Constructive religious disagreement

“You should not argue about religion”—much less criticize anyone else’s. That’s taboo. Everyone knows it’s not nice.

Genuine religious tolerance, however, begins with understanding. Understanding other people’s religions means understanding how they are different.

Respectful argument, including criticism, is the best way we have to get clear about religious differences.

Of course, religious arguments can erupt into hellish holy wars, and that’s why we have the taboo. But “let’s all get along” does not always have to mean “let’s not talk about it.”

A constructive religious argument won’t convert opponents, and won’t result in agreement, and doesn’t try. Instead, it allows both sides to understand their own systems better.

Even better, constructive debate allows on-lookers to better understand their own religious values and needs and capabilities. That is critical to finding a religion that is a good personal fit—one whose goals you want to pursue, whose path you enjoy, and whose prerequisites are in reach.

In this blog series, I criticize an approach I call “Consensus Buddhism.” The approach is based partly on the belief that all forms of Buddhism have a shared essence, and so there doesn’t need to be any real disagreement among Buddhists. I think that’s wrong, and will explain why in detail in another post.

In this post, I hope to sketch a better alternative: how we can disagree productively, and without too much upset.

All religions are useful to someone

A starting point is that every religion must have something of value in it, or else it would no longer exist. Everyone would abandon it.

Because every religion has value, we can respect it—without having to agree with it, at all. If we understand how and why it is valuable to others, we can give credit where it is due.

This is not a matter of being nice—which is pretending to give respect, when secretly you believe none is deserved. Rather, it simply acknowledges the facts of the situation.

Being judgmental

Respecting every religion does not mean that they are all equally true, or equally beautiful, or equally effective. They aren’t.

That might sound shocking to some. Current ethical dogma is that everyone and everything is as good as everyone and everything else. Everyone is special, and everyone must get a prize. The possibility that one thing might not be as good as another is too appalling to contemplate.

Actually, we have a responsibility to judge religious differences, in choosing one for ourselves. For judgements to be useful, they must be based on understanding, and understanding must be based on knowledge and reason.

Pretending that all religions are equal, or (worse) that they are all essentially the same, abdicates responsibility.

This is the lazy way out. Learning enough about religions to make an informed choice is difficult and time-consuming.

It’s bad enough trying to figure out whether or not you can be a Buddhist. Discovering that Buddhism is not one religion, but many extremely different religions, could be totally discouraging. Wouldn’t it be easier to say that they’re all really the same? Surely their heart essence, their essential core, is shared, beneath the heaving mass of intricate, irrelevant sectarian squabbling and doctrinal details?

That is part of what makes the Consensus approach appealing. But if you accept that line, you allow the leaders of the Consensus to define your religion for you. You hand over control of Buddhism to Joseph Goldstein. He’s the Consensus founder whose manifesto One Dharma claims to identify “the essential point common to all the teachings.”

Religious essentialism is, actually, a strategy for totalitarian control. I’ll explain that in detail, and look at how it operates in Consensus Buddhism, in an upcoming post.

Maybe Joseph Goldstein is right, and I am wrong. But you shouldn’t just take his word for it.

What is the aim?

When seeking to understand a religious system, a first question to ask is: what is it trying to accomplish? This can be overlooked, because often a particular aim is taken for granted.

For example, a common, useless Christian criticism of Buddhism is that it won’t save you from the eternal damnation that everyone deserves (because of Adam and Eve’s original sin). The criticism is useless because this is not the problem Buddhism tries to solve.

A different Christian criticism is that Buddhism is nihilistic and life-denying and can only offer more suffering without a workable way out. This is directed at Theravada, which is what most Christians understand by “Buddhism.” This criticism comes closer to the mark, because it recognizes the aim: to end suffering. It asks: how could Buddhism possibly do that?

As a criticism of Theravada, I actually think it might be right. I am not necessarily convinced that Theravada does have a workable way out. I am not necessarily persuaded by Theravadins who defend against the charge of nihilism.

(Oooo, are you shocked yet? I am actually disagreeing with my Theravadin brothers about core Buddhist principles—I must be a bad Buddhist…)

But, my skepticism about Theravada’s way to liberation does not mean I reject or denigrate it. Theravada clearly brings great benefits to people of a certain temperament—if perhaps not all the benefits it claims. There is much I admire in it. Theravada shines with types of integrity that Tibetan Buddhism, which I follow, has mostly lost. And I have great respect for many individual Theravada teachers—as I will demonstrate later in this post.

Religious systems with different aims can’t be compared against each other. They can only be compared with your own aims. You can ask: does this system head where I want to go?

How does it work?

The second step in understanding a religious system is to figure out how it goes about achieving its aims.

This can be difficult, partly because members of the religion usually don’t know. Religions operate mainly by tradition, and the original insight into “here’s how method X will accomplish goal Y” gets lost.

Most American Christians do not know how the practices of their Churches are supposed to bring about salvation. Many actually reject the explanation, if you tell them. Generally, American Christians are unenthusiastic about hell, sin, and the basic principles of Christian morality. Mostly, they operate at the level of “God loves you, so everything will come out OK in the end.”

Similarly, most American Buddhists cannot give a coherent explanation of samsara and nirvana, or of how their brand of Buddhism is supposed to lead from one to the other. Mostly, they operate at the level of “you should be nice to everybody, and meditation makes you feel better, and in theory it leads to enlightenment, which is Becoming One With Everything.”

Famous Consensus Buddhist teachers write best-selling books that say just that. So you can’t necessarily find coherent or accurate explanations by going to apparently-reputable sources.

On the other hand, you can’t dismiss a religion’s own explanation of how it works, out of hand. To think that you understand a religion better than its most prominent spokespeople may be highly arrogant. For instance, a popular idea, that mystical experience is the shared essence of all religions, is strongly rejected by most imams, ministers, rabbis, and priests. To say “I know that all those imams, who have spent decades studying and practicing Islam, are wrong: mystical experience really is the essence of their religion” is dubious.

So, in trying to understand how a religion works, I think you have to navigate a middle course between two dangers: naively accepting its stories about itself at face value, and ignorantly imposing your own ideas on it.

What both dangers share is lack of knowledge. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for the hard work of finding stuff out.

Does it work?

Once you know how a system is supposed to work, you can ask: does it?

Does Christianity save you from damnation? Does Buddhism save you from samsara?

How can we know? Why should we believe it? Where is the evidence? What is the reasoning? These are terribly hard questions.

This is where constructive religious disagreement can be most helpful.

Every religion has an attractive, plausible story to tell—and to sell. The gaps in the narrative, the defects the sales pitch glosses over, will not be obvious. On the other hand, objections that occur to you may be mistaken; there may be good answers.

A good way to sort this out is to listen to (or read) debates between a knowledgeable advocate of the system and a knowledgeable critic. This could be a formal, in-person oral debate, with an audience, or it could just be a quick exchange on an internet forum.

How to argue about religion

For the debate to function, the two must respect each other enough to reply seriously to the other’s points—not merely to insult them, nor to attack straw men.

The critic needs to understand the religion clearly enough that he or she can focus on its weakest central points. Objecting to trivia is unhelpful, even when accurate. (Yes, the Bible says Noah got two of every species into a 300-cubit boat, which may be impossible, but who cares? Debating this is a waste of time; it is not a good reason to reject Christianity.)

The advocate needs to be able to get out of the box, the religion’s closed conceptual system, enough to listen to the criticisms and take them seriously. He or she needs to be secure enough not to offer knee-jerk defenses; to be willing for there to be objections he or she cannot readily answer.

All parties need to assume good intentions. When someone seems to disagree, it is not because they are a bad person, but because they have not spoken clearly, or you have misunderstood them, or because they value different things—or, as a last possibility, because they are confused.

Questions are often more useful than assertions (much less proclamations, or denunciations).

Again, the point here is not to be nice—not to pretend agreement when there is none, or to avoid conflict. Rather, arguing in such a way is more likely to produce light instead of heat.

And at its best, this kind of argument can be highly illuminating for all concerned.

This is not so common, unfortunately. One reason (among many) is the wrong idea that arguing about religion is always a bad thing.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu and I agree—just not about Buddhism

Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a prominent American Theravada teacher. He and I come from opposite ends of Buddhism, and we’d probably disagree about almost all points of doctrine and practice. In fact, we have so little in common that we probably couldn’t even argue, because there would not be enough common ground to start a discussion from.

However, I have enormous respect for him—from afar—for many reasons. One is that he strongly advocates the distinctness of Theravada, and insists that it not be muddled up with other things. Theravada has a specific, coherent logic, which is not at all the same as Mahayana, or psychotherapy, or political correctness, or—as he so usefully pointed outRomantic Idealism. Theravada’s aims are different, its methods are different, its truth-claims are different.

In a brilliant interview, he violates a Buddhist taboo by speaking of right and wrong approaches to Buddhism. The interviewer, seeming a bit shocked, suggests that “many people in our society are uncomfortable with the notion of right and wrong—especially in the area of religion.” Thanissaro Bhikkhu replies:

I don’t think it’s so much that they are uncomfortable with the notion of right and wrong. It’s just that they’ve shifted their reference points. Being judgmental is now wrong; being non-judgmental is right.

This becomes a problem when people confuse being judgmental with the act of exercising judgment. Being judgmental—hypercritical, quick to dismiss the opinions of others—is obviously unskillful. But in our rush not to be judgmental, we can’t abandon our critical abilities, our powers of judgment. We have to learn how to use them skillfully. It’s all very fine not to pass judgment when you’re on the sidelines of an issue and don’t want to get involved. But here we’re all out on the playing field, facing aging, illness, and death. Our skill in exercising judgment is going to make all the difference in whether we win or lose.

So refraining from judgment is not the answer to the question of how we face the differing teachings we find available. In fact, a knee-jerk nonjudgmental stance can often be a very unskillful way of passing judgment.

It’s a refusal to take differences seriously, and that totally short-circuits any attempt to develop skill. You often find this associated with a lowest-common-denominator approach to the truth: the assumption that whatever the major traditions of the world hold in common must be true, while their differences are only cultural trappings. But that’s assuming they’re all asking the same questions, or that the only important questions are the ones they all ask. Where does that leave people who think outside the box?

Another approach is to assume that all traditions take you to the same place, but that they’ve found different skillful ways of doing it—the old “many paths lead to the top of the mountain” idea. But the reports we get from people who have been up this mountain say that it has plenty of wrong turns, false summits, and sudden drop-offs. One tradition will say, “When you reach this point, turn left.” Another will say, “If you turn left at that point you’ll get stuck at a dead-end.” If we plan to stay on the valley floor, it’s okay for us to stay out of the argument. But can we claim some sort of higher moral ground for not getting involved in the fray? Do we have more comprehensive maps of the mountain showing that dangers are imaginary, and that left turns and right turns are all okay?

Right on, brother!