Faith In Faith?
Andrew Cooper’s interesting article “Modernity’s God-Shaped Hole” [Spring 2003] concludes with the largely unsupported statement that “we humans are inescapably religious.” This declaration of faith in faith, which puts Cooper in the mythos camp rather than in the logos, or reason, camp, is a fallback position during these times of global multiculturalism and religious diversity. Since we really don’t know what to believe anymore, we’ll just soldier on anyway, by—rather abstractly—believing in belief itself.
This belief in belief is supported in the article primarily by the statement that “we possess an innate drive to experience the sacred.” Leaning on “innate” as an empirical-sounding term appears to help anchor Cooper’s overall position in factual evidence. But it is not clear how “innate” and “acquired” can be distinguished once you get beyond basic reflexes such as breathing. Some Christian groups similarly try to buttress their faith by adducing various scientific or scientific-sounding claims. Basically, Cooper’s article is a valuable statement of the divide between mythos and reason, combined with a personal reassertion of his faith in faith.
However, the hole in Cooper’s article may be that he does not evaluate his working assumption that Buddhism is essentially, rather than just historically, a religion. Of course, one might challenge the assumption that Buddhism could be anything whatsoever “essentially.” According to my understanding of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, Buddhism can be understood as a philosophy. In my personal view, Buddhism is a philosophy that accords very well with reason, that is, “reason” rather than “Reason.” The Reason of the Western eighteenth-century scientific Enlightenment, as articulated by Immanuel Kant, was framed with reference to the religious paradigm of monotheism and a nonmaterial soul. Reason was subsequently identified with History and then with Science—with capital letters all.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Reason has been increasingly replaced by a less aggressive “reason” (with a small “r”). Now, reason is understood more as a pragmatic, socially taught procedure for personal and group deliberations, as outlined in the most recent perspectives of German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas. Science is just science; it doesn’t support or injure religion or philosophy. Buddhism as a pragmatic philosophy of life is in harmony with the late-twentieth-century understanding of reason as a pragmatic process designed to increase mutual understanding and minimize suffering.
Perhaps the search for religious meaning itself involves an unnecessary kind of suffering that originates from historical habits and vocabularies rather than from some postulated innate need. Perhaps the existence of this innate need is as foggy as the existence of an inner essential self that is denied in Buddhism.
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