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Letters on Buddhism with John Horgan

John Horgan is a freelance science writer, now writing for The Center for Science Writings. His blog site, is called the Scientific Curmudgeon.

I came across an article of his at called "Buddhist Retreat: Why I Gave Up On Finding My Religion" which can be read HERE (if that link doesn't work, please see this backup link).

After reading the article, I send Mr. Horgan this letter...


Mr. Horgan,

I have recently read your article 'Buddhist Retreat: Why I Gave Up On Finding My Religion' at Thank you for bringing to my attention aspects of Buddhism that some of my fellow scientifically-minded humanistic freethinkers may have objections to.

I'm sure you've already been told that your characterization of karma as a 'tally' and moral judge is incorrect and your responses to Buddhism may only be relevant to some versions of it (which I'm sure you know there are many).

But I would like to offer up my article called "A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma and Rebirth". If you'd like to read it, it can be found HERE...

Many thanks! :)

Daniel Strain


To which John Horgan replied...


You attenuate Buddhism so much that it's not even Buddhism any more. What's the point? I honestly don't get it. To get a better sense of where I'm coming from, see my website articles about Buddhism,, and


After reading these articles, I replied...


Mr. Horgan,

Thanks much for those articles, they were incredibly interesting. I especially liked “Beyond Belief”. However, as I read them, I found them to be consistent with my own article. They could have even been inspirational to it, in fact.

You say I’ve attenuated Buddhism to the point that it is no longer Buddhism. I have a few responses to this. First, I should point out that my article was specifically only about rebirth and karma; one small part of Buddhism, and not even the central part. So, if taken as an article on Buddhism as a whole, it would certainly be extremely attenuated, and this was not my intention.

My second response would be that it is not my aim to preserve Buddhism, or to proclaim Buddhism, or to be an “ideal Buddhist”. Throughout all three of your articles, I detected a general perspective on these sorts of things that I can’t identify with. That is, the tendency to view all of this as though we had to pick a ‘citizenship’ under some particular flag; as if there can only be one official membership card in our wallet at any given time, and we must be fully legitimized, homogenized, orthodox members of that group or else go stand under a different flag. Batchelor seemed to share this unfortunate ‘pigeonhole affliction’ as he debated with himself over whether or not to “announce that he was no longer a Buddhist”. His entire conundrum seemed invented and unnecessary to me.

Instead, my aim is to find good, useful, and true ideas wherever they are. Whether what I end up with counts as Buddhism, Stoicism, Humanism, atheism, or any other ‘ism’ is not my problem – other people can worry about that if they like. Nevertheless, I am going to give credit where credit is due, and not shy away from an influence or an inspiration because of guilt-by-association with other ideas I may not desire (such as superstition, dogma, and so on).

Indeed, I think Batchelor was on to something similar as he expressed wanting to be grateful for what Buddhism had done for him. But I think he goes too far in assuming that it was all just a ‘phase’ which is now over and which no longer serves its purpose. It seems to me, rather, that Buddhist perspectives and ideas are infused throughout his comments even today, in subtle ways he may not even appreciate, and this is the answer to your question of “why bother”.

The truth is that Buddhism, as well as many other ancient philosophies (I am partial to Stoicism myself), do contain many perspectives and realizations that are every bit as true and as useful in our modern materialist universe as they ever were. These were often rational people who addressed many of the same concerns as we do in our lives, and their answers have sometimes been profound.

Now, in mining these treasures from ancient philosophy, we have to have a reasonable sifting process. I would agree with Batchelor on The Tao of Physics. After scanning through various portions of the book, I decided that to read the thing in its entirety would be a waste of my time. This book is a perfect example of religious retrofitting. This is where someone takes the various poetic or blunt attempts to describe reality in primitive scriptures or other writings and points to the latest scientific theories and says, “that’s what this is referring to!” as if the words had somehow now been scientifically validated. Another example might be a Christian trying to convince us that “Let there be light” was referring to the Big Bang. This is a ridiculous practice in which the two instances are causally distinct from one another, but yet seem to match up only because of the general malleable nature of poetic language and the human brain’s ability to connect patterns. It is not much different than supposedly psychic people giving vague fortunes so they can later retrofit them to whatever events transpire.

If this is all my article on karma and rebirth were, then I would delete the entire thing and hope that it was forgotten by everyone who ever read it. However, this is not at all what I propose. Rather, as I point out in the article, we can plainly see that the approach that Gautama Siddartha takes is a naturalistic one. As described on a Tao website...

“The Tao is not something different from nature, the birds, the bees, the trees, or ourselves. The Tao is the way all that behaves...”

Throughout early Buddhism, Taoism, Stoicism, and others, we can read in the language that these folks early on were talking about nature – about the world around them. As Batchelor said, “I certainly don’t feel [supernatural and cultural elements] have much to do with what I consider to be the heart of my Buddhist or spiritual practice... spirituality is about seeing this reality right here and now, in front of us”. Buddha would agree. When they describe nature and its workings, and we find consistency to this in modern complexity theory, and it is something they reasonably could have observed in their environment, then there is a reasonable causal connection between what they are saying and what I am claiming it refers to.

When what they are saying about this is something moving, or useful, or consoling, or true, then it is something the modern naturalist can apply just the same, with the only difference being that a more detailed and precise definition of their natural subjects are available today.

But in the case of Buddhist karma and rebirth, to get what I am saying about a naturalistic interpretation, one would have to start with an accurate understanding of traditional Buddhist rebirth. You described reincarnation as a Buddhist doctrine, “The idea that individual human souls persist in some disembodied form even after the body dies...” This is false, and not just by the interpretations in my article. It is false according to mainstream orthodox Buddhism. What you describe is a Hindu doctrine. In Buddhism there is no such thing as a “soul”, and nothing of a similar nature by another name, and certainly nothing disembodied. A soul would contradict the core Buddhist concept of the no-self, but I digress.

I just have a few other thoughts to consider about your articles...

1) Batchelor said “the world appeared to me as a question”. Compare this notion to Sumi asking her questions and trying to discourage responsive answers. I think they would agree.

2) I have not come at these things through Zen, so I can’t pretend to know about Zen specifically. But I have meditated a little both on my own and with guidance at a Buddhist temple. I’ve recently posted some thoughts on meditation that might be interesting to you HERE.

It seems to me in your article “Why I Gave Up Zen”, the things that bothered you most were the references to superstition (God making music, and so on) and the overly-specific cultural idiosyncrasies (and the personalities of cell-phone-man and your instructor). You also seemed overly distracted by what I think had to be an effort on your part to seek out incongruities. For example, do you really believe that the intention behind referencing to the innocents of children is to suggest that we should all be ignorant and gullible? If so, why to Buddhist children go to school and what about the Kalama Sutra that teaches critical questioning of all claims? Isn’t it more reasonable that the comparison was brought up to suggest something else? Children do not look at the world with pre-packaged ideology. They assess it for what it is without bias. The analogy, therefore, is one that is consistent with freethought, rational skepticism, and escaping dogma. Children also crap their pants, but only someone going out of their way not to appreciate useful notions would assume that we are being taught to discard our toilet training.

Now, of course, over time, Buddhism and other belief systems have become laden with all manner of superstition and other silliness. Along the way, people have packaged these various notions together and given them solitary labels like “religion” and “Buddhism”, but the thinking person isn’t required to buy in bulk. It is the task of a good philosopher (indeed a good human being) to recognize helpful advice, useful insights, and beautiful perspectives on life, and to know when something else is nonsensical.

3) Batchelor was reluctant to say that life is good. You described him as “trapped” and then inexplicably turned around mid-paragraph and wondered if you’d have the same “courage”. Courage to be trapped? Batchelor didn’t want to say that life was good because he dismissed the very notion of goodness as “anthropocentric”. This is madness. Yes, the notion of good is anthropocentric because it is centered on human beings. It is a relative term we use. But if the very definition of “good” is subjective, that means that every sentence in which the word is used, is used in that sense. Batchelor seems to forget, as all people who dismiss the anthropocentric forget, that he is a human being. Why should human beings require that something have value “to the universe” in order to hold value in it? I’m not the universe, so why should I care what the universe “thinks”? I’m a human and I therefore value and like human-centered things. Goodness, therefore means something to humans and it is applicable and useful to them – therefore it is applicable and meaningful to me. I can say, being the anthro that I am, that life is good – and that sentence has coherent meaning and applicability.

Anyway, I know this was long-winded and, if you’ve gotten this far, I thank you for your time, and thanks again for your wonderful articles. You are a good writer and I plan to follow your work in the future! :)

Daniel Strain


Lastly, John Horgan replied...


[Daniel], The better the letter, the harder it is to reply. You've just made so many good points I don't know where to start. All I can say is, I'm trying to keep an open mind, as you'll see if you follow my blog (I just wrote about Buddhism again). If the url doesn't work, just google "Scientific Curmudgeon. Peace, John


John Horgan was speaking of THIS article on his blog.