Meaty article. The thing that always fascinates me is the way scientific materialists are accused of brushing off spiritual claims and refusing to give them the really good, open-minded investigation they deserve -- and at the same time, when Buddhists with a new view of what the Buddha taught try to show that the common understanding of what that was might just be different from what the suttas seem to show -- and invite open-minded investigation into this -- their ideas are brushed off. While calling for "more open-minded investigation" (of the speaker's ideas) we hear explanations of why open-minded investigation (of someone else's ideas) is ased on bogus assumptions? "Because those asking for it have preconceived ideas about what's being said"? Please, sir, hold up that mirror and give it another polish, and then look into it yourself, if you will.
"Batchelor's Buddha seems too modern"? Let me call attention to the word 'seems' in that sentence, it's a word about the speaker's perceptions and preconceptions.
And what if the Buddha's understanding of the world -- while couched in ancient terms -- was so clear and accurate that it is not inconsistent with modern science? What if what he was saying turns out to be 'modern'? What if it's not about 'modern' but about 'valid'? Why couldn't the Buddha have had an insight into human nature, all those years ago, that is still valid now (and will be until human nature changes -- don't hold your breath) and is, therefore, well-supported by current science? Is the reason Batchelor's Buddha "seems too modern" because he had such a crisp and accurate insight that it holds up over time -- rather than that Batchelor is bending what he taught to match modern thinking?
In discussing the relationship between karma, rebirth, and one's next life, the author says, "Not even the Buddha ever suggested that one could find such a simplistic, tit-for-tat relationship between karmic causes and effects. " Did he not? What about:
"He sees ... beings passing away and re-appearing, and he discerns how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma" (DN 11).
What's amusing is that in his next sentence, he says: "However, because the Western, analytic mind thinks in linear terms, it wants to concretize karma and rebirth as a series of events each of which is conditioned by the one adjacent to it..." I find that funny because when I read the Buddha's quote above, I don't apply anything like "linear" thinking or logic to parsing what is being said (I find it to be part of a large and complex conversation the Buddha has with us, not simple or linear in the least) and yet I have heard those who are certain the Buddha saw and experienced literal rebirth use that quote in defense of that understanding, taking it in a very simple and linear way, and interpreting it as a description of the the visibly linear effects of karma.
"But there is also good reason to feel ill-at-ease about the agenda behind this movement. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the whole movement is founded upon the prevailing materialist assumptions of Western scientism ..." Note that word 'feel' -- it's an alarm the Buddha teaches us to look at, because it is often a marker of a process of liking and disliking what we are hearing on the basis of whether it matches what we are certain of or goes against it. One can accuse Batchelor of being disengenuous when he called himself an agnostic and then came out as an atheist, or one could, perhaps, recognize that the two are separated in time, and are part of an evolution -- and that the subject of the earlier book was really the Buddha's agnosticism, and he was exploring what it would mean to follow that agnosticism himself. That he then moved on to atheism and tells us about it is not dishonest, not "putting lipstick on a pig" -- it's being honest about his life and changes. But being so busily looking for "the agenda behind this movement" might obscure the pattern.
“One of the problems we human beings have is that when we have certain beliefs, we usually won’t bother to look at any evidence that might contradict them, and that keeps our beliefs very strong, but keeps our knowledge less than it should be,” the author says (by quoting Charles Tart) meanwhile, himself blinded to the way his own beliefs about agendas may cause him to attribute motives to Batchelor's behavior that aren't a good match for the evidence of Batchelor's words and actions.
I had forgotten to talk about my "hierarchical distinctions" -- the draft I wrote was too long (when I say that, you know it's *really* long) and autobiographical. Suffice it to say I thought I was an agnostic most of my life but only discovered, after understanding what the Buddha was saying about being clear on the difference between what we can and do know, and what we only think we know, that while I had thought I was an agnostic, unsure about life-after-death, it was not until I understood that I really needed to look closely at what I, personally, can know, that I realized that I don't have any way of knowing that I get another life -- I do know that I have this one, and I know very little beyond just that. It was not until I suddenly realized that this could be my only opportunity to live, that I realized, simultaneously, the treasure that this life is, and how upsetting it was to be confronted by the possibility that when I die I might not get another chance. So it was not until I accepted the Buddha's teaching on knowledge and clarity that I had enough clarity to recognize that I had not, actually, been an agnostic all along, though I had thought I was -- I had still been clinging to an underlying conviction that rebirth would "save me" from death, that there was a logic to letting us carry forward so we could evolve (among many complex assumptions I was making).
This tells me I was a believer-in-rebirth first, a Buddhist next, and that Buddhism brought me to agnosticism. I am letting what I find the Buddha teaching in the suttas lead me, because I have faith/confidence in the accuracy of his insights, and his understanding of how to apply them, and his skill as a teacher.