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Friday, May 29, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Beatles Buddhism

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen all kinds of pontificating about the threat of global warming, or climate change, or whatever it’s being repackaged as this week. One thing we can be sure of is that in the current economic situation, climate change is not the first thing on the minds of most Americans. The number of U.S. citizens who consider it a source of great worry dropped to a new low of 31% in 2014.

Given that the dire warnings of the Warmists are going largely unheeded at present, there has been an increasingly intense effort to reframe the climate change issue as a moral one rather than merely a political or practical one.

Now I’m not particularly interested, Immanuel Can, in debating whether or not climate change is occurring, or even whether or not man is responsible for it if it is. But I find this sort of moralizing fascinating, especially coming from a Buddhist. Doug Smith has this to say on the subject at Patheos:
“... the untaught ordinary person takes those things to be most important which produce pleasant sensations and eradicate unpleasant ones. His ethical system, such as it is, revolves around the notion that what is important, skillful, right, and good is what feels pleasant to him right now.

Such an ethical approach necessarily leads to egoistic short-term thinking. It is unpleasant right now to undertake campaigns to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Those in positions of wealth and power, following the ethical program of the untaught, feel anger toward those things that are unpleasant to them, so they strive to eradicate anti-AGW programs. So too with issues of higher taxation: those of greater wealth gain pleasure by seeing the increase in their accounts. The idea that such an increase might be limited by taxation is unpleasant to them, which causes anger. They strive to eradicate the cause of their anger, so they fund efforts to end programs to raise their taxes.

At base this is an issue of getting the ethics right: of understanding “what things are fit for attention and what things are unfit for attention ...”
Tom: Immanuel Can, as a professor of philosophy, you have a much more solid grasp of Buddhist thought than I do. Is Mr. Smith’s take a legitimate application of religious ethics to the climate change issue?

Shuffling Up to the Buffet

Immanuel Can: No. Mr. Smith has what I would call “Beatles Buddhism”. You may remember that back in 1968, the Beatles had a brief dalliance with Hinduism, in which they used it as a source of inspiration for their Western pop music. It wasn’t a very profound fusion, and didn’t take for any of them but George Harrison, who wrote “My Sweet Lord”, a tribute to Krishna, out of that phase.

In any case, “Beatles religiosity” means borrowing elements from a religion in order to justify values you already hold, but simultaneously dropping any elements of that religion that you find inconvenient. It’s also been called “buffet religiosity”: you get to pick-and-choose the elements you find tasty and leave the lima beans behind.

Tom: There’s a bunch of transparently ideological reframing going on in Mr. Smith’s piece and I wasn’t sure how much of it was genuinely Buddhist and how much was just the tired old religion of Gaia. So basically, having assumed greenhouse gas emissions are bad, he’s just grabbing convenient quotations to use against those who are not prepared to move in his political direction quite as speedily as he’d like.

As Christians, we have a relationship with a divine Loved One that motivates us to do the things that please him. Our “ethics”, if we can call them that, are derived from observing his nature and participating in it by means of the transforming power he provides. But what gives rise to ethics for a Buddhist?

Buddhism and World Preservation

IC: What, for Beatles Buddhists? Whatever they already wish to believe — or whatever they wish to avoid having to believe — is what drives their religiosity. No two Beatles Buddhists believe the same thing precisely. They are only as “religious” as they need to be in order to get justification for their preferences, whatever those may happen to be. Real Buddhism is quite different, though: it’s quite a demanding system, and a comprehensive worldview. The worldview behind Beatles Buddhism is nothing but Egoism … the worship of “me”. The Buddhism’s just the decorative veneer.

Tom: So basically anything and everything is fair game ethically as long as it advances the cause of their real religion. It is either Climate Alarmism in service of redistributionism (on the part of globalist politicians) or Climate Alarmism in service of earth worship (on the part of the true believers).

IC: Buddhism itself does not require an environmental view. After all, it holds that reality is maya — illusion — and that desire is born from unhealthy attachment to this world. Thus a passion for environmentalism would be every bit as “bad” on a Buddhist account (though admittedly, even the Western concepts of “good” and “bad” do not apply in the real versions of Buddhism) as an affection for, say, alcohol, status or lust, since any strong desire chains the soul to this world. Affection for world-preservation would surely have to be one of the worst sort of desires, since transcendence of the world is the whole point of enlightenment.

But Beatles Buddhism happily takes on the flavour of any cause. Pick one.

Tom: That makes any discussion of ethics a bit moot, doesn’t it. Is there an evangelical version of this phenomenon? You know, Beatles Christianity …

IC: Oh sure. Absolutely.

Love, Compassion and Government Regulation

Tom: In any case, it appears Doug Smith is not the only Beatles Buddhist in the environmental movement. Bill Joy sketches his route to “betterment”, using the Dalai Lama as his foil:
“Where can we look for a new ethical basis to set our course? I have found the ideas in the book Ethics for the New Millennium, by the Dalai Lama, to be very helpful. As is perhaps well known but little heeded, the Dalai Lama argues that the most important thing is for us to conduct our lives with love and compassion for others, and that our societies need to develop a stronger notion of universal responsibility and of our interdependency; he proposes a standard of positive ethical conduct for individuals and societies …”
To Mr. Joy, when the Dalai Lama advocates “love” and “compassion”, what he really means is aggressively pushing for government regulation of emissions.

IC: Yes. It’s also crucial for us to realize that any “ethic” depends on one’s worldview.  If you don’t happen to share the Buddhist worldview, then Buddhist ethics are not persuasive, and perhaps not even appealing. They’re certainly not compulsory. So you cannot get someone who does not believe in the Buddhist worldview to bow to Buddhist ethics, whether for or against climate change.

Tom: Oh, agreed. But I think there’s a bit of frustration brewing in Warmist circles. They can’t get sufficient public support to advance their agenda, and correctly see political conservatives as their enemy on that issue. But I also think they see an overlap between conservatives and religious people, and hope that a patina of religious respectability or a pretense of prizing ethical behaviour may move some votes their way.

Are we Christians ever guilty of using the word of God the same way, by which I mean using the teaching of scripture to advance our own preconceived notions?

IC: I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s been tried. It’s always tempting to use religious language to back your personal agenda, rather than letting your convictions determine your agenda. But the former is mere manipulation, whereas the latter is faithfulness.

Fear-mongering and Scripture

Tom: Speaking of manipulation, it interests me that the Climate Change folks seem to make the most headway with public opinion whenever they can get people to worry about tomorrow: “What are we doing to the planet? What kind of world are we leaving to our kids?” But this concern for tomorrow is something the Lord directly addresses with his disciples. It’s first principles for serious Christians. I mean, what do you do withdo not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself”? The Lord is being pretty clear there.

IC: At the same time, Christians also believe that human beings hold the earth in stewardship, meaning that they are not free to treat it like their own personal exploiting space or garbage dump, but rather have it under their control on behalf of, and accountable to, the Lord himself. So environmental responsibility is essentially a Christian concern. “Take no thought for tomorrow” does not mean “treat the world any way you want”. Moreover, care for the next generation is also a Christian value.

Personal Responsibility vs. Global Initiatives

Tom: Oh, I quite agree. But in the context of Mr. Smith’s appropriation of Buddhist ethics here, we’re not talking about your personal responsibility (and mine) to use resources carefully, to avoid littering and to find ways to make our use of the earth as sustainable as possible. We’re talking about being asked to sign on a specific set of global initiatives in the absence of any evidence that those initiatives themselves are moral, ethical, practical, efficacious or even remotely well thought-out. So far ethanol regulation has done significantly more damage than good; wind power is a total bust, with increasing evidence of horrible side effects and environmental damage, and so on.

I’m not saying Christians should “take no thought” in the sense of being careless with the environment. I’m saying we should avoid over-occupying ourselves with an issue that, compared to our mission in this world, is both less-consequential and, from all available evidence thus far, thoroughly beyond our grasp.

IC: Right. The ethanol regulations are a good example of an insanely bad “environmental” idea. And we might add that there’s lunacy in sending polluting trucks around to recycle what are essentially balloons of air (plastic bottles), and in addition collecting four types of plastic of which we can afford to recycle only one, and sending the rest to landfills. And remember the “paperless office” idea? We’re doing all sorts of bizarre, environmentally-destructive things in the name of environmentalism. “Green” has become a word that makes any folly wise in our eyes.

Tom: Precisely. The program seems to be to get the rubes to sign on and we’ll figure out the details later. Well, for the Christian, the details should matter. Making a “green gesture” in the interest of looking PC is self-indulgent nonsense. What should matter is the actual outcome for the poor and for the environment, not our flaccid intentions.

The Earth is ... Whose?

IC: Now, it’s hard to say why either environmental preservation or even care for coming generations would be required by any worldview that simply believed in survival of the fittest and that death ends all anyway, as atheist materialism clearly does. And it’s equally hard to say what Buddhism, which preaches escape from physical reality could rationally add to the secular environmentalist's agenda. But Christians, we know why we must care about the earth: it’s the Lord’s, not ours.

Tom: This is the thing: we’re supposed to be concerned for our children when the current demographics of North American society clearly indicate we’re not going to have any significant number, at least not after we abort most of them. Being ethical means a whole lot more than signing on to some Leftist environmental agenda; for the Christian it means a serious reevaluation of our entire lifestyle.

IC: Yes. And likewise, children are not “ours”. The liberal agenda positions them as some kind of convenience, something we can abort or make the State pay for at our whim. They are neither. Like the environment, children are also a stewardship responsibility we hold before the Lord. But it will take a complete paradigm shift on the part of modern liberals to see them for what they really are.

Until we realize that our whole world is not simply at our disposal we will never be able to think rightly at all. Our personal choice-making, our selfish happiness or even the future prospects of the species are not the main issues of life: our duty to live gratefully as stewards of the blessings God has given to us is the real issue. And that we have not done it is to our condemnation as bad stewards.

Tom: Ultimately, we need to recognize that creation is not a god or any kind of end in and of itself: it merely points to the true God. His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made. Worship of the created rather than the Creator is an error that goes back thousands of years.

Creation is only a blessing, and a damaged one at that. The Creator is, in the words of the apostle, “blessed forever”.


  1. Haven't been here for a while and came back to get a quick look and see what's going on. Still the same, a big effort made here with lots of good material. What a shame there seems to be little exposure in the public arena where this is now needed more than ever, especially in Canada? Hope you are thinking about putting it in book format.

    A bit off topic for this Beatle blog, but here is a topic I just came across. Some bad things seem to be happening in Canada concerning individuals making known their faith. See below article. I am concerned this will now migrate to USA and start a persecution and endangerment of all Christians openly standing by their values, especially Catholics, and probably Evangelicals. Can someone confirm some of this?


  2. Hey Q, good to hear from you. Interesting article, but I think the problem you reference has already migrated to the U.S.

    We seem to be reading about a new episode every week in which a pizza parlor or a bake shop is closing because the social justice folks have targeted them and gotten them to admit on camera that they'd prefer not to cater a (usually hypothetical) gay wedding. The death threats from the online SJWs are usually enough to kill the business.

    Here's a few:

    From Indiana: http://www.thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/davidbadash/closed_indiana_pizza_parlor_that_won_t_cater_same_sex_weddings_because_jesus

    From Colorado:

    and Oregon:

    This persecution is not because Christians actually do anything criminal, but essentially for giving hypothetical homosexuals "badfeels".

    Agreed. It's a big problem, and it won't be going away any time soon.