How Non-Christian Religions Are Dealing with Secularism

How Non-Christian Religions Are Dealing with Secularism March 17, 2023

Christianity isn’t the only religion facing problems from today’s secularist mindset.  So are Hinduism and  Buddhism.  But they are different problems.

Secularist scholars themselves tend to think in Christian terms.  They assume that all religions are alike, but they aren’t.  They measure rates of worship attendance, finding that fewer and fewer people go to church.  Well, Hinduism and Buddhism don’t really have anything like corporate worship as Christians do.  They have temples where individuals and priests can meditate and perform rituals for their deities, but attendance is not obligatory and there is no group gathering.

Western social scientists measure the percentage of people who believe in God.  Well, Eastern religions don’t have the same conception of a transcendent God as Christians (and Jews and Muslims) do.  Hinduism believes in lots of gods tied to natural forces and to specific sacred tangible images.  Of course they believe in their gods.  They can see them!

Western secularist scholars assess the prevalence of religious belief.  Doctrines are foundational for Christians.  But not so much for the average Hindu or Buddhist.  Yes, Hinduism and Buddhism have extensive intellectual and theological traditions and hold to specific teachings, such as reincarnation and the illusory nature of the world.  But ordinary adherents leave the details to their priests, monks, and holy men.  What they focus on is meditation and venerating their sacred images at home.

But secularization and, specifically, technology are posing challenges of their own, but these are not the same technological challenges we have been discussing this week that apply to Christianity.

Anthropologist Holly Walters has written an article for The Conversation entitled Robots are performing Hindu rituals – some devotees fear they’ll replace worshippers.  Hindus already believe in what she calls “divine object persons.”  That is to say, idols.

For us Christians, an “idol” means a false god.  But Hindus themselves refer to the images of their multiple deities as “idols.”  They aren’t the actual gods, they say, but are manifestations of the gods, worthy of not just veneration but service.  Observant Hindus wash their idols, bring them food, and perform rituals to the idol to placate the god and to receive favors.

These rituals, as I understand them, are thought to work ex opere operato; that is, by the work performed, apart from any faith on the part of the person who performs them.  So some Hindus, using modern technology, have automated some of these rituals.  Some even employ robots to perform them.  Walters writes,

In 2017, a technology firm in India introduced a robotic arm to perform “aarti,” a ritual in which a devotee offers an oil lamp to the deity to symbolize the removal of darkness. This particular robot was unveiled at the Ganpati festival, a yearly gathering of millions of people in which an icon of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is taken out in a procession and immersed in the Mula-Mutha river in Pune in central India.

Ever since, that robotic aarti arm has inspired several prototypes, a few of which continue to regularly perform the ritual across India today, along with a variety of other religious robots throughout East Asia and South Asia. Robotic rituals even now include an animatronic temple elephant in Kerala on India’s southern coast.

This has created controversy, but of a different kind.  Our discussion of ChatGPT sermons this week hinged on their being inferior to sermons given by actual human pastors.  This is not only because machine-generated sermons are not as substantive as those given by an actual pastor, but more deeply, because God has chosen to bestow his gifts to human beings by means of other human beings working through their office and callings.  This is the doctrine of vocation.

But Hindus worry that the robots in all of their artificial intelligence and the efficience of automation will perform the rituals more perfectly than human beings can.  Walters, who has studied the phenomenon, cites “the uneasiness Hindus and Buddhists express about ritual-performing automatons replacing people and whether those automatons actually might make better devotees.”

Some devotees believe the more perfect performance of the rituals through automation will herald a bright future.  “In other cases,” she writes, “there are concerns that the proliferation of robots might lead to greater numbers of people leaving religious practice as temples begin to rely more on automation than on practitioners to care for their deities.”  This already seems to be happening.

The innovation of animatronic idols–images programmed to move and speak–is also concerning to traditionalists, who “question the concurrent use of robotic deities to embody and personify the divine, since these icons are programmed by people and therefore reflect the religious views of their engineers.”

Some of the articles Walters links to refer to these same issues as they also affect Buddhism, whose popular expression also employs idols and rituals, some of which have been automated.  But Buddhists are also frustrated because the secularists are trying to co-opt the religion as “neuroscience.”

Curtis White has written an article for Religion Dispatches entitled Don’t Worry, Be Happy: How Amazon, Google & Neuroscience Threaten American Buddhism.

Contemporary American Buddhism has a problem, although, thankfully, unlike Christianity it has little to do with the politics of the nation state. Buddhism’s problem is with our state-within-the-state, corporate capitalism—especially high-tech companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google. The situation is basically this: Buddhism has been removed from its traditional ethical and spiritual context, grounded in the hard sciences, mainly neuroscience, and then made useful to a predatory techno-capitalist economy.

Like something out of the Book of Revelation, Buddhism looks ever more like a three-headed beast: corporate profit-seeking, secular resentment, and science delusion, an American version of what the Buddha called the Three Poisons—greed, anger, and delusion.

White inveighs against all of the secularized talk about “mindfulness” and “meditation,” especially their monetization in the apps, programs, and workshops that make up the “happiness industry.”

And how the Science Buddha has grown, thanks in large part to the support of Google’s Search Inside Yourself Institute; neuroscience’s discovery of what the psychologist Rick Hanson calls “neurodharma”; and the multitude of businesses who’ve adopted Amazon’s WorkingWell strategy to use yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to enhance the corporate brand and improve productivity.
This, he says, is a violation of Buddhism, which teaches that “the cause of suffering is delusion”:

It’s deluded to think that we’re better off without the experience of the transcendental, whether it’s offered to us through religion, the natural world, or the arts. It’s deluded to think that science can show us the neuro pathways that will take us to happiness’s door. It’s deluded to think that mindfulness is about workplace stress reduction, especially when it was the workplace that caused the stress in the first place.

What we’re left with isn’t the Buddha but a Buddha “simulacrum,” in Jean Baudrillard’s term; a thing without an origin. Buddhism becomes just another aspect of “workforce preparation” puzzled together by neuroscientists. Eventually, we forget that it ever even had its own meaning.


Photo:  “Hindu High Priest (Iyer) conducting puja at the Nataraja shrine” by Denish C. via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

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