The New Yorker admits atheism

August 17, 2017 • 11:30 am

I’ve been critical before about the New Yorker‘s implicit dissing of science as well as its softness toward religion (see here, here and here, for instance).  After all, the clientele of the magazine is liberal, wealthy, and though they’re probably not religious, they like a gentlemanly, well-fed detente between science and religion. The magazine also has a postmodernist tinge, one that was mentioned in an email I got from a colleague last May (see last link). My colleague was trying to finger the New Yorker‘s problem with science:

The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.

. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.

But Adam Gopnik, one of their staff writers, is a welcome exception, for he does show an appreciation for science and a knowledge of how it’s done, even though he appears to take the view that there are “ways of knowing” about the Universe that can be derived from literature or the humanities rather than science (I’m hoping the two of us will write a back and forth article on this topic). Gopnik, while not explicitly asserting that he’s a nonbeliever, has been moving more and more toward admitting it and singling out the follies of faith. He even admitted to reading and liking this website, even if his praise was accompanied by a mention that my love of other topics on this site bespoke an “irrational love”, so that in some respects a scientist simply cannot be a fully rational being (yes, that’s true; we’re human):

If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love.

Well, I can forgive the caveat, and let me now praise Adam’s new piece in the magazine, “What can meditation do for us, and what it can’t.” It is a review of Robert Wright’s new book, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.  (I suspect Wright filched the title from WEIT), as well as a general discussion of Buddhism in America and its connection with secularism (like a good reviewer, Adam never limits himself to merely evaluating a book’s merits). I haven’t yet read Wright’s book, but it appears to be an attempt to show that meditation works, there is a scientific basis for its efficacy, and that the benefits of this practice jibe with what we know from evolutionary psychology. As Antonio Damasio noted, in a glowing review of Wright’s book in the New York Times:

My take on Wright’s fundamental proposals is as follows. First, the beneficial powers of meditation come from the possibility of realizing that our emotive reactions and the consequent feelings they engender — which operate in automated fashion, outside our deliberate control — are often inappropriate and even counterproductive relative to the situations that trigger them. Second, the mismatch between causes and responses is rooted in evolution. We have inherited from our nonhuman and human forerunners a complex affect apparatus suited to life circumstances very different from ours. That apparatus — which is controlled from varied sectors of our nervous systems — was created by natural selection and assisted by genetic transmission over a long period of time. It worked well for nonhuman primates and later for human hunter gatherers, but it has worked far less well as cultures became more complex. Third, meditation allows us to realize that the idea of the self as director of our decisions is an illusion, and that the degree to which we are at the mercy of a weakly controlled system places us at a considerable disadvantage. Fourth, the awareness brought on by meditation helps the construction of a truly enlightened humanity and counters the growing tribalism of contemporary societies.

Gopnik is not nearly as enthusiastic about Wright’s book, though he does say it has its good points. One of his criticisms is that Wright ignores the traditional trappings of Buddhism, including the poetry, koans, and, especially, the supernaturalism (that, of course, is not Wright’s purpose, as he professes to be an atheist). Gopnik:

Wright’s is a Buddhism almost completely cleansed of supernaturalism. His Buddha is conceived as a wise man and self-help psychologist, not as a divine being—no miraculous birth, no thirty-two distinguishing marks of the godhead (one being a penis sheath), no reincarnation. This is a pragmatic Buddhism, and Wright’s pragmatism, as in his previous books, can touch the edge of philistinism. Nearly all popular books about Buddhism are rich in poetic quotation and arresting aphorisms, those ironic koans that are part of the (Zen) Buddhist décor—tales of monks deciding that it isn’t the wind or the flag that’s waving in the breeze but only their minds. Wright’s book has no poetry or paradox anywhere in it. Since the poetic-comic side of Buddhism is one of its most appealing features, this leaves the book a little short on charm. Yet, if you never feel that Wright is telling you something profound or beautiful, you also never feel that he is telling you something untrue. Direct and unambiguous, tracing his own history in meditation practice—which eventually led him to a series of weeklong retreats and to the intense study of Buddhist doctrine—he makes Buddhist ideas and their history clear.

Gopnik also argues that the evolutionary-psychology underpinnings of Wright’s thesis may not be accurate: at one point he says (my emphasis) “Whether or not evolutionary psychology is a real or a pseudoscience—opinions vary—one can believe that human beings are afflicted with too much wanting. . “.  While Gopnik correctly asserts that most of Wright’s claims about how Buddhism works are still supportable without the need for evolutionary psychology, I wish that Adam had granted the field a bit more credibility. Yes, there’s a passel of bad evolutionary psychology, but the attempt to uncover the evolutionary underpinnings of human behavior is not in principle or practice “pseudoscientific”, and it has led to some decent evolutionary understanding of our behavior.  Does Gopnik think, for example, that the differences in sexual behavior between men and women, which parallel differences among many of our relatives, near and far, and are well explained by evolutionary psychology, are merely “pseudoscience”? That’s just not fair, nor is it fair to imply that the field is intellectually bankrupt.

That said, I found the best part of Gopnik’s piece his discussion of whether “Buddhism without any supernatural scaffolding is still Buddhism.” That’s a good question, for, after all, the Dalai Lama, while professing to be down with science, still believes in the supernatural tenets of reincarnation and karma. In that sense Buddhism cannot be divorced from superstition any more than can Catholicism, with its adherence to a soul the dogma that of Adam and Eve are our literal ancestors.

Gopnik notes that Western Buddhists often fob off the supernaturalism of Buddhism by saying, “Well, everyone believes in something.” And here is where he takes out his silver scalpel and severs science from superstition (my emphasis):

Then there’s the shrug-and-grin argument that everyone believes something. Is it fair to object that most of us take quantum physics on faith, too? Well, we don’t take it on faith. We take it on trust, a very different thing. We have confidence—amply evidenced by the technological transformation of the world since the scientific revolution, and by the cash value of validated predictions based on esoteric mathematical abstraction—that the world picture it conveys is true, or more nearly true than anything else on offer. Batchelor tap-dances perilously close to the often repeated absurdity that a highly credulous belief about supernatural claims and an extremely skeptical belief about supernatural claims are really the same because they are both beliefs.

A deeper objection to the attempted reconciliation of contemporary science and Buddhist practice flows from the nature of scientific storytelling. The practice of telling stories—imagined tales of cause and effect that fixate on the past and the future while escaping the present, sending us back and forth without being here now—is something that both Wright and Batchelor see as one of the worst delusions the mind imprints on the world. And yet it is inseparable from the Enlightenment science that makes psychology and biology possible. The contemporary generation of American Buddhists draws again and again on scientific evidence for the power of meditation—EEGs and MRIs and so on—without ever wondering why a scientific explanation of that kind has seldom arisen in Buddhist cultures. (Science has latterly been practiced by Buddhists, of course.)

I’d like to think that some of this was influenced by my similar arguments in Faith Versus Fact (which I think Adam’s read), or my piece in Slate, “No faith in science,” but I just don’t know. Regardless, the distinction between religious faith and “trust” or “earned confidence” is important, and it’s time someone made this point in the New Yorker.

Finally, Gopnik seems to embrace secular humanism, implicitly arguing that, stripped of supernaturalism, religions often arrive at similar sets of values:

All secularized faiths tend to converge on a set of agreeable values: compassion, empathy, the renunciation of mere material riches. But the shared values seem implicit in the very project of secularizing a faith, with its assumption that the ethical and the supernatural elements can be cleanly severed—an operation that would have seemed unintelligible to St. Paul, as to Gotama himself. The idea of doing without belief is perhaps a bigger idea than any belief it negates. Secular Buddhism ends up being . . . secularism.

If that’s not the statement of a nonbeliever, I’ll eat my balaklava (though I’d wish it were baklava). Kudos to Gopnik for a thoughtful discussion, and for deep-sixing the “we take science on faith” argument.

h/t: Paul


53 thoughts on “The New Yorker admits atheism

  1. I like the distinction between faith and trust. I recently mentioned to a friend that I don’t “believe” in scientific findings I am not familiar with, but that I “accept” them. My reasons have more to do with the baggage that goes with word “belief” than it is me attempting to be precise. But there is a difference between belief and acceptance and it is akin to the difference between faith and trust.

    1. Isn’t it curious (and interesting) that this same semantic “synonymity” exists in Spanish, French, German, Dutch and probably other languages too?
      Very often, clarification is indispensably a point of previous discussion.

      1. There’s also the “neutral” sense of belief, which is the one studied in epistemology, for example.

        I also find (as a non-native speaker, anyway) that “croire” in French is stronger (more “faithy”) than “to believe” in English, but I am not sure why.

  2. I have read two of Wright’s books, The Moral Animal, (basically about evolutionary psychology),and The Evolution of God (how our concepts of god varied with economic times) … these two I thought had merit and were worth reading.

    Regarding as religions go I think Buddhism especially in its more modern forms is close but no cigars.

  3. I read the piece in the NY last week. I agree with the overall message and with your assessment. However, I do think that he’s a bit too hard on Batchelor. Buddhism does offer several practical insights that do not require subscribing to supernatural ideas, and which can contribute to enhanced well-being.

    Also, I note that Adam ends the piece with the following:

    “Every faith practice has a different form of comfort to offer in the face of loss, and each is useful. Sometimes it helps to dwell on the immensity of the universe. Sometimes it helps to feel the presence of ongoing family and community. Sometimes it helps to light a candle and say a prayer. Sometimes it helps to sit and breathe.”

    This, it seems to me, is an endorsement of faith on some level (esp. the prayer bit).

  4. … they like a gentlemanly, well-fed detente between science and religion.

    How far they have fallen since the days of Liebling and Perelman and Parker!

  5. I think the fairest way to paint the picture involves looking at both sides of the coin.

    The modern “Insight Meditation” movement (that Sam Harris advocates) is purely secular and utterly devoid of woo. It distills down to simple mental exercises / techniques for sustaining focus and concentration and awareness of surroundings and thoughts. Ultimately, it’s about as “spiritual” as learning to speed-read or count cards in poker. The focus is on your relationship with yourself and others and your surroundings and reality rather than books or gambling, but the basic idea is the same.

    “Simple” doesn’t equate with “easy,” of course; most sports are relatively simple. And, as with all skills, practice helps build them.

    Further, the techniques developed with Insight mMditation can be applied to individual confirmation of all the counterintuitive discoveries of modern cognitive neuroscience. Jerry’s favorite example, that conscious awareness comes after a decision, not before, is a good one. The multifaceted nature of the mind is another.

    The Insight Meditation movement traces its roots directly back to Buddhism, even as it’s stripped away all the woo.

    And Buddhism at its roots…has much of what Insight Meditation has retained, yes, but also is thoroughly drenched in woo. There’s at least as much bullshit in the ancient Buddhist texts as in any other religion’s, and there’s plenty that’s repugnant as well (such as a depressing depth of chattel slavery). Early Buddhism isn’t nearly as repulsive as the early Abrahamic religions, but that’s a damned low bar to clear. And Buddhism’s history still has plenty of blood on its hands, though, again, nowhere near as much as the Abrahamic religions.

    All in all, Insight Meditation has done a superlative job at secularizing and enlightening a primitive superstition, and it’s likely no coincidence that the superstition thus sanitized is Buddhism. But I, too, don’t see much point in identifying Insight Meditation as a form of Buddhism. You could describe its heritage as Buddhist, but only the same way you’d describe Jerry and other atheist Jews as Jewish.



    1. I am optimistic more people will take meditation seriously in the future. Focusing on one’s own consciousness is almost always a healthy thing to do, if only for a few moments a week. At the very least it helps us identify the connection between the physicality of our biology and what we think of as consciousness.

    2. As always, I appreciate your thinking and the expression of it. And, you may be right in the following statement:

      “You could describe its heritage as Buddhist, but only the same way you’d describe Jerry and other atheist Jews as Jewish.”

      Going somewhat off topic, however, it feels wrong to me. In the time I’ve been reading what PCC(E) shares here, I can’t recall his ever claiming to have participated in the religion of the Jews, and instead to have proclaimed his secular Jewishness. This may have been acquired through his own study, thinking and development in his lifetime. Or partially from living in a the secular Jewish culture from the prior generation, or even centuries of, ancestral secular Jews.

      In addition to which, even within particular religions there’s great diversity. The same is true of the secular world. Members of the secular groups I’ve participated in, or read the writings of, display an equally great diversity. It is easier to lump all people of any specified category into being monolithically the same. If/when we all have the time, interest and energy to truly communicate, we would usually find major distinctions.

      1. The point I was driving towards is that, if you trace the chain of progression backwards, in Jerry’s case you wind up with Judaism; with Sam Harris’s case, you wind up with Buddhism. But, in neither case is the end result recognizable as an example of the original source.

        How to label the fruits of the process is therefore ambiguous, and highly context-dependent. Both are undeniably Jewish / Buddhist in terms of origins, and both are undeniably not Jewish and not Buddhist in most any other context.

        Incidentally, recognizing and being comfortable with the contradiction and dichotomy in this sort of situation is something Buddhists, etc., of all times are typically good at, and Platonists and their intellectual descendants (most Western intellectuals) are generally bad at.




  6. I listened to an NPR interview with Wright a week or so ago, and was intrigued. The only thing that bothered me was his language of ‘belief in science’. A pet peeve, and minor. There was an interesting part where Gross pressed him on his parents, and when she asked if they were living he replied no. He clearly had no will to speak ill of the dead.

  7. Having trust in science is actually having trust in scientist’s egos. If there really were a conspiracy amongst climate scientists to gin up Climate Change to secure grants, the first first scientist who got a sniff of this would sell his own mother to be the first to blow the whistle on that. That is what I trust.

    1. Scientist’s egos? Trust makes no sense to me, unless it is meant as a pragmatic gain, i.e., how much would you be willing to bet kind of belief. Otherwise, it is no better a description than belief.

      Gravity is. There is no trust involved. Fracture tolerances on aluminum wings are. There is no trust involved. pH of my city water is. There is no trust.

      When science makes nature what we want it to be, what nature becomes for us is a tautology. It just is.

      Science is nothing more than the addition of prediction to natural phenomena. The problem most people have a difficulty with is knowing and reconciling that some things are highly predictive (NIST Hg+ clock: one part in 10^18) and others have relatively poor predictive capability, like caffeine will help you avoid early dementia (~ 0.51 ± 0.3)

  8. I am not a Buddhist (whatever that is), nor do I know if meditation works (whatever that means), but I have been doing zazen with a group of nice people for about 15 years, and I leave each session feeling better than I did when I arrived. That’s all, folks.

  9. I’ve noticed a certain attitude in literary types who you’d think aught to be secular humanists with a good appreciation of science – they may not come out obviously for supernaturalism, or faith, or religion, but they like to keep these subjects alive as fictional devices. They like to float a bit of woo hear and their uncritically. It’s as if they hedge so that it’s easier to interest people who have at least some remnants of faith or they find the openhandedness of spiritualism good for generating new plots for stories. It spoils a lot of fiction for me.

    1. I don’t necessarily mind woo in my fiction (insert lots of caveats) but it does bug me when the types of people you are talking about behave as if we all should take that woo seriously outside of the context of the fiction. Many act as if refuting woo in real life risks a tragic loss for their art should too many be convinced that woo is actually bunk. To me that seems rather to be either a lack of imagination on their part or a lack of faith in other peoples’ imagination.

      I can enjoy fiction, fantasy, science fiction, etc. just fine (muchly actually) while at the same time being rather hostile towards woo in real life contexts(Look Ma, no hands!). And I don’t seem to have the slightest problem with that. It doesn’t really require any effort at all. It sure seems a lot easier than, for example, believing that Christianity and modern science are perfectly compatible or even compliment each other.

      Now that seems like a lot of work and tricky to pull off. As evidence of that look how often it is that when faced with any of the myriad conflicts that occur, people trying to do that choose one over the other and that the one they choose is so often religion.

      1. Indeed, there’s an awful lot of fun to be had in the willful suspension of disbelief.

        No, there aren’t any little old green men with big ears who with grammar disjointed speak and who can levitate starships by self-inducing constipation…but so what? When you’re watching Star Wars, for that moment, you’re experiencing all the subjective qualities were Yoda real. In a non-trivial way, you get to step onto Dagobah and see the great master for yourself.

        Considering there’s no way you can do that in the real world, no way you can do it outside of fiction…shouldn’t you cherish the opportunity to make that journey to an impossible land? And, indeed, shouldn’t you marvel at how easy a trip it is to make?

        That there’s no end of wonder in the non-fictional world doesn’t mean you should deprive yourself of the wonders to be found in fictional worlds.




      2. In general I agree with you. I’m OK with supernaturalism or wildly implausible science in fiction, so long as the author is up front about it.

        But it bugs the hell out of me when I get halfway into what seems to be (say) a straightforward police procedural, and suddenly realize I’m expected to take at face value the powers of the self-proclaimed psychic who’s inserted himself into the investigation.

        1. That’s the problem I have. If magic is up front, that’s usually fine. It’s when they sneak it in where it doesn’t belong that I lose confidence in an author.
          Scifi is fine as long as it is done well. There has to be a certain amount of respect for physics and a degree of thoughtful consistency, otherwise I get really bored.

    2. @rickflick The vast majority of writing is shit – more than 99% IMO. And when that writing is called “literature” it is not only shit – it is pretentious shit. The 99% often contains elements of bad, misunderstood & pseudo science, Freudian analysis, numerology, astrology, poor plots relying on coincidence and so on. Hardly any writers can put rounded characters into words. Dreadful stuff & some of it highly regarded too.

      There is a good type of supernaturalism though – that tiny subset of a subset of a subset who wield fabulism [AKA magical realism] to great effect: Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami & Jeanette Winterson are the ones that have knocked me over with delight. And I know some of ’em are atheist for sure.

      If one does have that skill, then keep it plain & unpretentious I say: John le Carré, Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith.

      Somewhere in between is Angela Carter, Annie Proulx & a few other wimmins who don’t produce enough unfortunately

        1. Thank you for listing some of the authors you consider to be non-shit writers. There are several on the list that I haven’t read yet and will now have to do so. I fully agree with you on Jorge Luis Borges and some of the other magical realists.

          I would add a few more, not necessarily categorized:

          Umberto Eco
          Carlos Ruiz-Zafon
          Arturo Perez-Reverte
          David Liss
          Walter Mosley
          Michael Connelly
          James Lee Burke
          Arnuldur Indridason
          Henning Mankell
          Isabel Allende
          Amy Tan
          Neal Stephenson
          Connie Willis

          And many more I can’t think of right now. There’s a whole world of exceedingly well-written books. No need to choose drek.

          1. @Rowena – Thanks!

            Walter Mosley, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Arnuldur Indridason & Henning Mankell I’ve read & I like mucho. I’m gonna read more Mosley this year – I’ve enjoyed his Easy Rawlins series, but there’s all that other stuff he’s done I didn’t know about [I just looked]

            These I don’t know so I’m gonna explore on Goodreads etc now:

            Carlos Ruiz-Zafon
            Arturo Perez-Reverte
            David Liss
            Isabel Allende
            Amy Tan
            Connie Willis

            These two I’ve fallen out of love with: Umberto Eco & Neal Stephenson
            I half believe they’re pulling our legs with some of their novels. Foucault’s Pendulum & Cryptonomicon are too clever, too packed with irrelevant nuggets & utterly lacking narrative pace because of the ‘look how clever I am’ baggage. Life too short.

      1. I’m not a big reader of fiction to begin with and I’ll have to admit to having read non of those you list. So, I’ll have to temper my criticism based on lack of familiarity with the whole domain. Well, maybe some day I’ll dig in to some of that and end up with a more enlightened opinion.

      2. ‘The vast majority of writing is shit – more than 99% IMO. And when that writing is called “literature” it is not only shit – it is pretentious shit.’

        Manifestly absurd assertions like this remind me of a scene in a documentary in which an art historian takes a group of children to a remote church somewhere in the hills of central Italy and reveals to them, above the altar, what he calls ‘the finest painting in the world.’ At which a charming girl, who looks to be about eleven, asks in all seeming innocence, ‘have you seen all the other paintings in the world?’

        1. @Robert Bray Well it does depend on ones standards – YMMV 🙂

          Check out publisher websites for the acres of bad celeb [ghost written] cookery books, the flood of awful walking dead zombie fantasy books & related post-apocalyptic themes, sword & sorcery fantasy, shoot ’em up galactic empire sci-fi, The Dr. Who/Star Trek/Babylon 5/etc novelizations with no character development, self-serving biography/auto-biography titles & celebs with opinions [Miley Cyrus], chick lit beach reading, SAS & Delta force blood fest fiction, illuminati & other Dan Brown-style stuff, 50 shades of grey-style soft porn, lifestyle guru shit “how to say yes to life”, diet books, exercise books, nearly all “how to” books. [I’m having a break here for lunch – I might be back]

          Many trees have had their lives cut short alas

          1. My comment, Mr. Fisher, had nothing to do with taste, only with quantity. So many books have been written and published over the last 500+ years of human history that is preposterous on your part to assign any percentage of them to the scrap heap of ‘shit’ or, when ‘literary’ (whatever that means) ‘pretentious shit.’ For you have not read even. . . shall we say. . . one one-thousandth of one percent of the ’99 percent’ you so blithely dismiss. Thus you have neither experience nor (thus) authority behind your assertion.

            There’s a standing joke in literary circles that ‘87% of poetry is bad.’ Everyone always chuckles but no one wants to–or ever could–read the 100% necessary to give a basis for such a judgment. To say nothing of the tangled, obscure jungle we enter when we try to establish what it means for a piece of art in language to be ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

            1. Your comment is very well written 🙂

              I don’t have to watch every car on the streets of Athens, Rome, Paris & London to get a feel for comparative driving standards by locale. Similarly I don’t have to sample every book to get a feel for overall quality in each genre of fiction. I know that certain genres don’t have to achieve high standards to get on the shelves & sell. Just go down the bookshop & pick a section of a few pages from each of a dozen books in any of the categories I’ve already mentioned…

              If you want to see even lower standards then try the 99p or $1 ebooks on Amazon – there’s a flood of new titles daily.

              ** Around 130,000,000 book titles have been published in all history according to Google.

              ** UNESCO reckons that around 1 to 2 million new titles are published per year [difficult to be accurate because of new editions of old tiles & other factors]

              ** Publishing success is 5% writing a good book and 95% marketing [Canfield & Hansen I think]

              ** Self-publishing is the thing today – perhaps 2/3 of ALL titles are self-published now. Nearly all of them are ebook format only & they’re appalling dross nearly always. The author aims at the many online communities of romance, sci-fi, sword & sorcery, etc
              They’re almost all dreadful niche audience products that aren’t proofed

              ** The average book outlet displays way less than 1% of what’s recently physically published with most shelf space going to popular authors – their current & back catalogues. So you might see 5 to 15 titles from a bunch of best-selling authors in each category of fiction, which leaves scant room for unknown, new authors.

              I particularly enjoy a certain type of Sci-Fi or future fiction or alt-history [like SS GB or The Man in The High Castle] that doesn’t defy physics once the scene is set. But there’s hardly any writers in that genre who can write good dialogue, move a plot along or create unintended consequences that aren’t blindingly obvious way in advance.

              I would say 99% or more are not well written, but obviously that’s my judgement. As an example, I’ve read all of Robert L. Forward’s Sc-Fi because he was a physicist, who writes within the envelope of what he believed plausible [if speculative]. I’ve loved it, I’ve reread it, I’ll probably read one or two a third time maybe, but it’s purely for the ideas, because the writing isn’t up to much.

              And so on across the genres that pump out the most titles per year – the fan genres.

        1. Thanks Ant. I looked it up just now – almost impossible for a mere mortal, such as me, to have a new idea 🙂

  10. Sometimes a catchy title becomes a widely used template, the most ubiquitous being the book title “Why — Matters”.

    Hitchens and Shermer have “Why Orwell Matters” and “Why Darwin Matters”.

    Catholic League founder William Donaghue has “Why Catholicism Matters” (most of which is simply a defense of Aristotelian ethics!!!)

    On Amazon, you can find “Why Homer Matters”, “Why Bob Dylan Matters” and Pele has a book “Why Soccer Matters”.

    Heck, there’s even a physics intro called “Why Matter Matters”!!!

    So perhaps Mr. Wright has opened the gates to a spate of books entitled “Why….Is True” for which JAC can take credit.


    Buddhism’s focus is on a set of beliefs about human psychology as embedded in the cultural beliefs of the time. Many Buddhists are theists but one need not be. “Buddha” means “awakened one”.
    Although there are forms of Judaism and Christianity that have been secularized to the point of being almost atheistic (such as Don Cuppitt’s “Sea of Faith” organization), at their core, Judaism regards Jews as Chosen People, and Christianity regards Jesus as the anointed Messiah, and Islam requires one submit to God’s Law.

    As such, Sam Harris seems far closer to the classical/traditional teachings of Buddhism re their core focus, then a radical Christian thinker like Paul Tillich is to classical Christianity. Buddhism has traditionally been highly accommodating to local superstition, but the core beliefs are not quite as deeply intertwined with it as with Christianity.

    Furthermore the rise of secularism in the West is closely linked to claims that the powerful established churches have behaved unethically and dictatorially. There is a history of direct conflicts between secularism/science and religion of which the most famous are Galileo and Darwin. This is less prevalent in Asian countries.

    To any modern secularist, the story of Buddha’s experience of enlightenment is going to have more immediate appeal than that of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan or his dying being allegedly for the sins of humanity.
    Jesus continues to appeal to humanists because of his enlightened treatment of women and his opposition to the religious leadership of his era, etc. but not because of cries that “Jesus saves”

    The main thing that sets off secular Buddhists is a marked disbelief in reincarnation. This is why many Asians (especially “Pure Land” Buddhists) don’t regard them as real Buddhists.

    But the divorce between secular Buddhists and classical ones seems to be relatively amicable one (a kind of ‘no fault’ divorce), not the bitter contest between humanism and religion in the West, largely centered around churches actively suppressing obvious truths and insisting one believe patent fictions.

  11. I think that it could be argued that the idea that loving cats, cool music, fine art, food, beer, wine, other people and so on are rare or surprising characteristics to find among scientists is one of the most significant obstacles between the average non-scientist and science. The idea that there is some correlation between being a scientist and being inhuman, or that becoming a scientist for some reason entails losing the ability to love cats, etc. or requires that such abilities be suppressed all the time.

    1. I don’t see where Gopnik implies that those qualities are rare or surprising; in fact I took him to be saying the opposite: that we should not be surprised to find such qualities in scientists who care about the social impact of their work. “The articulation of humanism demands something humane[.]”

      1. I agree with you. That’s pretty much the same way I read Gopnik there. It wasn’t my intent to imply otherwise but just to opine that I think that what he was touching on is one of the biggest obstacles preventing better acceptance of science and trust in scientists.

  12. I haven’t read Wright’s book, but there is a big difference between meditation and Buddhism. Meditation covers a wide range of practices and if people find it helps them relieve stress or concentrate or that they just enjoy the experience I don’t see any problem.

    Buddhism though, is a religion, steeped in irrational beliefs, which sees meditation as a tool to accomplish supernatural goals. The roots of Buddhism lie in the superstitious belief in reincarnation and the assertion that the physical world is purely illusory. Meditation was meant to accomplish a mystical insight that would dispel these illusions at the expense of rational discourse. It’s practically the original “other ways of knowing” woo. Like any religion this was ensconced in a highly authoritarian tradition based on the Asian master-student model.

    I think there is a modern, secular trend in Buddhism, as there is in other religions, which tries to downplay the mystical aspects. One can bend some traditional Buddhist teachings to comport with a more rational, modern approach. E.g., we are part of the world and our understanding and perception of it is reliant upon our own nature. Our sense of self as independent can be misleading. Contemplating your desires and putting them in perspective may make you more content. Etc. However, I don’t think we should conflate these kinds of insights with Buddhism per se. People who meditate don’t gain special transcendent knowledge. Suffering isn’t caused by ignorance but by neurons in your brain. There is no cycle of reincarnation to escape.

    1. I would put it this way: why is the title not “why meditation is useful”?

      Saying that because some aspects of some meditative tranditions have positive effects is a far cry from Buddhism (which branch?) is true, which suggests as true as (say) the title _Why Evolution Is True_, which it isn’t.

      My biggest beef with traditional Buddhism in many of its version is the subjective idealism and its “theodicy”.

  13. As HL Mencken wrote in October 1928 in his essay Democracy and Theocracy: ‘Every American community, large or small, continues to have its local shaman, admired, deferred to and revered. His pronunciamentoes are heard with grave respect. The town newspapers treat him politely. He is to the fore in all public orgies. His moral ideas, though they may
    be challenged, prevail. In the South he is the Baptist parson; in the Middle West he is the Methodist or some other. Coming to big towns, he is commonly a bishop, and hence able to bind and loose. Nowhere in this great land is he missing. Do I forget such Babylons as New York?
    Specifically, I include New York. Where else (save maybe in Boston) do all the high dignitaries of the local government drop to their knees to kiss an archepiscopal ring?’

  14. The Dalai Lama may believe in the supernatural tenets of reincarnation and karma, but he also says that these dogmas must be discarded if rational examination warrants it. So, if the Dalai Lama is taken as an authority(??!) then yes, Buddhism without any supernatural scaffolding is still Buddhism.

    1. @Paul The Dalai Lama XIV is quoted as saying: “Anything that contradicts experience & logic should be abandoned. The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis”

      Those two sentences are put together in some sources, but in others are presented as individual quotes. Nowhere can I find references as to when/where he said [or wrote] these.

      I think the context is very important given that a dismissal of reincarnation by the current Dalai Lama, must logically mean there cannot ba a legitimate Dalai Lama XV!

      Can you supply the vital references & context?

      1. Sorry, I just remember the gist of some internet video featuring him. The quote you provided was probably it, but I despair of Googling it; audio-video isn’t very searchable, in my experience.

        1. @Paul Trouble is it’s an unverified quote so I do not trust to use it. For example the guy might have actually said… “IN SCIENCE anything that contradicts…” or some such formulation.

          I have found a book called “The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama” by Arthur Zajonc which contains the identical idea in very similar words, but it is clear that HH is talking about a particular restricted set of scientific investigation. He would not have said it with reference to Karma & reincarnation. No chance.

          1. To put it simply – HH is a mind/body dualist thus he’s playing with a different deck of cards to scientists & under different rules. He has argued that mind/body dualism is just the same as the difference between organic & inorganic substances in science – he argues by extension that therefore mind/body dualism is established science!

            Therefore this statement does not follow under HH rules: “The Dalai Lama may believe in the supernatural tenets of reincarnation and karma, but he also says that these dogmas must be discarded if rational examination warrants it”

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