Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hitchens v Blair on religion

The pair squared off in a recent Munk debate. The full transcript can be found at this link. There's also a link to the video there. We're also discussing this at IPS. Here are some excerpts of our conversation so far:


So far I've only listening to their opening statements. The question framing the debate is the wrong question. Of course religion does good. And it does evil. It is not a matter of eliminating religion but of opening it to change. I'm with Wilber on the general idea of development of religion, and I think that is also (one of) the stated purpose(s) of this forum. But in the name of defending religion against the likes of Hitchens, Blair seems to decry the bad acts while not getting at their root causes, something Hitchens is quite articulate about. There is an enabling apologetics offered for religion, as if its only bad people who pervert it. This misses those metaphysical foundations that are actual causes of such acts by good people (again a point for Hitchens).

This forum explores how to make religion (aka spirituality) postmetaphysical. And yet there is still a strong tendency to defend religion as it is against the likes of atheists like Hitchens, who apparently sees no useful place for it. Perhaps in our reactive defense we enable those very metaphysical attributes that we purport to want to change, at least by giving them a pass? What harm is there in believing that Tara is "real," after all?


Hi, Ed, your points are well taken. I've also only listened to the opening statements so far, and I agree the debate itself is somewhat badly framed. As one commenter on the video pointed out, Blair only has to show one or a few good acts by religion to "win," whereas Hitchens would appear to have to demonstrate that religion never has done good -- a losing proposition from the start.

About giving religion a "pass" and not challenging some of the metaphysical bases and concurrent absolutist tendencies that lead to such harm, I also think that's a good critique and that Hitchens therefore brings an important challenge to moderates or Integralists interested in preserving "religion" as an institution or "force" in the world (even though I think his reading is excessively negative and dismissive).

But regarding your last remark about "Tara" being real (based, I'm guessing, on my discussion of Tara sometimes having ontological weight), I think you've misread me if you think I'm advocating acceptance of Tara as a "real" metaphysical or mythic being (a la the manner critiqued by Batchelor, e.g. as free-roaming beings at large in the world). I've suggested that such beings can function relatively autonomously from the directive center or the ego in the experience of practitioners, after the manner of dream figures or certain visionary experiences, but I am not suggesting they exist independently of the mind of the individual perceiving them. (There are cases in the annals of "spiritual emergency" where an individual suffers from the apparently autonomous and tormenting activity of a "guardian" or other meditatively cultivated entity, which is experienced as an external and "haunting" force. I think this is a pathological state but believe there are possibly ways to work "constructively" with such states or modes of cognitive functioning as well (without requiring a literal, mythic or metaphysical belief system. So...I'm still suggesting a reinterpretation of common traditional views.)


No no Balder, I wasn't suggesting you said Tara was real in that sense. I got the gist of your view from that thread. What I was suggesting is that to give a pass (not saying you do personally) to those who actually believe Tara IS real in a literal sense, that it is a harmless belief and might even do the believer good (again not the point), is to enable a literal metaphysical belief system that has real and often harmful socio-political consequences. As one example, (since you referenced the Batchelor thread, see "letting daylight into magic") consider the Dalai Lama's actions re: Dorje Shugdun. And recall this thread, the shadow of the Dalai Lama.

Blair bogusly insinuated that without religion people would not have the motivation to do good. What of all those atheistic, secular humanists? What of postconventional morality? No metaphysical God is needed for this kind of motivation, and to the contrary a strong case could be made that metaphysical belief is a hindrance to such "more inclusive" compassion.


My take on this is that metaphysics is not unequivocally problematic, meaning no good has ever come from holding a metaphysical worldview. I don't think that's the case. I think religion, even during its full-on mythical and metaphysical heydays, has in a number of ways been a definite "force for good" in the world -- with belief in a divine (metaphysical) being or force or "way" not only inspiring narrow intolerance or bigotry or whatever, but also inspiring people towards (relative, stage-appropriate degrees of) selflessness and altruistic or prosocial activity; encouraging moral development, deep self-inquiry or constructive self-practices, inspiring excellence in art, etc. I would say, in fact, that metaphysics has done a lot of good in the world; but that a metaphysical worldview also has limitations and weaknesses, which may manifest in mild or more extreme forms (e.g., a force for evil), depending on time and context, and that in our day and age a post-metaphysical worldview is more "adaptive" and preferable, overall (which is why I've created a forum like this!). So, while I acknowledge and agree that certain metaphysical beliefs have inspired bizarre doctrines and practices or unjust treatment of various groups of people (or other life forms) over the long, checkered history of religion, and that the "metaphysical" phase of human thought has definitely had its disasters as well as its dignities (to use Wilber's phrase), necessitating (or at least recommending) a move towards postmetaphysics, I would not want to dismiss religion or metaphysics altogether as wholly benighted things, which is what Hitchens seems to want to do.


So if you could clarify, when you write "...a strong case could be made that metaphysical belief is a hindrance to such "more inclusive" compassion." do you mean metaphysical belief per se, i.e. all metaphysical belief?


Perhaps we should revisit the thread defining metaphysics. One meaning is belief in the supernatural. Another is the rational operation of separation into stark opposition. And those are related. Hitchens touches on this in his repulsion to the supernatural and its political consequences. At base is the notion that there is an elevated state of being and that we are not born into it; we are born ignorant at best or debased at worst. And an elect priesthood is the only means by which we must be trained to liberate ourselves from delusion or sin. You find this in all religions, including Buddhism. So yes, religions "love" everyone because they can (and often must) be saved but on condition that they accept their debased condition and the particular redeeming salvation. Whereas a secular and postmetaphysical humanism doesn't require you to be saved; it is your human right to be liberated, and what debases you in the first place is not an inherent condition but a very real constructed, human condition: other humans enslaving you to such metaphysical beliefs and your "proper place"* within them.

* kosmic addressing is the kennilingus version of this.

To continue with reference to Buddhism, the Bodhisattva vow is that one refuses personal liberation until every other sentient being is also liberated. This seems on the surface to be a postconventional compassion since it applies to everyone. But it depends on what we mean by liberation and how you get there. The not-so-metaphysical version is freedom from attachment by a clingy ego, by this separate sense of self. When we get rid of this metaphysical separation of self and other etc. we experience nondual equanimity. I'm fully with this part of the program, even though it's not "enlightenment."

But mixed with this is a type of liberation from rebirth in the physical realm for those who do not take the Bodhisattva vow, who believe that they can go into a metaphysical reality beyond the physical body and not be born again into a physical body with its inherent "defilements." Even the Bodhisattvas believe in this, but chose to forgo this never-to-be-reborn into a body until all sentient beings are liberated and then we all go off to what, rainbow bodies in heaven? So the latter metaphysical base belief taints even the first version of liberation. First one has to be indoctrinated into the particular Buddhist's sect's "view" to receive the teaching instructions, the injunctions, in order to practice "correctly" to achieve release from attachment as verified by the community of the adequate. But part of that verification is that one interpret whatever personal experiences one has within the view of the system. And the view of the system contains the aforementioned metaphysical separation between ultimate and mundane, spiritual and material planes, etc.

So even though there is an apparent love to have everyone be "free," it's the group's usually metaphysical view of what "freedom" means. If you don't do and interpret it right, get the appropriate validation, you ain't saved. You might still get some "compassion" in that you are now a poor, lost soul going to hell, or stuck in delusion, or whatever, but this seems more like a projected relief that the saved one isn't so damned. It still seems like an ethnocentric compassion as distinguished from one that proceeds from the base that we all have inalienable rights that don't have to be earned, that we do not need to escape a hell we didn't deserve by virtue of birth.


I was born with Original Sin, or so I was told via the catechism in primary school. At age eight I was convinced I had a vocation to become a priest, though later on in life an individuation dream gave clear insight into how, within the culture I was born into, and those unconscious family dynamics, my psyche at the time didn't have much of a chance let alone choice. I was, on some level at least, attempting to fulfill my vocation by undergoing training at a seminary to become a priest, from age twelve to fifteen, at which time I was expelled. The shame and indignity of that stung me partially awake and I shouted up to the sky one night that winter "If I'm not good enough for you then you're not fucking good enough for me!" and broke free, at least from those shackles. But original-not-good-enough stains deep, and I've no doubt a good case could be made that I succumbed again to the siren's call, not too long after pulling myself out of several years of slow self-destruct, in discovering buddhadharma. But I don't think it's as straightforward as that, and just as my Jungian guide-to-become-therapist helped me see how it was psyche's move towards individuation that expelled me from those earlier confines, my trajectory over the last thirty odd years, initially within Tibetan buddhism (it's amazing how many catholics and jews ...maybe even catholic jewish atheists... one can come across within Tibetan buddhism) to the present time where I no longer particularly identify as buddhist let alone Tibetan buddhist, hasn't been much of a conventional one, influenced as it's been by psyche's seeming continuing move towards individuation. And the point is I don't think I'm in any way unique in this. And so I don't think westerners are necessarily enslaved by the buddhist priesthood. Even in the beginning, during a few years dalliance with Gelugpa teachings, I heard the Dalai Lama exhorting people to really take to heart the advice contained in that very traditional and classical text, Ashvagosha's Fifty Verses of Guru Devotion, that one should not just uncritically accept anything and everything ones spiritual teacher might say/ask/demand of one, but decline if it went contrary to ones personal compass.

With regard to the buddhist priesthood, you suggest that it's real enslavement begins in persuading people to think/believe they are in a state of ignorance/delusion in the first place, and, as you put it, an elect priesthood is the only means by which we must be trained to liberate ourselves from delusion or sin. For myself I don't see it that way, and I don't see why any dharmaists, lamaist or other, need to. I choose to take a view, a view which places me in the metaphysicalist camp, that my state or condition is already perfect as it is, rather than debased, and that all my circumstances, experiences, interactions etc. are manifestations of this self-perfectedness. And my experience is that whenever I rediscover this no-thing and am able to relax into 'it' I don't have at that time any consideration of the aforementioned view; that the degree & depth to which I am 'in' this no-thing increases my capacity to be informed and graced by its gifts, and to bring them into my life and relationships; that the whole process does seem to be contributing to me becoming a better human being; that I am commonly distracted from connectedness with this no-thing, and that to increase my capacity to be less distracted I choose, for the time being at least, to maintain a suspension of disbelief with regard to many and various notions that would be categorised as metaphysical, because they do seem to be useful in helping me continue with an ongoing experiment in seeing where this kind of practising of deepening into this no-thing, and integrating it into my life, might lead me. All of this my choosing, my choice of what I consider to be enactive participatory spirituality. I'd like to know how this might be "... a hindrance to such "more inclusive" compassion" ... and could you please say a little more about this "more inclusive compassion", how it's defined in your eyes?

We cross-posted. I'll read and digest your latest post when I have more time.


I'm with you lol in seeking a life path that brings peace and equanimity, clarity and compassion. And I'm not being critical of you as a person for your chosen path of Dzogchen, which apparently provides you with these qualities to some degree. Part of what I'm talking about though is this acceptance of the metaphysical underpinnings of any religious belief system, including yours, which you readily admitted to above as an acceptable trade-off. So some questions I have are: Are there nonmetaphysical methods and views to get one to the same, or similar, place? And what are the consequences of the metaphysical underpinnings to a religious system's methods/views?

As to the inherent, natural state of rigpa I agree on the surface this doesn't appear to be the same as original sin. It appears we are originally blessed instead, but somehow sentient beings lose this original purity and have to regain it. As you noted, "distractions" keep you from naturally abiding in it, aka defilements. So what is the cause of these defilements? I'm guessing it's that nasty ego thing that separates us from Eden. But this is a lot like the Bibllical account of Eden that was lost in the Fall, the latter the source of original sin. I'm not familiar with Dzogchen and how they arrive at a similar fall from original grace but per above my guess was the ego. So this defilement sets up our metaphyiscal duality again with all the consequences I discussed above, creating a "spiritual" path to enlightenment versus an ongoing defilement.

As to a more inclusive compassion, I briefly touched on that above too. Take away the dualistic metaphysics and we are stuck with having to provide equal rights to everyone here and now because there's no place else to go, to get away from sin or defilement. We provide inalienable rights by virtue of being born into such a society. Granted it might not work so well in practice but the idea is right.

And it's also no surprise that "democracy" as a political system for all was enacted after the "Enlightenment" period in history, that is, the Age of Reason (and ego). It is not a defilement but the means to social liberation! But not by itself, as I've said before, since it has to be integrated with the kind of awareness like rigpa. But this integration is neither (and both) what the eastern traditions of enlightenment or the western traditions of rational Enlightenment say it is. Freud meets Buddha indeed. To paraphrase and update and old saying (i.e., "open the tradition"): If you meet Freud and Buddha on the road just introduce them to each other.

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