Horgan doesn\’t like Buddhism

John Horgan recently wrote in Slate about why he thinks Buddhism doesn’t work. He says:

Eventually…I concluded that Buddhism is not…rational…”.

Stop the presses! Buddhism is not rational!

What’s next? Horgan the restaurant reviewer, criticizing a Mexican restaurant because it doesn’t serve sushi? Why not criticize it for not offering dry cleaning services either?

Horgan says,

Together, these tenets [reincaration and karma] imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness before rewarding us with rebirth as a cockroach or as a saintly lama.

Gee, bringing Santa Claus and cockroaches into the discussion seems like going sort of overboard, although I know that as a big science writer Horgan needs to keep his prose lively. But actually, neither reincarnation nor karma, understood correctly, have anything to do with a cosmic judge.

Horgan moves on to point out, rightly, that it is often more useful to consider Buddhism as a roadmap to personal growth, focused on meditation practice, but then claims that “meditation’s effects,,,[are]…highly unreliable”, and that “[m]editation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people.” Well John, you’re a reporter or a journalist or a writer or something, right? Why not tell us whatever results you experienced from your own meditation practice, since you say you did join a Buddhist meditation class four years ago? And you know as well as anyone that any practice targeting emotional growth, including pyschotherapy for one, can and does (and probably should) create “negative” effects—as a stage in the process. Are you saying that any practice that exacerbates depression at any point is bad or wrong—a point of view that reveals an extremely shallow grasp of the nature of depression itself?

Horgan goes on to claim that Buddhism raises as an ideal “perceiving yourself as unreal”. Then he proceeds from this cartoon-like characterization to the conclusion that perceptions of unreality can also be caused by drugs so they’re bad; or that perceiving yourself as unreal might cause you to stop caring about human suffering. I doubt if he could find a single Buddhist teacher anywhere in the world (did he talk to one?) who would describe the Buddhist ideal to be thinking of yourself as unreal (it’s closer to thinking of yourself as very real, I would say). Of course, his account would not be complete without pointing out that some masters have had various personal quirks—drinking too much, say—and claims that this invalidates a supposed Buddhist tenet that reaching enlightenment is supposed to make you a paragon of virtue. I would say that reaching enlightenment is supposed to make you “you”.

We have to wait until the end of the article to figure out what Horgan is really trying to say. Turns out he isn’t really down on Buddhism specifically, but rather all philosophical and religious frameworks. Of course it seems odd that the minute he gets done complaining that Buddhist practice can aggravate depression, he himself is proposing a sort of ultimately depressing anti-philosophy:

The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can…accommodate science’s disturbing perspective (that human beings are accidents).

In fact, I would say that Buddhism accommodates, or more accurately presages, this perspective perfectly. But that’s probably hard to see for a person like Horgan who has already put all religions into one big box in his mind, and implicitly and explicitly forcing his expectations and preconceptions of “religion”, based on his experience with Western ones, onto Buddhism. Yes, it’s hard to look at a new philosophical framework—but what’s the point if you’re just going to evaluate it in terms of your old one?

I’m wondering why Horgan joined the meditation group and started to get interested in Buddhism. Most people would do such things because they felt some disconnect in their lives, because they felt the need for some kind of answer. It’s fine that Horgan did not find his answer in Buddhism. Did he find it somewhere else? Did he decide he didn’t need an answer or already had it? His article would have been so much more relevant if he had given us even basic clues about his personal experience.

I’ve read Horgan’s 1996 book, “The End of Science”, and I greatly respect his ability to shine light on complex questions. That’s why it’s unfortunate that he did not bother to take the extra steps either in terms of his practice or his thinking or his writing to actually illuminate what insights Buddhism has to offer.

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