1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

A Thought Experiment for John Horgan

By December 3, 2011

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Some time back a fellow named John Horgan wrote an article for Slate titled "Why I Ditched Buddhism." If you read this, most of you who have practiced dharma for awhile will recognize that Horgan did not ditch Buddhism. He ditched a simplistic, even infantile, misunderstanding of Buddhism.

He appeared to have little acquaintance with what the Buddha actually taught about anything. For example, he explained karma as "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." He also wrote, "But what troubles me most about Buddhism is its implication that detachment from ordinary life is the surest route to salvation." I need to add that last one to my list of things people misunderstand about Buddhism.

So now he's back with a new essay, and after all these years he clings to his ignorance like a badge of honor. "Slate magazine, for some reason, just re-published a critique of Buddhism that I wrote eight years ago," he writes,  "and once again Buddhists are berating me for my ignorance about their religion." But instead of getting a clue that perhaps what he dislikes about Buddhism isn't true of Buddhism, he launches into another ill-informed lecture proving that he had no idea what Buddhism even is.

Horgan is a science writer, so I assume he knows something about science. With that assumption in mind, here is a thought experiment for him:

* * *

Someone walks up to you at a party and says, "They shouldn't teach evolution in schools. They never found the Missing Link. And, anyway, it's not science; it's just a theory." You:

(a) Respect his opinion as one based on legitimate objections about evolution science; or

(b) Marvel that anyone who thinks like this might be bright enough to tie his own shoes.

At a PTA meeting at your child's school, you overhear another parent say, "They proved vaccination causes autism, and probably cancer, so I'm not getting my kids vaccinated." You --

(a) Consider boycotting vaccinations for your kids, too;

(b) Wonder if the human species is putting itself at risk by letting stupid people reproduce.

You flip on your television and watch a conservative Senator explain why global warming is a hoax. We know it's a hoax because there have been record snowfalls in Texas, he says, and from a bunch of leaked emails. You:

(a) Appreciate the way news media enable a robust discussion of this serious issue.

(b) Despair that the planet is doomed.

My "b" answers might be slightly exaggerated for comic effect, but the point is that most people with an appreciation of science find it maddening to try to converse with people who have formed opinions about science based on ignorance.

This is not the same thing as saying you wouldn't appreciate and respect a criticism of evolution or climate theory that was based on sound science, right?

Well, Mr. Horgan, your comments on Buddhist teachings on the nature of existence, or the self, or karma, and a lot of other things, are in the same ball park as saying that evolution can't be true because it violates the laws of thermodynamics. I'm sure you've heard that one.

It's fine with me if you want to criticize Buddhism. But if you are going to criticize Buddhism criticize what Buddhism actually teaches, not some half-assed, kindergarten-level idea of what Buddhism teaches.

* * *

Not that I expect him to listen.

I see that Horgan has some experience with Buddhism, but he was either very badly taught or he read the wrong books. Or perhaps he never fully appreciated how sophisticated and subtle a lot of these teachings really are, and assumed that whatever crude, beginner-level explanations he got were all there is to it.

I have run into this attitude before with people who claimed to be rational. When I try to explain their objections to Buddhism are not based on what is true of Buddhism, they usually retort that I'm only objecting to what they write because they don't believe the same things I do.

But in truth I don't give a hoo-haw what they believe, about Buddhism or anything else. I just want them to stop saying the equivalent of evolution being a hoax because nobody has ever seen a chimp turn into a human. Really.

December 3, 2011 at 2:31 pm
(1) NellaLou says:

Right on Barbara!

Sometimes it goes even further than that. I’ve engaged with certain “rational” people who felt it their duty to inform me of not only what Buddhism is but what I therefore must believe. Without bothering doing any sort of empirical research whatsoever. They then declared me brain dead and a fundamentalist troll. Quite a remarkable display of incredible ignorance on their part.

It’s rather frightening when so-called educated and/or intelligent and/or rational people are such morons.

December 4, 2011 at 3:05 am
(2) osumarko says:

Did anyone laugh a bit when he said his favorite buddhist author was Stephen Batchelor?

I think there is a certain type of person, like John Horgan, who gets into buddhism because its so different from the religion they were used to. That same type of person falls out of buddhism when they start to realize that buddhism is more like a religion than they thought.

They decide beforehand what buddhism is and can’t deal with reality being different than their preconceptions.

December 4, 2011 at 7:36 am
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Did anyone laugh a bit when he said his favorite buddhist author was Stephen Batchelor?

I didn’t laugh, but I probably rolled my eyes.

December 4, 2011 at 10:46 am
(4) Mila says:

In an essay that I found truly inspiring — If You Want To Be A Rebel, Be Kind — is an example of someone whose Ghandi-inspired practice of meditation is anything but “detachment from ordinary life.”

December 5, 2011 at 2:17 pm
(5) Hein says:

Buddhism as i understand it is not to be understood with the intellectual or emotional ‘mind’. Some monotheistic followers concider Buddhism to be something ‘evil’. Some scientist and atheist consider Buddhism to be irrational.
I think the answer formulated in the form of a question; “do they accurately understand Buddhism” illustrates the dilemma people face when approaching any phenomena with any pre-conceived ideas.
Does scientist generally after some priliminary observations not formulate a theory about something and then discount it anyway?
If i so wish, i can also do it!

December 5, 2011 at 3:04 pm
(6) Justin Whitaker says:

Well said, Barbara. John seems like a pretty sharp guy, having read a few of his articles, so it’s baffling to read his thoughts on Buddhism. It sounds a lot like I might if I went to a few Sunday School sessions and then tried to write a thorough critique of Catholic theology.

December 8, 2011 at 5:26 pm
(7) Andrew L says:

Could it be he just didn’t have anything interesting to write about and figured that poking a stick in some other religion’s hornet’s nest it would boost his cache? Sensationalism sells and in an era where the scientific method has taken a back seat to knee jerk and faith based emotionalism what’s a science writer to do to put food on the table? A sad sign of the times when even science writers must resort to tabloid journalism to feed their families.

December 9, 2011 at 7:54 am
(8) Chris says:

Barbara: I killed bed bugs the other day, and I’m wondering if you would suggest any articles that discuss the killing of that which is inconvenient to us. Tx!

December 10, 2011 at 1:00 pm
(9) xavier paolo josh mandreza says:

to chris – i’ll have to assume your comment is in relation to this article otherwise – ?????

dear m’am barbara – thanks so much for being strong with us. honestly i’m getting sick and tired of people with that level of mentality claiming they know all there is too know about buddhism by just a glance. but then again i guess i too am like that as well. karma? maybe, maybe not.

December 11, 2011 at 10:35 am
(10) chris says:

Ooooops! Sorry for breaking your rules…I am feeling suitably chastised

December 11, 2011 at 12:08 pm
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

I am feeling suitably chastised

Not a problem. I think some of us couldn’t tell if you were asking a serious question or just being silly.

December 12, 2011 at 9:27 am
(12) Chris says:

My question is in earnest, Barbara. I have not killed-with-intent in over two decades, and had to debate endlessly with myself over the bed-bugs…for days, they bit…for days I declined to kill..some reference to this aspect of killing would be useful to me…

I imagine the spirit that quickens them, quickens me also.

And, I’m not in anguish over my terminal choice, simply curious as to what others might have said anent this.

December 12, 2011 at 12:27 pm
(13) Barbara O'Brien says:

Chris — as I was taught (in Zen), in fact, we kill all the time. Our bodies are perpetually slaughtering microorganisms we don’t even know about. We engage in second-hand killing even if we are strict vegans, because fruit and vegetable production is pretty much impossible without pest control. Avoiding products whose manufacture and shipping caused environmental damage or loss of wildlife habitat is pretty much impossible, unless you are a hermit living in a cave someplace. Since you are using the Internet, I assume that’s not the case.

So, as we work with the First Precept, we are mindful that we will fail. Yet, we work with it anyway.

In the case of creatures such as bedbugs or mosquitoes or African killer bees, sometimes killing some of them is unavoidable. Be mindful of what you do, but then let go of it.

December 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm
(14) Chris says:

Perfect! ’twas all I needed…and I can see how it might have seemed like a tease, now…

December 26, 2011 at 11:22 pm
(15) peter says:

Ms. O’Brien,

Whether you or Mr. Horgan is right interests me less than the lack of consideration you show in your response. Your “thought experiment” amounts to nothing more than an ad hominem attack against Mr. Horgan. Mr. Horgan is just the kind of idiot, you suggest, who would choose the “b” answers to your questions.

Nothing in your response actually responds to Mr. Horgan’s claims. Is the scientific evidence ambiguous or not? Was Chogyam Trungpa, who at the very least drank too much and treated some people very shabbily, a bully or not?

Obviously, ambiguous science and a few bullies in the ranks do not prove that Buddhism itself is unwholesome or wrong, but the proper thing for you to do–if your intention was to genuinely engage with Mr. Horgan’s comments and show him, and others, the errors in his thinking–would have been to show him the respect of an intellectual adversary and address his points squarely.

As it stands, you may be on the side of truth, but not of compassion.

December 27, 2011 at 8:57 am
(16) Barbara O'Brien says:

Your “thought experiment” amounts to nothing more than an ad hominem attack against Mr. Horgan.

Um, try again. My point is not to question Mr. Horgan’s intelligence but to show him that he’s fallen into the same level of logical fallacy as creationists, climate change deniers, etc., since his criticisms are based on ignorance of what Buddhism actually teaches. I assume Mr. Horgan is bright enough to see the parallel, although you, it seems, are not.

Clue: People who choose the “b” answers are not the idiots. People who choose the “a” answers are the idiots. I assume Mr. Horgan would choose the “b” answers, as would I, which means I don’t think he’s an idiot.

So here’s a thought experiment for you. I will make it very simple. Let’s say someone tells you he disagrees with Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity because Newton taught that things fall because there are invisible pixies making them fall. Of course, that nonsense. It also has nothing to do with what Newton said about gravity.

So you say, “But Newton didn’t teach that.” But instead of saying, “Oh? I must have misunderstood,” the other guy ignores you and continues to blab about what a fool Newton must have been to believe in invisible pixies. That’s essentially what Horgan is doing. He is criticizing Buddhism for things it doesn’t actually teach.

The claims by the climate change deniers and creationists are not “ambiguous.” They are utterly invalid because the claims are based on ignorance of science. Most people with some knowledge of and respect for science find that it’s futile to try to have any sort of sensible discussion with such people, because they’d need a six-month intensive remedial science course before they could even begin to understand what science really says about these subjects.

Likewise, most of Mr. Horgan’s criticisms of Buddhism are invalid because he is slamming Buddhism for teaching things that it does not, in fact, teach. And this has been explained to him many times by many people, and like climate change deniers and creationists he simply refuses to listen. I responded to his first article back in 2003, in fact, and it did no good.

Obviously, ambiguous science and a few bullies in the ranks do not prove that Buddhism itself is unwholesome or wrong,

This isn’t even about whether Buddhism is unwholesome or wrong. Maybe what the Buddha taught is nonsense. But if you are going to criticize Buddhist teachings, then criticize what Buddhism actually teaches.

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