A Hard Truth, for Some, Anyway

Image for post
Image for post
The Buddha

We have seen that the Dalai Lama deplores and abjures religious chauvinism, and of course he is right. Part of the reason for the absence of overt conflict over religion in the United States is that the Founders had the good sense to write a prohibition on official religion and the right to freedom of religious belief and practice into our Constitution. They were well aware of the ugly history in Europe of Christians killing other Christians in wars over what flavor of Christian to be.

At the same time, it feels very much like idiot compassion not to point out the enormous logical flaws of Christianity. To make such a claim is not religious chauvinism. It is simply an exercise in logic. Buddhism is very logical and practical. As one teacher has put it, the Buddha was a radical empiricist. He cared about human experience only and derived his knowledge, wisdom, and understanding from his own experience. Either the Buddha’s awakening is possible for all humans, even 2,400 years later, or we have to explain how humans have changed importantly during those years.

Again, the Buddha just told us that we will be happier if we behave ourselves than if we don’t behave. He stated five simple precepts that anyone should be able to follow easily. And he relied on the ancient Indian concept of karma, which he defined simply as cause and effect, and he never told his followers that any omnipotent entity would be able to exempt them from the karmic consequences of their actions.

The Christian god is supposedly omnipotent, which creates enormous logical problems. That god is also supposedly benevolent, but the Christian god, if it exists, watched as humans, whom this god supposedly made “in his own image,” have repeatedly gone to war with each other, engaging in battles that have killed millions of people. It must have known about the various regimes of slavery in human history, including the one in the United States from nearly 200 years before our founding as an independent nation until some 70 years afterwards, then the systematic, legal discrimination against the freed slaves and their descendants for another one hundred years after that. Informed observers agree that slavery in North America was one of the worst, most vicious forms of slavery in human history. It only worked because owners subjected their slaves to brutal, violent punishment.

This god must have known that the Holocaust was going to happen — it is allegedly omniscient as well — and that it was happening, and yet he allowed the predominantly Christian population of Germany, supposedly his followers, to indulge a paroxysm of lethal violence against Jews and other minorities, which only ended after armies from the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States invaded Germany and freed most of the prisoners in the concentration camps, the ones who survived, anyway.

A current favorite cop out of this problem of explaining how a supposedly omnipotent, benevolent deity could allow slavery and the Holocaust is “free will,” whatever that is. The claim is that this god allowed humans to have free will, which they then used to commit various atrocities. Somehow, this is supposed to absolve the omnipotent deity who created the whole mess from moral responsibility for the horrors his creatures visit on each other.

This claim suffers from two obvious flaws. First, the leading early American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, explained in the 18th century why “free will” is not compatible with Christian belief in an omnipotent deity. If this god is truly omnipotent, then it is fully in control of all that happens in its creation and we are totally dependent on it. Apparently a lot of modern Christians do not much like this logic, but logic it undoubtedly is. No one has ever offered a convincing refutation of Edwards’ claims from within Christian belief. He is obviously wrong because there is no omnipotent deity, but that is not an argument any good Christian may make.

Second, if this god is truly omnipotent, then it could set up its universe however it wants. There could be no constraints whatsoever on its choices, so it must have chosen to give humans both the freedom, however defined, to kill each other with abandon, and the lack of moral reasoning ability in too many of us to leave us with the impulse to do so. This god could have chosen otherwise, had it wanted to, but did not. Why not? Anyone who believes in an omnipotent deity has no good answer.

One other Christian explanation is the bad idea of “original sin,” according to which human suffer some constitutive moral taint just by dint of being born. Again, the Buddha said humans suffer from constitutive ignorance, which we all have the power to eliminate through meditation. In the Christian story, the only solution for this original sin problem was for their god to send “his only begotten son” to earth, where he lived to adulthood, then suffered a horrible, grisly death, which somehow redeemed all humans of our original sin.

Again, this story is grossly illogical in multiple respects. First, the original explanation for how we got stuck with original sin was the fairy tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden from the Bible. Presumably modern Christians have arrived at some more intellectually respectable explanation during the 20th century, but ultimately no explanation will be very convincing because the basic concept makes zero sense. As a legal matter, in the United States, we understand moral responsibility at the individual level and refuse to expect it from people who are incapable of understanding the concept. Ascribing sin to infants is logical nonsense.

Then, how does the grisly death of one person have moral effect on every member of an entire species? This alleged redemption does not seem to have much stopped humans from sinning, so apparently it was not very effective, or we just keep getting forgiven repeatedly for our repeated “sins,” whatever those are, which makes the whole system hugely ineffective. And in fact the historical evidence makes very clear that Christianity is not very effective as a moral system. Christians may be no more prone to immoral behavior than members of any other group, but they certainly are no less so, as any cursory review of headlines makes abundantly clear. The loud protestations of many Christians, condemning the supposed moral failings of other people and groups, would lead one to think that they had some superior grasp on morality. Clearly they do not.

Also, it is not at all clear how his grisly death some 2,000 years or so ago can have any moral relevance to people now. We could have had nothing at all to do with the death of Jesus. The whole story only makes sense if one inserts the ultimate deus ex machina, so it fails entirely if one refuses to believe in the omnipotent deity, which is the only logical position, given the absence of any evidence to show the existence of such a deity.

The gross illogic of Christianity infects our politics. Christians vote reliably for Republicans, and support all of the worst policy positions in our republic. Christians in every group, except African Americans and Hispanic Catholics, voted over 55 percent for Trump. Without Christian votes, Trump would have lost badly. So we have Christian illogic to thank for Trump.

The bedrock principle in the United States is and should be that everyone is free to hold and exercise their own religions beliefs. No one can argue with that.

But it feels like idiot compassion not to point out the gross illogic of Christianity as a religion and the horrors that Christian voters inflict on the republic.

Especially when we have a highly logical, compelling alternative in Buddhism.

Depending on how you look at it, the outcomes are radically different. The Buddha, broadly, told us that heaven and hell are in our own heads and that we can choose between them. He gave us a specific practice that anyone can adopt to help make the choice.

But, if one reads deeply in both traditions, they overlap more than one might expect. The Buddha was very clear that no omnipotent deity is in charge. Christianity wins and holds onto adherents often through fear of this supposed omnipotent deity, but once you realize none exists, there is nothing to fear. The Buddha made no attempt to instill fear in anyone, beyond the very practical fear of enduring the consequences of your own bad behavior, which seems necessary to any human moral scheme.

Part of the problem must be that most humans like certainty, and the omnipotent deity of Christianity offers them a semblance of certainty. It is a false certainty, however. The Buddha, who saw reality when he awakened, was very clear that all is impermanence and everything we can perceive has only a contingent existence. The only certain phenomenon in the universe is the consciousness that we become aware of by meditating, and that we can take refuge in until our final death and liberation from the rounds of samsara.

The Buddha was right. He lived several hundred years before Christ, so he had no knowledge of Christ or Christianity. He was not shy about defending his understanding of reality from people who would misrepresent or misunderstand it, so he might well have argued with any Christians he encountered, had any existed at the time.

Genuine compassion requires that Buddhists explain the reality the Buddha pointed out for the benefit of all beings in the world.

Please help spread the word.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store