the post-modern swamp, I think the focus should be on the useful contribution of each lens as opposed to which one is right or how they’re all wrong. Basically, I’m following Wilber on this.

    I know very little of the existentialists and I try to stay away from philosophy as much as I can. That said, I actually look at the existentialists (or at least part of what they’re saying) as a response to the post-modern swamp. I think you’re right when you say that nihilism is no longer a problem. It’s not lack of meaning that we’re struggling with, it’s too much meaning. Words like fact and literally, have lost their meaning. Everyone can have their own facts. When news is opinionated entertainment, where does one go to learn what actually happened? There’s no one way your life is supposed to go anymore (school, work, marriage, children, retirement, death), in fact you can have 3, 4, 5 careers or just be famous and rich for being famous and rich. Science is no longer fact, it’s just, like, your opinion, man. My opinion is just as valid and I didn’t have to spend 20 years in scientist school to get it!

    What Frankl’s saying is that in order to get out of that swamp you need to basically pull yourself up by your shoelaces. What I get from Heidegger is that you need to recognize the trance you’re stuck in, the automatic way of being, and wake up from it by creating your own path that’s grounded in your own sense of what’s important. Taken this way, I see them as coming from an Integral rather than a post-modern perspective, saying: yes, all meaning is constructed and none of it is absolutely true and yet, this act of construction is the most human thing we can do, so take ownership of your constructions and make them the best damn constructions you can. That’s why I see Frankl and Heidegger as still relevant today.

  9. Hi David,
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think you are right in your wariness of Jung. That is why I like the Red Book so much–it has so much that oozes beyond the constraints of conventional Jungianism (and also helps clarify things that remain very obscure in his later writings). For example, the characters are constantly teaching him that the personal is the social and vice versa–there is no distinction. He tries to deal with this via his story about old rituals that are no longer functioning for modern man, and the need to devise new ones that come from the inside. Unfortunately, that “inside” came to be interpreted as the “psyche”, and its implications of boundedness. This is not at all like the parade of autonomous characters, ego-smashing experiences and moments of emptiness that came with his Red Book visions.

    Romantic-idealist-monism does influence Jung. I’m less disturbed by this than you, so I don’t see it as a problem. In the Red Book he very explicitly opts for being a man rather than melding into the monistic oneness. He also very explicitly struggles with his Protestant heritage in the Red Book and many writings, ultimately embracing a gnostic-alchemical engagement with Christianity. But even the fact of that struggle does give a Protestant framing to much of his writing.

    For a brief intro to his Red Book-style mysticism, check out his “Seven Sermons of the Dead”–easy to find online. It is more monistic and not so down-to-earth as the Red Book stuff, but a great read.

  10. Thank you both for the further recommendations!

    Regarding the “all about the psyche” vs social enaction: I’m gonna say it’s absolutely both.

    Yes, I agree with that. If I implied otherwise, I was being sloppy!

    I actually look at the existentialists (or at least part of what they’re saying) as a response to the post-modern swamp.

    Well, to be a bit pedantic, existentialism was basically over before post-modernism began. Existentialism was an attempt to get out of nihilism by, as you say, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, or creating your own path. The existentialists themselves came to see that this was impossible—Heidegger explicitly repudiated it in his late work, for instance—so it came to a dead end.

    The post-modern swamp began there, with the idea that nihilism was unavoidable, but not as awful as had been feared. Pretty nearly everyone now agrees that this was also wrong, but not many people have useful diagnoses, or can offer an alternative way forward.

    all meaning is constructed and none of it is absolutely true and yet, this act of construction is the most human thing we can do, so take ownership of your constructions and make them the best damn constructions you can.

    Yes, I think that’s the way forward—but meaning-making always has to be a collaboration. There’s an individual contribution, a personal quirky aspect, but it’s a necessarily social activity.

  11. @ David Chapman : Comments of January 24, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    “You also seem to think that what I’m doing here is in some way new or unusual.”Unquote

    It might have been started, I think, with good intentions by Paul Carus and D.T. Suzuki and others as I understand from the article:

    But later D.T. Suzuki revisited his intention when he saw that it was not good for the world. This is if I have understood it correctly.

    It would have been good if the scripture have been left as it had reached and it would have not been manipulated; no additions, subtractions and deductions have been made.
    One could always write one’s viewpoint with one’s comments separately.

    This has been done by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) – The End Times Reformer of all religions (The Promised Messiah, Imam Mahdi, End times Buddha etc).

    This is my opinion; others could have different view point; I understand.

    Please don’t mind

    Thanks and regards

  12. Three quick thoughts/ questions:
    1. Why do you want to make Buddhism compatible with the scientific worldview, rather than making both Buddhism and the scientific worldview more objective? If there is something to be learned from Buddhism, doesn’t this require critical consideration of the scientific worldview in the light of Buddhism?
    2. In any case, the very idea of ‘the scientific worldview’ conflates scientific method with naturalistic interpretations of science. Science is not necessarily naturalistic.
    3. What about ethics? It’s completely ignored here. My chief objection to ‘naturalising’ anything is that it takes the fact-value distinction for granted and leaves us with moral relativism.

  13. Hi, Robert, nice to hear from you again!

    My overall reply would be that you are asking much subtler questions than the level I’m aiming at in this particular post. Buddhist tantra traditionally supposes that spooks cause plagues, that chanting magical formulas at the spooks will force them to go away, and that’s the way you cure plague. Presumably you will agree that this is mistaken, and that if Buddhist tantra can be of any use in the west, beliefs like this need to be removed?

    Why do you want to make Buddhism compatible with the scientific world view?

    I wrote half a page about that here. Basically, I said that most Westerners don’t believe plagues are caused by spooks, so a religion that says they are can’t reach them.

    That might have been overly tactful. The belief that spooks causes plagues is actively harmful, so countering it is a good thing independently of that.

    If there is something to be learned from Buddhism, doesn’t this require critical consideration of the scientific worldview in the light of Buddhism?

    It sounds like you have something specific in mind here? I don’t think I can answer the question posed this abstractly.

    In any case, the very idea of ‘the scientific worldview’ conflates scientific method with naturalistic interpretations of science. Science is not necessarily naturalistic.

    Are you referring to the distinction between methodological and ontological naturalism?

    Methodological naturalism is sufficient for doing the job here. (I take it that you’re happier with methodological than ontological naturalism.) But this distinction is way subtler that seems necessary here.

    The practical question here is: do we retain, from traditional Buddhism, practices that cure plagues by overcoming demons with magical syllables? We don’t need any sophisticated philosophy of science to answer “no.” Vaccines and antibiotics work; chanting doesn’t.

    What about ethics?

    Again, it sounds like you have something specific in mind, and I could answer better if you got to it…

    My chief objection to ‘naturalising’ anything is that it takes the fact-value distinction for granted and leaves us with moral relativism.

    Hmm. Again I’m not sure what specifically you have in mind here. “Moral relativism” is a notoriously vague term.

    Again, though, I think this is probably a much more subtle point than my post deserves. I’m just talking about kicking out the spooks.

  14. Hi David,
    Sorry I was so brief. I will try to explain myself better.

    I’m sympathetic to your general approach of psychologising and mythologizing religious stories, but I wouldn’t describe this as ‘naturalising’, and I think your idea of ‘kicking out the spooks’ is misplaced. Instead of kicking them out, we need to integrate them. Although you see limitations with denialist approaches, your core way of describing what you’re doing seems denialist. The whole idea of ‘naturalism’ assumes that objectivity consists in some sort of representation of ‘nature’, rather than in our own approaches to investigating it, and if you take that representational view of ‘nature’, you’re also likely to treat ethics as ‘subjective’.

    You say that this is much more subtle than the level you are approaching this on. I disagree, and think this is a more basic issue with major practical implications. If you adopt a naturalistic framework to present what you are doing here, you will tend to both entrench the distinction between natural and supernatural (which is deluded to start with) and provoke unnecessary reactions from people who don’t appreciate your degree of recognition of the meaningfulness of their supernatural beliefs.

    You also suggest the distinction between ontological and methodological naturalism. Obviously I think the methodological approach is generally better, but I really cannot see the point of it, and suspect it of being a way that people hang onto the idea of there being a ‘natural’ view even when it’s become clear that we’re not capable of finding one. If your ‘methodological naturalism’ is still naturalistic, then it’s still effectively hanging on to an ontology. If it has purged itself of that, then it is no longer naturalistic, so why call it that? I’ve studied, for example, Dewey, and Mark Johnson, who might be seen as methodological naturalists. I admire both of these figures, and they offer many insights. As far as I can see, though, their positions are provisional and their reasons for holding them are pragmatic, not naturalistic. So I don’t understand why they call themselves naturalists. I am similarly puzzled as to why you do, unless you believe that we can form accurate representations of the actual ‘natural’ world.

    On your other page, you define natural bluntly as ‘not supernatural’. This conflates denial of the supernatural with strong agnosticism about it. This directly conflicts with the way in which you say elsewhere that you are not denying the supernatural. I suspect that your motive is to actually integrate supernatural beliefs, but anyone who reads you and assumes that you are denying them will immediately react negatively. That’s why I think you need to start with a different model – the Middle Way or integration – rather than naturalisation, as the standpoint from which to adopt what is helpful about apparently supernatural beliefs whilst avoiding dogmatic metaphysics. Otherwise I think the assumptions in your basic model will continually undermine the integrative process I assume you want to engage in.

  15. Thanks for the extensive clarification! I’m still not sure I understand, though.

    Is your point that the existence of spooks should not be ruled out as an actual, significant real-world likelihood? In that case, we’ll have to agree to disagree, because it’s not a point I want to argue. It’s thoroughly debated elsewhere, and I have nothing distinctive to say about it.

    Or is it a more subtle one about philosophical methodology? For example, that categories like “natural” are problematic? I would agree with that, but I still think such objections are pretty much irrelevant here. My presentation here is intended for people for whom “are there spooks or not” is a live question. And my aim is only to show that Vajrayana without spooks is feasible.

  16. @David vis-a-vie “And my aim is only to show that Vajrayana without spooks is feasible.”

    Well the term “spooks” seems unnecessary to start. Ultimately, you are going to need the support of the traditional Vajrayana schools to establish solid Vajrayana institutions in the west, and I doubt that saying you want to form without “spooks” wouldn’t go over so well. It is alienating, not only because of what should be obvious, but also in ways you may not expect. For example, I’m black, and the term “spooks” is connected to extreme racism that I am reflexively mistrustful of anyone who uses that term.

    Secondly, it does seem foolish to disregard the practices of a living tradition without understanding their purpose. Not just their historical, social purpose, but also their purpose in practice. I have a Pureland practice that you probably wouldn’t be sympathetic too, but honestly I wasn’t either until I started doing it sincerely, then it fell into place. Even though it’s not something I can actually articulate as to why this is the case, it still stands that if I “kicked out the…” in my practice, it would feel like it was gutted, and so would I.

  17. I meant: “I doubt that saying you want to form without “spooks” *would* go over so well.”

  18. Hi zsc,

    Thank you for your comment!

    Ultimately, you are going to need the support of the traditional Vajrayana schools to establish solid Vajrayana institutions in the west

    I’m pretty sure they would not support the modernized Vajrayana I’m sketching here. In fact, I’m reasonably sure they would actively oppose it. It would be great to have their support, and I’m open to the possibility, but I think it is so unlikely that it can be pretty much written off. The best strategy seems to simply ignore them, and hope that any opposition is ineffective.

    It’s possible that a younger generation of Tibetans will be supportive in a way the current leaders are not. I don’t know enough about internal Tibetan politics to have a strong opinion about that.

    alienating, not only because of what should be obvious, but also in ways you may not expect. For example, I’m black, and the term “spooks” is connected to extreme racism

    Goodness, I had no idea! I looked in a dictionary, which confirmed this usage.

    As you probably know, it is commonly used in atheist circles as a generic term for ghosts, demons, gods, and so forth.

    Even though it’s not something I can actually articulate as to why this is the case, it still stands that if I “kicked out the…” in my practice, it would feel like it was gutted, and so would I.

    Well, I am not advocating preventing people who like supernatural entities from continuing to like them. I am not proposing the New Improved Vajrayana that everyone has to practice and we’ll destroy all others.

    Some people are allergic to any whiff of the supernatural; they deserve Vajrayana too :-) . There’s room for many alternatives.

  19. This article makes me seriously butthurt with its attempts to remove the supernatural and to crush the paranormal. I hope one day you understand how to properly connect to such things so you may know it’s a part of our reality and that miracles do indeed happen.

  20. I think what would actually be not only more interesting than naturalizing “religion” (which of course, doesn’t really exist outside the west and middle east) but have far more transformative power for the modern age would be naturalizing science. Almost all branches of science – even physics, which is truly startling – are filled with non-empirical wholly supernatural entities as well as non-empirical, non-falsifiable assumptions. Start with the so-called “laws of nature” and go step by step through every layer of scientific theorizing. The single major difference between science and spiritual traditions is that most of the referents (like Tara) in spiritual traditions refer to something which can be experienced – whether “it” exists “apart” from human subjectivity really can’t be addressed by most modern people until they spend a lot of time working through all the supernatural entities and assumptions in science. But none of the entities in science can be experienced, and in fact, it’s virtually impossible to prove they could ever in any universe possibly exist! See “Shaving Science With Ockham’s Razor” for more (google the title; that will get you there).

  21. Hi Don,

    Yes, I agree that naturalizing science would be more important than naturalizing religion. However, this blog is about religion, not science, so that’s what gets naturalized here!

    My #1 target would be to debunk the representational theory of mind, which explicitly depends on a non-causal, non-physical, purely metaphysical reference relation. It’s super weird the way self-proclaimed physicalists like Dennet take the RTM as scientifically proven, when it is actually based entirely on metaphysical hand-waving.

    Regarding the mind/body problem, which seems to be your main interest, I’m agnostic, and think the whole discourse is probably misconceived, and unanswerable. (We seem to agree about that!) I wrote about this in “A philosophical zombie.” (By the way, that page is a commentary on “Eating an entire epistemologist,” which raises the “how do you know whether or not you are dreaming now?” question you discuss in “Shaving Science With Ockham’s Razor.”)

    The single major difference between science and spiritual traditions is that most of the referents in spiritual traditions refer to something which can be experienced

    I’m not sure what counts as “major”—that’s a subjective value judgement. However, I would not agree with your judgement here. Science and spiritual traditions are different in many ways, and this does not seem like the major one to me.

  22. Very interesting thoughts, thank you. I think the most interesting thing you said in your commentary on philosophic zombies is that you would **really** like to be a physicalist. That’s what I mean by supernaturalism (physicalism). A completely faith based, non-empirical view based on something that might be better referred to as unnatural rather than supernatural, or even better, subnatural, if you could use value-laden words for an anti-value view (masquerading as a neutral value view!) like physicalism. But this takes us back to psi, so I’ll continue my comments in regard to your response to my other posting.

  23. I said I would like to be a physicalist, but that physicalism seems clearly wrong! So do the other alternatives. My tentative conclusion is that the problem is nonsensical because the terms aren’t well-defined; but there are difficulties with that view too.

  24. I know you said it would be wrong. it was the “liking” that caught my attention:>)

    It’s nonsensical because of the Cartesian assumptions that are the root of all post-Descartes forms of idealism, dualism and materialism. Most Asian philosophies, when properly understood (at the moment I can’t think of a single academic, including David Loy, I would characterize as “properly understanding), take “mind” and “body” or “matter” in such a different light that they just bear no resemblance to these modern philosophies (it’s like people who refer to yogacara as “idealistic” which is so far off the mark as to be almost impossible to address)

    The problem is best captured, I think, by Iain McGilchrist. As long as you bring an imbalanced ‘left mode” of attention to the problem, no matter what you say or what view you present, it’s still going to represent an imbalanced left mode!

    Catch 22

  25. Thanks, glad you liked it!

    I’ve taken a very brief look at your site and it seems really interesting. I used to be a Neopagan and still have leanings in that direction. I’ll read lots more of the HP site when I get a chance!

  26. Reblogged this on no sign of it and commented:
    Found this while working on an essay on secular Buddhism I’m writing Very interesting brief analysis of the primary ways to work out of supernaturally based religious structures into more common-place, useful modes of secular thought and practice.

  27. “Christianity (especially modern Protestantism) is obsessed with the claim that its mythology is actually true” I think this statement is a bit too general. It is certainly true for many varieties of American protestantism, although I am reluctant to call these “modern”. It is certainly not true for the form of Protestantism that I think is dominant here in Germany and, I think, in other parts of western Europe as well, and that is largely naturalized or secularized, mostly, I think, along the lines of mythologizing, although there seems to be a wide spectrum. But within the German Lutheranian Church, I think it is difficult to find people who would take the Bible literaly. It looks like many people who did left for America during the 19th century, and the catastrophes of the world wars also might have played a role in destroyingt naive world views. In any case, there has been a naturalizing trend in theology here for at least a hundred years. To a lesser extent, this is also true for the Catholic church. At least among the lay people here, you find all kinds of shades towards naturalization.
    Very interesting distinctions made in your article, by the way.

  28. Yes, you are right, that was an unwarranted over-generalization. I’ve revised the text accordingly. Thank you!

    Glad you found the article interesting!

  29. Wow there are some mind bogglingly clever people on here. I can’t understand the majority of this!

    David I applaud your open mindedness and very compassionate intention to try to help others who might find themselves in need of what you’re trying to create. I think what you’re doing has huge potential value and I think it takes people like you (who can roll with the punches, have deep experience and the clear intellect to forge new things.)

    Not everyone has a deep enough experience of emptiness to cling to nothing so I expect you’ll meet a lot of resistance. I find it’s very rare to find anyone who genuinely doesn’t cling to teachers and teachings and methods and tools; and I include Buddha, Dharma and Sangha in that, they are often the last false refuge of the “clinging mind” and oh boy can they be clung to ever so tightly. The Pail cannon gets clung to, this kind of tantra gets clung to, this kind of zen gets clung to, even emptiness gets clung to!

    When emptiness is experienced deeply and fully there’s no need to cling to Buddhism, Buddha, his teachings, space time or history.

    It’s really funny how even very experienced Buddhists with deep experience of emptiness still seem to cling to “history” as if it happened “out there” “some time ago.”
    Appearance to the mind of “the past” is just that. It doesn’t mean THAT past ever occured but the appearance of a story of a past did occur.
    There is currently an appearance of a universe, that follows perceived “rules” but there isn’t a “fixed” universe “out there” and there’s infinite possibilities that can arise out of emptiness after this “story” ceases and “we” appear to die.

    Why should (the appearance of) time in (the appearance of) the next life be linear and chronological. Maybe the appearance of time will not appear.

    I don’t have a great intellect but I do know from experience of the emptiness of all phenomena that anything can appear and can cease to appear.

    With that understanding there’s no rejection of anything appearing. One persons cause of enlightenment can be another persons biggest insult against Buddha.

    With my understanding of Tantra there isn’t really tantric practice unless the practitioner can cause ignorance to temporarily cease and generate whatever they want. If that’s the case (and correct me if I’m wrong) then how could they possibly not believe in ghosts, spirits, other realms etc. Surely when ignorance ceases and emptiness is experienced directly (as the basis from which everything arises) they would know directly that anything is possible and anything can appear.

    I have met many people who’ve said they’ve experienced emptiness (who I have no reason to disbelieve) yet not been able to realize that it means everything is mere appearance and anything may appear. The fact that they cannot discern the mind blowing significance of their experience absolutely fascinates me.

    I therefore think that it’s crucial to provide emptiness teachings and practices for those who reject the supernatural, ghosts, spirits etc etc.

    Once they experience emptiness they may have their mind blown enough to realize that anything is possible and anything can appear. At that point their resistance to the supernatural, ghosts, spirits etc will have melted back into emptiness.

    If it hasn’t then there’s the part that fascinates me, how to help people realize the significance of their experience, to be able and willing to extrapolate from it, to completely pull the rug away.

    So my view (at the moment) is that there is a need to create a format for emptiness (maybe a bit like the 8 week mindfulness course format) and then when experience is gained it can be processed with a suitably experienced helper.

    Only at that point (as far as I can see) can genuine tantric practice be done; where ignorance is ceased and a new object is manifested.

    Given that, I would say we don’t need a naturalised tantra, we need a naturalised setting for emptiness teachings and helpers who can assist practitioners in realizing the significance of their experience (should they need it.)

    I’m currently (every now and then) teaching emptiness in my weekly classes to a group within which there are no Buddhists (mainly Christians, Athiests, Agnostics, Hindus etc) I don’t use jargon, I don’t use (as far as I’m aware) the words emptiness, enlightenment, Buddha. i don’t refer to Buddhist texts, I don’t use tantric methods. I keep it simple because I understand it and have no reason to complicate it. A few people have experienced emptiness and they are on their own journey, I have no idea what they need and don’t pretend I do. For all I know they’ll look at a lamb chop and all ignorance will melt away, who knows.

    I hope these ramblings make a bit of sense and are of some value. I’m not looking for an intellectual debate because I don’t have the ability. If someone benefits from what I’ve written then good, if not well I’ve just added to the mass of rubbish on the web :-)

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