Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

I run across arguments on Twitter frequently on the subject of whether atheism is a religion.


People claiming that it is often have a desire to remove the teaching of evolution from public schools on the grounds that such instruction constitutes establishment of religion–taking a valid argument about separation of religion and state and twisting it to its opposite–or at least to insert the teaching of creationism. But let’s test the claim here.

First, we must consider what religion means. This is a difficult subject to define, since the beliefs in question deal with things that are often outside the logical or factual, but here’s my attempt:

Religion: a set of beliefs and practices dealing with questions of ultimate meaning, often including the supernatural, that approaches said questions through narrative means.

Notice that I didn’t say “necessarily including the supernatural.” Some branches of Taoism and Buddhism, for example, see no need to deal in matters beyond the natural world. But the essential characteristic is using narrative means to answer questions.

Now let’s address the question of whether an atheist is a religious person. There are three possible positions to hold regarding divine beings: atheism, agnosticism, or theism. A theist asserts the existence of one or more gods, regardless of the particular variations in belief about those gods. Atheism, by contrast, asserts the positive statement that no god exists. The third category, agnostic, states that there isn’t sufficient evidence to give a certain answer to the question of the existence of any god, whether yes or no.

Two of those categories, then, are beliefs–atheism and theism–while agnosticism is a lack of belief. So is atheism a religion?

Curiously, not even all theists are religious, at least according to my definition. A theist may believe that some divine being exists without finding meaning in stories of the gods and without engaging in any relevant practices. But do atheists engage in religious belief or activity?

Some do, though they may be doing it as a parody or a social event. But essentially, atheism, while a belief, is a rejection of religious methodology. Its arguments aren’t based on narratives, and it makes no specific rituals obligatory. Thus atheism is a philosophy or a political ideology, but it is not fundamentally a religion.

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Writer and student of myths, Joseph Campbell, has had the kind of influence that no colleague of a fabulously successful scholar can tolerate. Public television viewers may know him from the Bill Moyers series, The Power of Myth, but his largest influence was indirect. His book, The Hero with a Thouand Faces, shaped the thinking of generations of writers and filmmakers in the years since the work first appeared in 1949. Included in Campbell’s spell has been a director of whom a few have heard, namely George Lucas. If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the Jedi religion, for example, now you know. The book is an effort in syncretism in myths, the belief that all myths can be explained by a single story, the monomyth or the hero’s journey. (Note that myth includes the religion that you believe, not just those that other people believe.)

To my way of thinking, the book suffers from three fundamental flaws:

1. The idea of a monomyth itself

The social sciences in the twentieth century decided that all cultures are of equal value. Whether or not that’s true, the idea is difficult to accept. Is a culture that hates Jews or enslaves Africans the moral equal of one that insists on basic rights for all human beings? I don’t think so. But an anthropologist does, at a minimum, have to set aside judgements about the worth of a culture to study it. So be it. The problem comes when cultures and their products are compared. If they are all equal, then their works–their paintings, their stories, their music, etc.–must also be equally worthy. This by implication creates the thinking that all such art must be reflections of one central truth. There is the claim, for example, that all religions are merely different paths to the same God, something like the various climbing routes up Mt. Everest.

There is some sense in this. We are all human beings whose brains have the same architecture and functions. It is reasonable to suppose that the stories that would appeal to one person are likely to appeal to others. It’s also easy to show that the plot structure of all stories comes down to a handful of types. In that way, the statement that all stories participate in a monomyth is true.

But it’s trivially true. When we delve into stories, we find that their purposes, themes, and conclusions are often quite different. Consider one point of contention that is relevant to another major flaw in Campbell’s book: individualism. We can speak at length about the divide in ways of thinking between the East and the West, and we can come up with numerous counterexamples, but one fundamental difference in the two systems of thought is that in the West, the individual is the important unit, while in the East, the individual is merely an expression, and often an illusory one, of the One. The borders of this thinking shift with politics, so don’t take these terms in a rigorous geographical sense. Islam is a case of Western thinking that penetrated deep into the land of the East, and Buddhism has become quite popular in some circles here in America.

The point here is that thematically, the stories of different cultures arrive at different ends. Campbell works his way a little bit at a time through a long list of stories, and by weaving them together without giving each one its separate due, he attempts to demonstrate the truth of the idea that they all tell the same basic story. For the sake of variety and personal and cultural autonomy, it is fortunate that he was unable to succeed in that effort.

2. The dependence on Freud

Michael Crichton called Sigmund Freud the greatest novelist of the twentieth century. Certainly, the Austrian doctor was a poor psychologist. His work has little scientific merit. Sadly, his influence on the humanities has been long and pernicious. Someone once said that the films of Woody Allen would be much better had Freud never lived, and in the same vein, Campbell’s analysis of myths may also have achieved much more. Campbell accepts Freud’s psychoanalytic notions without question, and this leads him to shoehorn the stories that he discusses into narrow channels. He is particularly enamored with the idea of the mother and father images. To him, every hero deals with those two throughout the heroic journey. The hero finds the mother and father within himself and must resolve the conflicts therein. And on and on. Even when those two images are actual elements of the story, Campbell’s obsession with them is exhausting. He becomes the boy who cried Oedipus.

3. The acceptance of Buddhism

Campbell extends the Freudian notion of the ego into the world of Buddhist thinking in which the ego is an illusion. As I said above, Western stories don’t often support this kind of belief, but The Hero with a Thousand Faces goes to great lengths to make us think otherwise. I must acknowledge here that I am not a Buddhist. I don’t follow Campbell in his acceptance of that religion’s teachings. The flaw, though, is in his argument that all myths ultimately aim at a Buddhist message.

To Campbell, the hero’s journey ends in the annihilation of the self. The hero, having fought the father, married the mother, and understood himself to be the father, finally is absorbed into the All or the One or the Brahma or Nirvana. Nirvana, in particular, appeals to Campbell. He reminds us that the word means the extinguishing, the point at which all desires have ceased.

If such a thing is the goal of my readers, so be it, but I cannot go along. That, however, is a religious question. Surely we can agree that such a state is not the end of all myths. Perhaps you also agree that the Star Wars films would have been better stories had Lucas never read The Hero with a Thouand Faces. In any case, should you journey through the book yourself, you are now forewarned.

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