Category Archives: secularism/religion

Is Buddhism really a religion?

What follows is an at times academic and at times personal essay on Buddhism as a religion versus philosophy. I had thought to be able to touch on all the points I wanted to in about 1000 words, but now find it’s run triple the length and still not quite plumbed all the key points fully. So it may not be of wide interest.

LOL. Because so much that I put up here has a wide, general interest. Enjoy:

The blog over at Tricycle has been featuring a series of posts by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. on “10 Misconceptions about Buddhism” that offer to dispel popularly held misconceptions of Buddhism through closer looks at the religion’s history and practice. I strongly recommend it. Previous posts in the ongoing series have looked at, for example, whether Buddhists are necessarily vegetarian or inherently pacifist, and I think the posts are going a long way to getting people to think beyond idealized and monumentalized notions of what Buddhism can and should be. And, after all, what could be more Buddhist than an effort to disenchant a beguiling illusion.

The most recent post addresses the idea that Buddhism is not a religion but a system of philosophy. There’s little doubt that this is a common misconception – I had several students this past semester write papers in no small part premised on the idea that the core of Buddhism is a system of claims about reality easily divorced from practice and tradition. They’re acting out of a deep ingrained point of view. Anyone who’s spent some time looking at scholarship on “Eastern” religions, for example, is aware of the tendency of Western scholars to attempt to salvage a pure and true philosophy from what gets seen as the flotsam of ritual, magical thinking, and superstition.  And it’s not just an academic trait but a larger cultural mode of thinking about religion in general.

Buswell and Lopez’s assert that Buddhism is indeed a religion by any definition, except if one were to narrowly define religion as focused about a belief in a creator god. Buddhism’s relative lack of interest in creation myths certainly distinguishes from other religions, and its founding principles deny the existence of any single omnipresent entity.  But what definition of religion do we then use to apply to Buddhism to see whether it fits? Buswell and Lopez in their post look simply for evidence of belief in miracles and magic, and descriptions of magical events in the legends and scriptural accounts of Buddhas and advanced spiritual adepts are quite evident. My favorite in the post is the reference to the eight sites of pilgrimage in Indian Buddhism, which includes Sravasti, “where the Buddha performed the ‘dual miracles’ (yamakapratiharya) to vanquish a rival group of yogins by flying into the air and releasing fire from his head and water from his feet, and vice versa.” Showing the prevalence of myth and superstition is easy enough, but Buswell and Lopez don’t explain why they have chosen this definition of religion and not any other.

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Snake handler stuff

I haven’t seen the Nat’l Geographic show yet, but one of Snake Salvation‘s snake-handling Pentecostal ministers has died of a snakebite. He refused medical service after being bitten as part of the spiritual trial that is involved in the practice.

We tend to view snake handlers as fringe freaks, but it’s a fascinating subculture that seems to persist precisely because of its fringe nature and not entirely in spite of it. This Buzzfeed long form by Gemma de Choisy is excellent. I’m having my students read it this semester.

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Two links about religion

If you’re coming here for the nature stuff or the poetry, well, I’ll get back to that next week. I wanted to keep on the religion/secularism thing for one more post and throw up a couple links about religion and material culture – punningly literal material culture. I’m talking about clothes, son. I’m teaching a class on doing research in religion and secularism studies this semester, so it’s even more on my mind than usual.

First, this blog post by the Pew Research Center about a University of Michigan study about religion and secularism in primarily Middle-Eastern Muslim-majority countries drew a lot of attention, as it focused on social attitudes toward appropriate women’s dress as an index of secularism, Westernization, and Muslim identity. In particular, the infographic at the top of the post went massively viral.

FT_styleofdress13141

It shows stylized portraits of six Muslim women from the head up in attire perceived as increasingly less restrictive, starting with the burqa and then moving toward an ultimately uncovered head and Western attire, and then gives the percentage of respondents from each country that selected that attire as the most appropriate dress for women in public. Some of the attention the graphic drew was satirical, some of it disapproving, but mostly it would seem the attention was due to the fascination with how Muslim women dress. (Hey, I retweeted it too.) Hence the disapproval, that Pew was playing into the Western obsession with Muslim women’s hair-covering, not to mention that the graphic abstracted women in the countries covered to a handful of caricatures.

I get the discomfort with the reduction of women’s presence to a sliding scale of clothing marked as increasingly foreign and weird, and I get the annoyance at how fascinated people seem to be with this aspect of culture in Islamic societies. But 1) I think a graphic like this helps give people a slightly better picture of the complexity of cultural expressions of and responses to female modesty in the Islamic world, and, 2) as the authors of the study point out, issues of women’s dress have been central to internal debates about the status of women and secularization for over a century. I think, too, though, that the study could have used some more sophisticated thinking about dress and religious identity that would have helped them move beyond the rather simple and Eurocentric contention that the question of dress unproblematically “also revolves around the question of individual choice, gender equality and a woman’s control over her own body and sexuality,” but it’s certainly true that those questions come up.

The benefit of a more nuanced approach can I think be seen in the interesting and unsurprising gender breakdown of responses in regards to dress. Men and women in each country were largely in agreement about appropriate attire, but differed considerably “on the issue of a woman’s right to dress as she wishes. Women are more strongly in favor of this statement than men across the seven countries. People with a university education are also more supportive of women’s choice (except in Saudi Arabia).” That the Christian populations favor less restrictive clothing is also not surprising, and of course reflects economic and cultural situations and not exclusively religious. What does it mean, I would want the study to explore, that women can insist on having more control and more choice over their clothing, positions that could certainly be seen as reflecting secular values, but that their choices would still mesh with those seen as being more religious, or more traditional?

Second, what I would want it to be would to be more like this fascinating discussion of women’s clothing and religion by Laura Leibman over at Religion in American History that looks at nineteenth-century attitudes toward Judaism, the fraught intersection between whiteness and blackness at the time, and women’s clothing and fashion. I’ll let it stand on its own, and you should go read it in full. A couple things that struck me, though, in the context of the previous debate are the extent to which loose and disheveled clothing were used in art to indicate the non-white status of Jews, and the extent to which clothing that could be seen as stiffer and more restrictive could indicate the relatively freer and less black status of the wearer. That’s the entry into Leibman’s reading of the wedding portrait of a freed mixed-race daughter of a Jewish plantation owner and a slave that closes the post, which then goes on to highlight a number of representations of class and gender freedoms and restrictions in the subject’s tightly corseted attire that cannot be reduced, as she says, to “an assimilationist vs. devout model.”

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Should a university accommodate a man’s religious objection to interacting with women in class?

No. And this York University case I think was relatively poorly handled by the administration, and although I don’t fully know the reasons why the professor refused to honor the administration’s decision to accommodate the student, I think that the professor’s actions were appropriate, and I’m glad that the resolution of the case in the end seems satisfactory to both the professor and the students.

Briefly, the student requested accommodation in a hybrid class where much of the work was online, but classroom meetings required working in groups with other students, some of whom were likely going to be women. The university granted the request, and the professor refused to honor it on the grounds that it negatively impacted women in the class, and that granting this request would only open the door to increasingly disruptive demands from others. The professor’s department issued a statement supporting the professor, who continues to refuse to grant the accommodation. The student, though, is apparently satisfied with the seriousness the university debated the request, and is agreeing to comply with the requirements of the course despite his religious sensitivity to the presence of women.

Ordinarily I’m willing to give considerable sympathy to requests for accommodation, in educational situations and otherwise, that might even run against someone’s gut sense of what’s fair and appropriate. Most of these requests are coming from the conflicts between either non-Western, and chiefly Islamic, worldviews or defiantly anti-modern pockets of Christian culture and our contemporary Western, secular spaces. We tend, I think, to overreact initially and bristle at these accommodations because they seem to aggressive challenges to secular values. This is why, for instance, I’m so fascinated with the “headscarf debate” – bans and attacks on women for wearing the headscarf are clear overreactions that demonstrate an emotional engagement that exceeds any rational explanation for one’s position.

No small part of those same secular values, though, insist that we make every effort to accommodate religious requests in public spaces so that all people have equal access to those spaces and in particular no group is denied access because of deeply held convictions. And so the university’s decision to honor the request, and any such request, where there is no “substantial impact” on other students is understandable, and even commendable, since a generous gesture at accommodation should be the default attitude to counter the gut-level emotional responses to challenges.

But secular, public space isn’t entirely a vacuum: it is not merely defined by gate-keeping requirements about behaviors permitted within it. The university is a secular space with very specific cultural orientations, practices, and attitudes, ostensibly directed toward the development and dissemination of knowledge, professionalization, etc. I’m not going to get into deeper debates about the validity of the university and projects of modernity and secularization, so we’ll leave it at that.

You wouldn’t let a student object in a biology class about the teaching of evolution – and I certainly don’t accept student objections to the theory of evolution in my writing classes. If you can’t accept the theory of evolution on religious grounds, then I think you need to accept that a secular space devoted to the transmission of human-centered knowledge absent any divine revelation cannot accommodate you. Other social spaces may be made available, certainly, but the university – and educational institutions, generally – are a very specific secular space. We may wish to view society as a totality in which some accommodation must be made for everyone encompassed, but there’s no way that universities could be made so.

The same has to be the case for gender relations. The same is true for race, class, etc. Secular spaces have real, positive, particular, and, yes, contingent cultures and values. You could argue that not interacting with women is not going to affect those women, and the lack of any real harm done means that accommodation is possible, and this is clearly York’s position. But to do so would violate principle moral values of the secular space – that one does not chose to interact differently with peers in the education setting based on accidental qualities like class, race, gender, etc.

So what’s the difference between allowing headscarves, for instance, and allowing genders to segregate? Somebody could argue that allowing a woman to wear a headscarf in a public space violates the same principles of equality and fairness. Well, in part, this is where I think you need to insist on that initial impulse toward generosity, and I think that in light of that gesture, headscarves seem permissible while gender segregation does not. But I think, too, other inherent values of secularism that respect an individual and individual demands of conscience and hold those values as paramount over freedoms to interact or to chose not interact with others.

I don’t have a clear answer on it, though. And I have to admit that much of this seems rationalization of my own gut-level sense that one should permit religious observation and the dictates of conscience whenever possible but realize that acting within a specific secular space requires abiding by certain values and restrictions placed on interacting with others. And that this is as true in the marketplace as it is at the university.

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#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen

You spend time on Twitter? I confess that I’ve had an account for years but only started using it heavily in the past few months (@el_donaldo if you like). Didn’t really get it at first. Now I’m fascinated.

This blew up as a trend yesterday: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. I’m not entirely clear what started it – apparently something to do with Hugo Schwyzer, a porn and gender studies professor who has written for Jezebel and other popular outfits that I’ve never heard of. (And I read Jezebel.) Some sort of public confession and meltdown, a history of dismissal of feminists from non-European backgrounds, and maybe some more stuff I’m missing, but whatever sent the tag out there tapped into something pretty massive. There is apparently a great deal of resentment among many people working on women’s issues about a bias within feminist discourse to see white, Eurocentric, bourgeois women’s issues as definitive for the movement, and furthermore a bias toward working with those issues as if they were exclusively gender issues divorced from any context of race, class, history, and geopolitics. Watching the hashtag grow was very exciting and illuminating.

This article from Al Jazeera English describes the groundswell of protest and some of its content pretty well. What I was struck with, and this ties into a lot of my previous posts about Islam and the West, was that a critique of a feminism that imagines itself to be above or beyond issues of race and ethnicity is also a critique of a specifically Western secularism. I don’t think that the hashtag covers feminist voices that are explicitly anti-secular, though it is entirely possible that those voices are out there; I do think that the blowback against an ideologically deracinated feminism is also a critique against a secularism that does not recognize its own religious stakes.

solidarityisforwhitewomenOne of the repeated objections revealed by the hashtag is anger generated by the opposition of Western feminists to the headscarf. That headscarf, or hijab, or whichever manifestation we’re discussing, is seen by many in the West as oppressive, and many women in countries where female modesty is strictly enforced also agree, and yet many feminists from Islamic cultures view these obligations much more complexly. I don’t think the objection from Muslim feminists to be anti-secular, though, whatever it may be, as the headscarf also has its secular competent as I discussed in the last post: modesty may obscure, but it also permits. The problem I believe is that a Euro-centric feminism looks at the headscarf and sees misplaced and oppressive religiosity where religion and secularity are actually both present and deeply entwined. And that perspective also views itself as fully appropriately secular, not recognizing that it is as well deeply entwined with assumptions about the appropriateness of religious practice and the public sphere.

Anyway, last post on secularism for a while, as I’m back to writing about nature and writing about writing about nature.

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Burka avenger

Another example of the complex agency of female modesty in traditionally Islamic cultures: A Pakistani children’s show about a female teacher that adopts the burka as a superhero disguise to fight for the right of girls to receive an education. I don’t have the background to discuss the narrative and aesthetic ramifications here, but I think it should remind us of women in Islamic cultures adopting the hijab or equivalent as a way into the public sphere. So, like I said, complex.

Via Andy Carvin on Twitter.

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Accursed land

This is a new one. Former GOP presidential nomination frontrunner Rick Perry has come under some heat for his unconventional and frankly disturbing religious associations. These go beyond the typical guilt by association that plagues politicians who may have encountered some fringe figures in their spiritual pursuits, like Obama’s close association with the controversial and outspoken (and aptly named) Jeremiah Wright or Michele Bachmann’s with the extremely odious Bradlee Dean. I certainly believe these relationships bear scrutiny, but generally not the clutching-the-chest panic they tend to evoke from partisans. Perry, on the other hand, moved into territory that quite frankly can be described as un-American – and by such I’d mean contrary to broad agreements about American political heritage as represented in discussions and interpretations of the Constitution, and nothing more – with the massive prayer rally called “The Response” held in Texas back in August. I don’t need to belabor the obvious here about an elected representative of the people – a governor, no less – endorsing, planning, and leading an exclusive religious festival not as a private citizen but in his capacity as a public servant.

But this is interesting. Evangelist, and from what I can tell, professional crazy person Cindy Jacobs has claimed that “The Response” has lifted a curse from American soil. Part of the purpose of the “The Response” was to pray away the problems that bedevil the country, and no one could be blamed for thinking back to Perry’s earlier state proclamation to pray away the droughts and wildfires that have made Texas, as least as viewed from afar, seem as if it were a land subject to the wrath of some divine power or another. But Jacobs’s claim is new to me: she claims that the sins of the Native Americans – chiefly their cannibalism – cursed the land and that curse, until recently, was affecting the legacy of the European settlers that displaced the native population. This recalls Pat Robertson’s rather confused and contemptible assertion that it was the Haitian Revolution’s pact with the Devil to overturn the French colonial government there that had cursed the land and resulted in Haiti’s horrific earthquake. Now it’s easy to dismiss Jacobs – she’s the fringe of a rather fringe group, and her major claim to notoriety is that she’s prone to make these crazy claims, like her claim that a massive die-off of birds in Arkansas and Louisiana was due to the end of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, the military’s former policy of the forced exclusion of gays and lesbians from service. But the claim itself, and that it would find itself articulated within a specifically evangelical environment, that fascinates me.

Some ritual cannibalism was indeed practiced by Native American peoples prior to European settlements. And not long ago the anthropology community was embroiled in a rather sensational debate about the extent of the cannibalism practiced by a vanished tribe that preceded the Pueblo in the Southwest. But the weirdness here isn’t the lurid fixation with cannibalism itself, but that the sin or crime tainted not the people that practiced it so much as the land they lived on. And not the land so much as the geopolitical entity that inherits that continent.

Our culture is rife with heavily symbolic accounts of the transfer of authority over the land from Natives to Europeans, beginning with the fiction and poetry of the nineteenth century – especially Cooper’s novels and the narrative poems of Longfellow – and the trope of the Vanishing Indian, the peculiar insistence of nineteenth century Americans, including even otherwise astute and sympathetic observers like Thoreau, to insist that the Indians were already prior to the encounter with the West a dying and vanishing race, whose convenient inability to thrive and prosper allowed for European occupation of otherwise soon-to-be-vacated lands. Stories of the transfer of the land from Natives to Europeans continue through our contemporary popular culture, as in the infamous “crying Indian” ad from the 1970’s Keep America Beautiful campaign. And yet in all of those accounts, the Indian vanishes physically but retains some spiritual claim over the landscape, and either approves and guarantees the moral and inevitable nature of European settlement (as we find in Longfellow), or in the case of the TV ad, admonishes its improper stewardship of the transferred lands. Never does the transfer involve our assumption of a primal crime.

If it weren’t for Jacobs’s ties to Perry’s prayer festival and to a prophetic movement that’s become associated with his candidacy, it would be the odd notion of a negligible lunatic, and maybe it is that. But evangelical Christianity has a long history of obsession with geography and spirituality, primarily with that of the Holy Land, so I can’t discount it entirely. Neither do I know what to make of it. Part of it does seem to be a rebuke against secularism, though. If we’re going to be cursed on account of primitive (meaning first, not crude) practices on this continent, the others must be under similar burdens, unless also relieved of that curse by a specifically Christian ceremony – one that deliberate transgresses the original founding compact of the affected nation-state that distinguishes public duties from private obligations of conscience. I think it’s fairly clear here that the sin that far more concerns Jacobs than cannibalism would be the Jeffersonian separation of church and state. Secularism did not permit a sacralization of the American landscape, except in the revisionist histories that see the Constitution in some sort of pre-Bill of Rights dispensation sanctifying a Christian America before the 20th century judicial pronouncements began to pry religion and governance apart. Without that sacralization, the pagan earth that sustained the primitive inhabitants would be the same that sustains our rather shaky secular government, according to this view.

I wonder, then, if we could tie Jacobs’s claim here to the motivation behind Glenn Beck’s rather odd and uncomfortable rally in Jerusalem. The Holy Land has long functioned for evangelical Christians as an historical anchor for what they view as the inevitable and necessary transformation of the created world. It was where Jews were historically supplanted in ecclesiastical importance with Christ himself, and while it is necessary for many Christians that Jerusalem remain Jewish so that historical continuity from Jew to Christian remain forever imminent. But they’re still Jews, and the primal crimes of the land must remain still remain, in this view.

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