In 2006, Sam Harris wrote an article for a Buddhist magazine entitled, Killing the Buddha.
The article is summarized as follows:
“Kill the Buddha,” says the old koan. “Kill Buddhism,” says Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, who argues that Buddhism’s philosophy, insight, and practices would benefit more people if they were not presented as a religion.
So Harris’s philosophy is Buddhism’s Trojan Horse? Interesting. Instead of presenting Buddhism as a religion, we’re supposed to present it as science – a “contemplative science.” Harris writes:
What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”
First, given his sectarianism, it is ironic to see Harris advocate for “an utterly nonsectarian way of talking.” After all, it was Harris’s sectarian thinking that led him to embrace the crackpot position that Francis Collins was not qualified to head the NIH.
Second, notice the points of emphasis I placed. Harris is clearly trying to make his Buddhism look like science. In fact, earlier in his essay, he makes this point explicitly:
In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being).
Now we can understand why Harris wrote a book that tried to argue science could determine what is right and what is wrong. Now we can understand why he wants to dumb down the definition of science. It was/is all part of his effort to create a new strain of cargo cult science by merging Buddhism with science and selling it, first, to the atheist community.
If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and noncontingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.
Wow. So the science of Buddhism is supposed to uncover genuine truths. What truths? Truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence. How are we supposed to know these are true? Because they were discovered by ethical precepts and meditation and ethical precepts and meditation are like science. Woo.
Of course, “contemplative science” can’t resist flexing its sectarian muscles:
We do not yet have anything like a final understanding of such processes, but we know enough to rule out many false understandings. Indeed, we know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.
So what kind of gnutopia does this “contemplative science” promise to deliver? Harris teases:
There is much more to be discovered about the nature of the human mind. In particular, there is much more for us to understand about how the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion. Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding on this front, but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in their way.
If you ask me, the evidence would indicate Harris’s mind is more likely to be “a reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion” than “an instrument of wisdom and compassion,” despite decades of meditating. But I’ll resist that low-hanging fruit.
Instead, focus on the sectarian nature of this utopia. On one hand, we have those who meditate – those poised to be an instrument of wisdom and compassion. These are the “Awakened.” Then there are those who do not meditate – those who have not been transformed from their reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion. Despite all his rationalizations for calling his religion a science, Harris is unable to escape the inherently religious nature of his worldview.