The Roman Atheist

“Do not pass by my epitaph, traveler.
But having stopped, listen and learn, then go your way.
There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon,
No caretaker Aiakos, no dog Cerberus.
All we who are dead below
Have become bones and ashes, but nothing else.
I have spoken to you honestly, go on, traveler,
Lest even while dead I seem talkative to you.”

– Ancient Roman Tombstone (roughly 2000 years old)

The Roman Gods are no more, we’ve replaced them with other religions. Makes you wonder what kind of religious relics will remain, how modern day atheists will be perceived and the kind of religions that would be around 2000 years from now.

Most religious people fail to see that religion, the God(s) they worship are but man made constructs and are at the whim and mercy of what is considered fashionable or sensible (if only!) during a particular period in human history. What is clear though is that there have been those enlightened enough to reject superstition, pointless ritual and mysticism during every period of the evolution of human civilization, often having to bear the difficult task of swimming against an overwhelming tide. We salute them.


Found this in a rather enlightening book on the (historical not biblical) Paul and the early history of the Christian church. It’s on page 109 if anyone is interested.

What are the forms of ritualized behaviour amongst faith systems and why do we hold on to them? asks Pascal Boyer

What are the strange and bizarre forms of ritualized behaviour that humans prescribe to, what are the similarities between the faith systems of the world and why do we hold on to them? Anthropologist Pascal Boyer has extensively researched these questions and presents his findings in this enlightening lecture. A  full treatment of the material discussed can be found in his most recent book – Religion Explained.

On Epicurus

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”

It saddens me that religious humans of the modern age cannot even come close to this type of reasoning even after 2300 years whence the time Epicurus stated thusly. It begs the question, are they less intelligent than a 2300 year old provincial Greek? I myself am inclined to believe so.

Denial – A reply to a creationist

I had an interesting discussion with a creationist a few weeks back and I thought I should write up a post. This is more or less what I said to my friend on twitter a few weeks back. Quite a back and forth it was !

Evolution is a fact. Not a theory. Most people think that evolution (“gradual change in phenotype”) is synonymous with the theory of Darwinian Natural Selection. Evolution has been demonstrated by humans for centuries. This is known as “artificial selection”. We bred dogs from wolves, we create new types of roses and orchids everyday and we created crops like rice wheat and maize from certain species of grass.

Gregor Mendel was able to demonstrate this phenotypic change by choosing pea plants that have short lifespans (so that he may observe many generations over a relatively short period of time) and thus established evolution as an observable fact. He hinted that there could be some kind of driving mechanism behind this phenotypic change (which we now call the geneotype) but came short since DNA was yet to be discovered and its structure unlocked by Crick and Watson. Darwin was quite aware of these developments and hypothesized that nature could play the same role that man played in breeding wolves and pea plants (a “natural” selection as opposed to an “artificial selection”). If anything this theory should support the claims of the intelligent design camp (nature ensures that species evolve, and nature = the creator, could be their central thesis – but no they are too asinine for this kind of simple logic).

One could argue that Darwin was essentially motivated by human tinkering of species and wanted to know if nature could do it and whether it has been doing it all along. The ID camp is woefully uninformed with regard to how evolution (the fact) connects with natural selection (the theory). At first glance the ID camp seems to fall into several categories (deniers of evolution deniers of natural selection and all flavors in between) but when you confront them with the facts they push themselves into a corner and go so far as to claim that evolution (the fact) is a lie!

Current research indicates that evolution (changes in phenotype), natural selection, DNA and the field of genetics are intimately linked. This is why we are able to come up with things like genetically modified food and new types of crops by tinkering at the genetic level and lets not forget cloning – quite routine these days. We seem to understand the mechanics of genetic manipulation and its phenotypic effects (to some degree). Push the ID camp and they will tell you that the fact of evolution is a myth and is a blatant lie. What they don’t realize is that by making this claim they ipso facto deny the existence of dogs, pets, livestock, new types of crops, new types of drugs based on genetic research, rice, maize, wheat, corn… the list goes on and on.

Man has been tinkering with nature for thousands of years and will continue to do so with its newfound knowledge of how the genotype functions. Denying one fact (evolution) or the validity of a theory (natural selection) means that you deny the existence of DNA and how information is propagated from one generation to another thus effectively denying “artificial selection” and what humans have been doing routinely for thousands of years. The whole thing is one big tapestry linked together. It is not a haphazard collection of rags sitting on the floor. Sure we patch the quilt every now and then and sew in new pieces of fabric but thats science for you!

Heres a fantastic article on New Scientist. A primer if you will.

Himal K has an excellent post on Buddhists and how some of them deny evolution over here.

The Problem With Buddhism – Reincarnation

Before I move onto rebirth I would like to point out another peculiar feature of Buddhism. The ultimate goal, according to Buddha is the elimination of the samsaric cycle of suffering by attaining Nirvana – a state of “enlightenment”. Nirvana has been defined in a very peculiar manner. The Buddha does not go into detail regarding the qualities that the state of Nirvana possess. Nirvana is essentially defined as “the absence of suffering”. This “negative definition” sheds no light about this supposed state of enlightenment. I find this peculiar as well as interesting. Peculiar because all the other major religions have some sort of end goal that has been laid out in great detail while in Buddhism it is sketchy and vague. In the case of Catholicism it is the escape from certain torment in hell and purgatory into the everlasting life offered in heaven. Evangelicals and Christians also hold this ultimate goal to be true and their actions on earth are motivated and shaped by this goal. The same goes for all the other monotheistic religions like Islam and Judaism. Having an elaborately defined and clear end goal is a great way to retain followers and bring in new converts to the religion. The goal is tangible and it sure feels real when the preacher or priest reads a passage from the holy texts regarding the wonders of paradise, sitting next to Jesus, milk and honey etc.

Buddhism does not place a lot of emphasis on this end goal by way of descriptions and such but rather hammers into the mind of the adherent that her life is nothing but suffering and that desire is the root of this suffering. To be born again is to desire and desire leads to suffering. I hope to rigorously criticize this word view in the upcoming posts, but for now let us turn our attention to the three metaphysical and supernatural elements in Buddhism, namely rebirth, karma and the idea of samsara.

As I pointed out, if we are to take Buddhism seriously we must also take rebirth and karma seriously. You cannot deny these elements and then claim to be a Buddhist. It would make no sense to emancipate oneself (nirvana) from a process (samsara and rebirth) that one does not believe in or take seriously. If an individual claims that she does not take rebirth seriously but believes in the teachings of Buddha then she is ipso facto a non believer and a non-Buddhist (?). Faith – and it is faith since there exists no proof – in rebirth, karma and samsara is the necessary and sufficient condition for the acceptance of Buddhist teachings. The ideas cannot exist independently of each other. You cannot prescribe to the parts and neglect the whole.

The underlying driving force of reincarnation is karma. In simple terms bad karma will ensure that you are born as a “lower life form” and good karma can elevate your status. There are many arguments against reincarnation and scientists have conducted a number experiments examined claims and written extensively on this matter. My problem with reincarnation and thus with Buddhism has to do with the tacit assumption that there exists a duality between what Buddhists call “the mind” and the “brain” (body). If we are to take reincarnation seriously we must also accept that there exists an entity called the “mind” (consciousness, soul etc) which can exist independently of the physical mechanisms of the brain and the body. Some essence of this soul or “mind” is what gets transfered into the next body during rebirth. This assumption that mind body duality exists is extremely troubling. Current experiments in neuroscience and various interdisciplinary fields suggest that the mind is some kind of emergent phenomenon. The current evidence is strongly in favor of a materialist interpretation. The consciousness we perceive is a result of the physical changes taking place in our bodies (the nervous system is an extended network) and in our brains. For example neurological disorders and mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety attacks can traced back to problems in brain chemistry (low Seratonin levels etc), the chemicals can be substituted by synthetic medication with remarkably effective results.

The behavior of the mind is subject to physical constraints. This should not be a surprising conclusion. Why cannot the mind be constrained by and be subjected to the same laws of physics, biology and chemistry that the rest of the physical “stuff” is subjected to? If the mind is subjected to the physical constraints of the body and the brain how can it have an independent existence? If it cannot exist independently of the body how is reincarnation possible?

The answer is that it is not.

On an unrelated note the Huffpost has an article on how the concept of karma can be damaging  to the post conflict situation in Sri Lanka. Yet to read the article. Will post my thoughts on it next time.

The Problem With Buddhism – 2

In this post I will argue that Buddhism has a theistic element and that it is no different than the theistic religions of the world (in a functional sense).

Most Buddhists LOVE to talk about how their religion is devoid of metaphysical contrivances. Theistic “explanations” are rejected. In some sense this is a strange development since Buddhism borrowed many of its ideas from some of the major theistic religions of the region during its birth, nearly 2500 years ago. Hinduism is in some sense the parent religion of Buddhism. Siddhartha was born into a Hindu belief system and it is not surprising that he “borrowed” ideas such as reincarnation, samsara and karma from the prevalent belief system (the status quo was taken as a given). He took the status quo for granted and built his teachings around them. Fundamentally therefore, when one considers the “core” of Buddhist teachings it is no different than Hinduism. However it would be naive to claim that Buddhism can somehow be simplified and reduced to Hindu teachings, there are major differences between the two systems. In Hinduism the actions of the Gods play a central role in our day to day lives, the Hindu narratives confirm this assertion. In Buddhism the Gods are merely in the background – a series of beings no different than any other life forms living in a plane of existence divorced from ours. Gods are subjected to the same samsaric rules etc. So Siddhartha does away with the pantheon of Gods, at least in terms of their importance with regard to our lives and re-introduces rebirth, samsara and karma as the driving forces behind how the universe works. All living creatures are subject to these rules. Karma is recast as a sort of “moral cause and effect” and samsara and rebirth is linked to the idea of “suffering” from which the self must be emancipated by following the eight fold path to nirvana. There is no room for God in Buddhist teachings.

From a functional/operational standpoint how is the idea of rebirth, samsara and karma any different than a omnipotent entity governing over us? Buddhism does not invoke God but merely gets around it by invoking 3 principles and mechanisms by which the universe is governed. Karma is a form of moral cause and effect, samsara is an inevitable cycle of death and rebirth and rebirth leads to suffering. These ideas have displaced the concept of the divine (which was present in Hinduism) but serve the same operational purpose. The “universe” tallies ones karma by essentially having an elaborate bookkeeping system (who keeps the books?) and allocates roles for all the creatures based on their “karmic points”, new lives are allocated based on these points, the quality of ones life is determined by these points (who arbitrates these decisions?). Thus these central ideas are nothing but operational definitions of some system/entity otherwise referred to as “God(s)” in other religions. Buddha has stripped Hinduism of its unnecessary bells and whistles, taken its theistic core, wrapped a new set of bells and whistles, craftily repackaged it as “novel” and “true” and preached it to the unfortunate masses.

Furthermore the supernatural nature of these 3 elements cannot be denied. The existence of karmic cause and effect cannot be proven, rebirth cannot be proven and samsara merely depends on these supernatural ideas. These concepts have all the characteristics of the supernatural and yet Buddhists continue to deny this fact. The ideas were borrowed from a supernatural belief system and continue to retain their dimensions despite being integrated from Hinduism (with a divine “imperative”) into Buddhism (divine imperative plays no role).

I hope that you are convinced that the core of Buddhism assumes a functional existence of a theistic “entity”. This claim is not explicit but is tacitly implied when one invokes the bookkeeping and arbitration required for the samsaric system to function.

The Problem With Buddhism

Sri Lankan blogs that criticize Buddhism and Islam have been under attack during the last couple of weeks. In light of these recent developments I realized that I have a huge problem with Buddhism (not that I’m okay with Islam but lets get to that in due course). I’m outraged at the spiteful behavior of the Sri Lankan Buddhist. This is not the first time that they have tried to stifle the criticism leveled against their dogma and practices. 1992 was historical year. In 1992 Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, a notable Sri Lankan anthropologist wrote up a series of essays and published a book called Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka. I’m outraged that this book is still banned in Sri Lanka. Forget the politics and the ethnic hyperbole for a moment. Banning an academic monograph is disgusting and vile and we should be ashamed of it. Dr Tambiah must be applauded for fearlessly pursuing the publication of this book during such a volatile period of our history. This inanity that equates criticism with “blasphemy” must end. Does Buddhism even consider “blasphemy” as some sort of offense or affront? I think not.  I have not read this book, it is currently unavailable in libraries and most people my age are unaware that such a book even exists. This is truly a sad state of affairs. Google books does provide a small excerpt here. In and age where one cannot even examine an academic publication in order to agree/disagree with the authors claims, building a movement that actively engages the religious becomes a pointless exercise.

Okay so I have a lot of problems and in order to get a hold of what I’m dealing with here I’d like to examine two aspects of Buddhism, break it down and analyze each aspect:

1. The original dogma as preached by Buddha

2.  The Theravada Buddhist philosophy as practiced by a majority of Sri Lankans. Something we shall refer to as “Mainstream Buddhism”

Having a background in Science and Mathematics it is natural that I analyze these issues using the lens of Science and I think this is justified. It is justified because Buddhism claims to be an examination of human existence (what are we here for? what is our place in the universe?) such a claim must be scrutinized carefully for it provides an all  encompassing world view which essentially tells one how one should live one’s life. The danger with such a complete and all encompassing world view is that any new knowledge which contradicts portions of this world view is met with the utmost of hostility from the adherents of said philosophy.

Such strong claims must be subjected to testing and verification and the truth value of these claims must be examined. In short Buddhism must first be able to be falsified. Falsifiability means that a particular statement could be shown to be false by providing a counter example, often physical and experimental in nature. If a statement cannot be falsified it has no value with regard to the seeking of knowledge and truth. The statement may be comforting from a psychological standpoint but has no value for someone seeking knowledge about said system of knowledge. Karl Popper had the same view with regard to scientific assertions. He was of the opinion that scientific claims must be falsifiable (that is provide an inherent condition so that it can be disproved), he also believed that such standards should not be applied to religious and metaphysical systems of knowledge. This division troubles me. Buddhism (metaphysical and religious) claims to have the answers to our existence and to our ultimate liberation. I would like to know if this system of knowledge really does deliver before say I devote my whole life to practicing Buddhist preaching and doctrine. Is that too much to ask?

I don’t think that this is an unreasonable request on my part. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and I must agree with Carl Sagan. One does not call it the burden of proof for nothing. If you present to me “the path to liberation” you better damn well be sure it is true and that it works. How better to test for truth utility and effectiveness than falsification? My next post will consider several aspects of the foundation of Buddhism and question the nature of their falsifiability. The samsaric cycle, reincarnation and karma will the subject of the next post.

Related – Review of  The Work of Kings: The New Buddhism In Sri Lanka, By H. L. Seneviratne, written 7 years after Buddhism Betrayed, it picks up the trail from Dr Tambiah