Ross continues the discussion about Brooks’ “neural Buddhists” column, which Caleb Stegall has also discussed at Taki’s Magazine, and he has a very useful summary of Brooks’ argument and the problems with it:
This notion’s major premise is summed up nicely by Brooks as follows: “Particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits.” No, the Christian would say: Particular religious systems are cultural artifacts, in a sense, yes, but they’re artifacts built around specific human experiences, not universal ones. Christian theology and Christian ritual are compatible with the universal human ability to experience the sacred through prayer and meditation, but they’re “built on top” of particular encounters and revelations that tend to have little in common with the “transcending boundaries/overflowing with love” experiences that neuroscientists are equipped to measure. Indeed, in both the Old and New Testaments, the foundational encounters with God – the religious experiences that created Judaism and Christianity – are nothing like a meditative, free-floating sense of one-ness with the universe.
Ross is correct to say that religions are cultural artifacts (it is the “just cultural artifacts” claim that the materialist or psychoanalyst wants to emphasise), and that they are rooted in specific experiences, since there is no way for people to have universal experiences. To some extent, because all human experience is historical, all religions are historical, though not necessarily to the same degree, and in that light religions have to be artifacts that have arisen and developed over and in time. Religion, strictly speaking, encompasses those things that man creates to worship or communicate with the noumenal. Revelation implies that man has received something from the noumenal realm, and that it necessarily transcends the material and temporal. In this respect, neuroscience can describe how we are experiencing contact with the noumenal, but it cannot tell us very much, if anything, about what we are experiencing or the content of the message that we are receiving. On a more mundane level, neuroscience tells us very little about whether we are or should be willing to credit a textual tradition that purports to relate to us the will of God. Higher criticism is in many ways more dangerous to taking Scripture to be the Word of God than neuroscience is, and like neuroscience it claims to be scientific without necessarily having as much reason for doing so. Higher criticism tends to induce doubt in those who have approached Scripture with an utterly simplistic understanding of scriptural interpretation in the first place. If Genesis may reflect the influence of the Babylonian Captivity and echoes certain Mespotamian creation myths, then for a person trained to think about Scripture in a certain way this discovery is devastating and horrifying. For those who accept that God is the Lord of history, and understand that His revelation is being worked out in time, this is not disconcerting or even surprising, but should be expected.
I would go still farther and say that the brief nods in the column towards Buddhism and perhaps some New Age theories of “self-actualisation” are also misleading, because Buddhism, insofar as I understand its ideal expression, has no truck with the things Brooks is talking about in part of his column. Brooks says:
Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.
In this last sentence, it seems to me that he is describing some form of Vedanta, but Buddhism has no gods and repudiates attachment of every kind. Detachment is, in fact, a place where Christian ascetics, Buddhists and philosophical pessimists seem to come together in a common experience of dying to the attachments of the world, albeit for very different reasons. Nirvana is not the same as apatheia, and for Christian ascetics apatheia is acquired in the context of submission to God’s will, whereas Buddhists take for granted that attachment to this world–including the belief in a deity–is ultimately delusional and holds one back from escaping samsara. As Ross’ title very perceptively notes, what Brooks is talking about bears some resemblance to the identity of Atman and Brahman in the Upanishads. Obviously, this has nothing to do with Buddhism.
It’s questionable to me whether “an approach to spirituality that dispenses with the weirdness and scariness and miraculousness of the Judeo-Christian encounter with God, throws a scientific patina on prayer and meditation and promises that Love is all you need seems like a pretty obvious winner.” I don’t mean that it is questionable whether it is a “winner” in some ultimate, spiritual sense, since I would, like Ross, obviously argue that it isn’t. It seems to me that this sort of vague, nebulous “spirituality” will always attract a certain subset of any population, but once these people find that there is a richer, more concrete and more mystical (and sometimes more mystifying) tradition within one of the monotheistic religions, and particularly within Christianity (from which so many of these people in this country have fled without ever having really known it), they will give up on that “spiritual” path and seek something more compelling.