A Buddhist Answer to Craig’s God: Part 2 of A Critique of William Lane Craig’s Debate With Sam Harris
In the first part of this essay I tried to show how postulating God–any god or gods–as the source of morality is so beset by problems as to offer no refuge for the man or woman in the world who asks, in all seriousness, the ethical question What shall I do? That there is an answer to this question I am certain, and the best answer I have found, the most complete and rigorously defined, lies in the teachings of the historical Buddha.
I say “historical” to delimit my source materials. My interest here is in what Gotama’s answer to this question was, not what later followers and elaborators said he said. For this we have as source the sutta pitaka, the “basket of discourses” found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada school and the only documents that can claim any meaningful direct link with Buddhism’s founder. This is in no way to denigrate the later Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism which have added substantitively to Buddhist technologies of liberation. Simply, I have not the expertise (not to mention the time) to be all-encompassing; indeed, this discussion of the Buddha’s ethics will be at best preliminary, indicating possible answers to the questions addressed in the Craig-Harris debate.
What then is the purpose of ethical behavior? The Buddha discusses this specific question innumerable times throughout the suttas. In brief, one adopts sila (ethical precepts) specifically for the purpose of eliminating mental, verbal and physical actions that give rise to negative mental states, relationships and consequences that hinder mental culture (bhavana). Also, we try to behave generously, graciously, and compassionately because such modes of deportment foster good mental states both within ourselves and others. In other words, depending on what we think, say and do we have the power to increase or decrease suffering in ourselves and others. Since the Buddha’s teaching is concerned entirely with the elimination of suffering (i.e. existential angst), ethical behavior is the bedrock upon which everything else must be built. Without it, the attainment of higher states leading to [nirvana] is out of the question.
This really is the gist of it. Ethics begin with a person confronting their vulnerable position in this world. They are alone, even with others, for nobody can tell them how to live their life. Even if others try (as they inevitably do), in the end it is their life. They alone suffer the consequences and enjoy the fruit of what they have done. They are responsible. How, then, can they know what they should do, what is right and what is wrong?
Clearly this is not a question for simpletons or those endlessly lost in distractions. I cannot ask my cat this question and expect him to hesitate next time he encounters a mouse. Intelligence is required, maturity, reflection. One must look and see what one has thought, said and done. One must observe consequences, not only in one’s own life, but in the lives of others, living and dead. Responsibility must be exercised. Eventually, if one reaches out with the heart–this is what is called “compassion”–one understands, one feels, that the suffering and joy of others is in fact no different than one’s own. One sees that thoughts, words, and actions are things that, once produced, live beyond you, but almost inevitably revisit you. This is karma–the conditioning of one’s mind, body and life by the actions one has taken.
There is nothing mysterious or magical about this. You think, you speak, you act. These behaviors affect the world. They affect others. They affect you. That influence in turn conditions your next thought, word or action. Here we have, quite clearly, inescapably, cause and effect. If you regularly ring the bell while eating, you will salivate at the bell, even in the absence of food. You will have formed and shaped your own mind, thereby limiting or expanding your experience and possibilities.
What is the best way to live? Which actions give rise to the greatest well being for the greatest number of beings? (Note: this argument, as you can see if you’ve read the transcript, is quite close to Harris’, who has almost certainly been influenced by Buddhist thinking on this subject.) A Stalin or Mao will never ask this question, or, if they do, will never reference anything beyond their immediate, self-absorbed concerns. For more than intelligence is required. Sensitivity, too, is paramount–hence the innumerable Buddhist trainings that are meant to open the heart to friendliness, sympathetic joy, and the suffering of others. Only when these modalities are sufficiently mature can karma, in its broadest sense, mean anything to a person, thereby affecting the choices they make.
Ultimately, the Buddhist path converges on a total transformation of the human heart and mind. It is transpersonal, transcendent, yet at the same time immanent, for the awakened one never loses sight of the fact that he or she is still in the world, related to other beings. From an ethical standpoint, the selfless mind, the mind that has realized bodhi or anatta and undergone permanent transformation as a result, is the true source and ground of ethics. Ethics converge on self-transcendence. For where there is self, there is other, there is separation and division and conflict. Ethics begin with an orientation toward non-duality or egolessness; they are consummated and completed in the permanent realization of that state.
It should by now be obvious that Buddhist ethics differ radically from William Lane Craig’s definition of ethics. In Craig’s view, morality is really just another word for obedience–if we obey God’s commands, we are judged ethical; if we do not, we are unethical. It’s that simple. In addition to the problems elaborated in the first part of this essay, it should be noted that ethics in Craig’s scenario are quite malleable. If God says it is good to slaughter the heathens–and in some passages in the Old Testament he does–then murder is a virtue. If he says “Love thy neighbor as thyself” then self-sacrifice and generosity are judged moral actions. Morality is thus held hostage to the changing whims of a god through time. The Spaniards were not in a position to criticize human sacrifice by the Aztecs on the basis of scripture.
I finish with one last quote from my “Ten Questions” essay:
But what if God tells a person to love their neighbor, to give to the poor, and to turn the other cheek? And what if he or she does it? Certainly they will be considered moral, perhaps even saintly. And that is all well and good; it would be wonderful if more people followed such advice. But I wonder: does such a person understand the purpose of ethics any better than, say, a puppy understands why its master wants it to sit, fetch or play dead? I think not. Ultimately, “doing God’s will” is a substitute for thinking and comprehension; it is simple obedience. The person of faith may enthusiastically fulfill the commandments or do so grudgingly. Either way, they will be fulfilled, but not because the person comprehends the purpose of ethical behavior.
True ethics, I posit, are not simply a matter of doing good. More importantly, ethics must concern being good. This is a totally different propostion, one that requires much more than simple obedience. It requires intelligence, consideration, awareness and the long view. Craig’s position cannot offer this. The Buddha’s can.