I'll quote a little of the article. The title and subtitle are as follows...
KILLING THE BUDDHASam Harris notes that there are "some ideas in Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison." He notes the example of some believing the notion that Guru Rinpoche was born from a lotus.
"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.
To add in my own commentary here: he seems to take little notice of the differences between the various schools of Buddhism (which vary in their degree of these things) with the phrase "ideas in Buddhism". He also doesn't seem to appreciate the degree to which the native ignorance, culture, and beliefs in which Buddhism has sprung has sometimes integrated with the practice of Buddhism. But then again, perhaps he does. He goes on to say...
For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha's teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence. The same cannot be said of the teachings for faith-based religion. 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). The spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.
In response, I would say that as a Humanist, I too am attracted to the core of Buddhism which doesn't require irrational beliefs. But it seems to me that Harris falls into a convenient trap constructed by history and language. By that, I mean an overattention, and perhaps a misplaced application of the word "religion".
In his book, Christianity without God, Lloyd Geering points out that it wasn't until the sixteenth century that the west began to use terms like "Christianity" and "religion". He says:
"Up until the sixteenth century 'religion' was synonymous with 'devotion' and referred to the feelings of awe and wonder, which along with the attitudes of trust and love, constitute the religious life. 'Religion' was an abstract term which could not be used in the plural."The same goes for the names of religions. For instance, of 'Christianity' he says:
"This is why it is really only from the sixteenth century that people began to talk about an entity they called Christianity. Before that time people in Christendom talked about the church or about faith (by which they meant Christian faith) or about religion (by which they meant devotion), but never about something known as Christianity."And this makes perfect sense. For example, we don't make up words for things like, "those who believe that humans have two legs". It is such an obvious fact of life to us that there is no reason for us to make up a term for it. That is, until a substantial number of people start believing that we have three.
Just as there was no term for 'Christianity' among Christians, I assume there was likely no word for 'Buddhism' or 'religion' among ancient Buddhists. Reifying 'religion' and calling Buddhism a religion comes from a decidedly European post-16th-Century practice in which all things were being reified to discuss them objectively.
Of course, it's a good idea to discuss things objectively and comparatively, and for that you need terms for things. But in this process, the tradition we call Buddhism was lumped under the label "religion" apparently under the assumption that it had a parallel structure to western religions.
But when we are discussing ancient traditions and practices, we must remember that we are imposing deliniations that did not exist then. There was no separation between what was 'religion' and what was simply the facts of the world they lived in. When one considers the layering of many other concepts that followed the core of Buddhist practice over history, it becomes even more difficult.
So, it's up to us to decide what is part of a religion and what is not. More important to Sam Harris' point, it is up to us to decide which elements are part of the Buddhist religion and which are parts of various Eastern culture which are mixed into the teachings.
I picked up a small booklet called The Buddhist Path at a local Buddhist temple recently. It outlines methods of meditation, and the eightfold path. Nowhere in it did it mention karma, rebirth, or being born out of a lotus.
As the various teachings within Buddhism are studied objectively and practice of them spreads, it is up to those people where it spreads to see for themselves what they find useful and question them, as the Kalama Sutra encourages. In the end, I myself will tend to delight in philosophies and practices I find true, rational, and useful from a variety of sources, religious or not.
Some people are using the term "secular Buddhist" or "philosophic Buddhist" to denote their practice of the teachings which are divorced from certain cultural beliefs, which is fine with me if it suites them. As for myself, I might fall under the category of Buddhist by the definition of some and not by the definition of others. In either case, to be sure, I fall under the category of Humanist, naturalist, skeptic, and Freethinker. But rather than focusing first on which flag I'm going to fly, I prefer to pick up good ideas and practices where they are. If others do or don't consider me this or that - or consider x to be a religion and y not to be - well that's up to them.