Freethinking and Spirituality: Misunderstandings and Presumptions
New Lotus, Buddhistdoor Raymond Lam
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English vocabulary has the word “freethinker,” which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as: “a person who rejects accepted opinions, esp. those concerning religious belief.” According to this definition, if one is non-religious then one is a freethinker; hinting not so subtly that those who are religious cannot be freethinkers. By contrasting “freethinker” against “believer” one is led to believe that practicing Buddhists better think twice before they call themselves free enough to think. It is a poetic slight of hand designed to present false dichotomy (that is, the appearance of having only two choice when there are others). But perhaps the worst segment of that definition is the reality that there are plenty of “accepted opinions” worth defending: the opinion that each human being has individual dignity, for example. To reject it would not necessarily make one a freethinker by any stretch of the imagination.
Furthermore, “freethinker” presupposes to hold a monopolized understanding of freedom, that only freedom in the scientific, secular sense can fulfil the criteria for “freedom.” It therefore quite clearly insists that anything of value found in the religions of the world cannot match the freedom secularism provides. And this is not the secularism of non-religious politics (which is conversely a very good idea), but the secularism and atheism of the heart. Of course, secularism of the heart is not objectionable in itself. Atheists constitute some of the greatest thinkers of our time, from Bertrand Russell to Stephen Hawking. Many Western Theravāda Buddhists would not shy away from calling themselves atheist. But when spirituality is denigrated simply for the sake of no spirituality, the conversation is reduced to a point-scoring match of whether belief equals superstition or if atheists enjoy looking down on believing persons. Such a venomous dialogue (on both sides) leads us nowhere, and leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.
Ironically, the monopoly over freethinking by secular discourse does the latter a great injustice, for it reduces the secular story to just one that must hold all within its rational grasp. It is no exaggeration to insist that secularism (and atheism) deserve better! Secular “monopoly” is the opposite of what freethinking and secularism hope to do, which is to allow for many stories and paths that an individual is free to realize in life. To assume that only one path can bestow true freedom (and that can only be done by denying other paths!) is not beneficial to the cause of secularism anyway. Secularism can argue its case for freedom from organized religion (and indeed secular government is a good bulwark against extremism), but it cannot make a blanket statement against faith traditions without acknowledging the gifts of culture, philosophy, spiritual thought and noble ideals that continue to inspire and elevate.
I wish to emphasize that meaning is not something that atheists or agnostics lack. “Freethinkers” in the conventional sense of the term find meaning in a meaningless, disordered universe by creating it through art, poetry and the like. They also examine the world’s wonders through science. However, those of religion can do the same, and indeed simply creating meaning does not necessarily mean that only created meaning exists. The Buddhist tradition teaches that it is grounded in an ultimate reality, the creator-less Dharma of the cosmos. We also must not forget the truth that all beings share the capacity for Buddhahood (tathāgatagarbha). This is perhaps an “intrinsic transcendence” that embodies Buddhism’s Middle Way and compassionate ideals. The Buddha’s conception of a Middle Way is specially equipped with techniques to dismantle concepts and notions of a self, which would seem to make its pedagogical capacities at least equal to Western ideas of freethinking.
When we think of human love and relationships, we also conceptualize healthy or troubled relations through ideas like “freedom” or “entrapment.” Only unhappy bonds or marriages can be called shackles. A blissfully married couple, be they newlyweds or those old couples one sees still sitting together at the park, would never dare to say that their serious commitment jeopardized their freedom. Authentic spiritual faith is freedom precisely because it is commitment to that Reality which shows the way to freedom. The word “freethinker,” perhaps, has taken on some implied meanings that it should not. Rather, it would be better if the term emphasized an open mind and a personality predisposed to initial goodwill – surely this characterizes better a free thinker.