There's been a flurry of discussion in the blogosphere about what it means to practice spirituality and adhere to the mentality of our secular culture. Is Buddhism compatible with a secular culture? There have been a number of authors who have attempted to address this issue, from Stephen Batchelor's "Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist," to Sam Harris and his "Moral Landscape." The idea that we can extract the core values of a spiritual tradition and discard the supernatural baggage, like diamonds in the rough, has been an increasingly common approach. Not everyone agrees, however. Some authors, such as Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace, believe that many of these well-intentioned skeptics are actually re-writing history.
'A legitimate option is simply to adopt those theories and practices from various Buddhist traditions that one finds compelling and beneficial and set the others aside," writes Wallace, but "an illegitimate option is to reinvent the Buddha and his teachings based on one's own prejudices... the route followed by Stephen Batchelor and other like-minded people who are intent on reshaping the Buddha in their own images." It's the case of "what the Buddha really said," and folks on both sides are claiming to know better.
Batchelor claims that the Buddha never tought anything "particularly religious or spiritual," and that he "did not claim to have had experience that granted him priviliged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks." But as Wallace points out, there is enormous textual evidence that the Buddha did teach about rebirth and karma. The Buddha also claimed to have direct accessible knowledge of his past lives, both human and non-human. In other words, there is quite a lot of evidence that karma, rebirth and other supernatural qualities associated with Buddhism aren't merely cultural baggage, but what some scholars would call gnosis. This is direct, spiritual knowledge one attains when they do the practice themselves. It can't be given to anyone. It has to be experienced. That an abundance of strange and unusual (by modern standards) phenomenon occur and are witnessed in contemplative and altered states lends credence to these things not being so much about belief but about a kind of spiritual knowledge that awakens in oneself during the practice.
This of course, does not chime very well with our secular culture. Nor do I think we should really expect it to. We live in an age where there isn't much interest in altered states. But if we pause for a moment and consider the rise of interest in meditation, Buddhism, and contemplative states, perhaps it isn't too surprising that there is an attempt to "translate" the mystical into the rational and the secular culture. As many a cultural critic has said in the past, "we see what we are." So it's not a shock to see our secular, materialist culture only seeing in Buddhism what it wants to see.
There are a large body of Buddhist practitioners and scholars who do question the materialist paradigm, and recognize that reality could be infinitely more than our secular belief system allows us to imagine. Dr. Charles Tart, for example, was recently on Buddhist Geeks and made a case for his research into paranormal phenomena. It's certainly not popular to discuss such phenomenona or even consider it to be valid (debunking on the other hand, is a popular card):
"Essential science...has devolved into "scientism, a materialistic and arrogantly expressed philosophy of life that pretends to be the same as essential science but isn't." In this atmosphere of dogmatic scientism, says Tart, "genuine skepticism, an honest search for better truths, turns into pseudoskepticism, or debunking." It's not difficult to see how this ethos frequenly defines the approach of the new rationalists."
This rejection of the spiritual dimensions to life, while not the fault of science itself but of scientism, has created an open wound in society that unfortunately many people seek to heal with the help of lesser medicines: New Age, fundamentalism and other more radical extremes. Scientism, then, is not so much a progression of reason as much as it is the other end of religious fanaticism. Enemies often have more in common with each other than not. So the new rationalists who advocate a modern form of "scientism" are actually strengthening the numbers of fundamentalists, who are in turn helping feed the ranks of scientism. It lends some irony to Richard Dawkin's "Enemies of Reason."
A more balanced approach, perhaps somewhere in the middle, is what is needed in order to help cure the need for the two extremes. A matured sense of using our rational faculties, of knowing when science becomes scientism, and a healthy appreciation for human spiritual dimension can all work together and help cure us of our need for extremities.