Monthly Archives: January 2016

The MWS Podcast 88: Melanie Joy on Carnism

This week’s guest is the social psychologist and social activist Dr. Melanie Joy. Melanie is perhaps most well known for coining the term Carnism, which she popularized in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows. She’s the founder and president of Beyond Carnism, a charitable organisation which she founded in 2010 and Carnism will be the topic of our discussion today.

MWS Podcast 88: Melanie Joy as audio only:
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Buddhism and Christianity

I have now produced two more short introductory videos: ‘The Middle Way and Buddhism’ and ‘The Middle Way and Christianity’. This has also led me to think about the rather different approaches I took to each religion, and to want to write up here some explanation of that difference. Before I explore the differences, though, it’s probably better if you see the videos. I will embed them here. (Also please note that if you are reading this without any prior exploration of Middle Way Philosophy, it would also be better to view the general introduction first before these).

One thing you will readily notice about the two videos is that in relation to Buddhism I emphasise the distinction between the Middle Way and Buddhism, whilst in Christianity I emphasise the relationship between the Middle Way and Christianity. This is only intended to challenge what I perceive to be the overwhelmingly common assumptions in each case: that Buddhism somehow owns the Middle Way (even that the Middle Way Philosophy is ‘really Buddhism’) on the one hand, and that Christianity has nothing to do with the Middle Way on the other. Of course, it would be equally possible to emphasise the relationship between Buddhism and the Middle Way, or the ways that the dominant interpretation of Christianity is antipathetic to the Middle Way: but treatments of both are common enough.

Of course, the cases made for both are equally dependent on a wider argument I want to make about tradition.  Traditions do not have essences (or if they do, we have no way of determining them), any more than people do. (For more about tradition please see this video.) If we expect to be able to take the positive, integrable aspects of ourselves and choose to dwell on those and develop them rather than the negative, absolutizing parts of ourselves, we should extend the same courtesy both to others and to other traditions, rather than defining them absolutely in terms of things we reject. Some individuals can be psychopathic, utterly repressing all sympathy for anything other than their dominant egoistic goals, and larger groups or traditions can also sometimes exhibit such psychopathic features (think of Daesh). But we should be extremely cautious about attaching any such labels to an extremely diverse, millennia-long tradition. These traditions are part of people’s identities and need to be acknowledged and worked with, though of course they will contain both helpful and unhelpful elements.Buddhist_statue_with_hidden_cross_on_back Chris73 CCSA3-0

I think it is equally important, whatever tradition one may be working with, to acknowledge the Middle Way as something separate, that stands apart from tradition, and indeed as something more important than tradition. That is not a rejection of tradition, but it is a way of avoiding being confined by it. Any Buddhists or Christians who can take this attitude are very welcome in the Middle Way Society, and one of the society’s founding values is that universality.

On the other hand, approaching both Buddhism and Christianity in terms of the Middle Way is not a vague universalism either. The aim is to be quite precise about what the Middle Way is (even though our understanding of it is of course always developing) and to use the Middle Way as a tool for resolving conflicts between traditions. Religions are not essentially all one: what is or can be one is the recognisable features of good judgement in relation to them. By agreeing about how we will judge our different traditions and situations, we can at the same time acknowledge a great diversity of specific religious symbol and practice, and yet co-operate in the wider process of understanding and practising the Middle Way. Then diversity becomes a strength, not a weakness, providing a variety of possible models for different situations. It also becomes a key way of resolving conflict. If we were to all admit that we do not have final access to God or any other absolute, and train ourselves in relying on experience, what grounds of conflict would remain? It is absolutes that collide in conflict, not experiences.

For anyone interested in more detail about the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity, here is a paper I wrote in 2008 called Should Western Buddhists be Christians? Western Buddhists were the target audience for this paper, though it might also possibly be of interest to Christians.

At present I am not intending to produce further videos for other religions. Buddhism and Christianity are both religions that I have direct experience of, but in other cases (such as Islam) my knowledge is largely academic, and it would be much better to leave it to others with more direct experience to explore their meaning in relation to the Middle Way. You can already find such material on this site about the Jewish Middle Way, written by Susan Averbach.


Picture: Buddha with hidden cross on the back: Chris 73/ Wikimedia CCSA 4.0

Jung’s Red Book 3: The Tree of Life

He sees the tree of life, whose roots reach into Hell and whose top touches Heaven. He also no longer knows differences: who is right? What is holy? What is genuine? What is good? What is correct? He knows only one difference: the difference between above and below. For he sees that the tree of life grows from below to above, and that it has its crown at the top, clearly differentiated from the roots. To him this is unquestionable. Hence he knows the way to salvation.

To unlearn all distinctions save that concerning direction is part of your salvation. Hence you free yourself of the old curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Because you separated good from evil according to your best appraisal and aspired only to the good and denied the evil that you committed nevertheless and failed to accept, your roots no longer suckled the dark nourishment of the depths and your tree became sick and withered.  (p.359-360)

Here Jung gives what for me is a brilliant summary of the basis of Middle Way ethics. A frequent theme of the Red Book is that of recognising the depths and integrating what we take to be evil. In this sense we go ‘beyond good and evil’ (to use the phrase also used by Nietzsche in his book of that name). To go beyond good and evil sounds to many like relativism or nihilism, leaving us adrift without any justifiable values. But what is required instead is a recasting of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that takes into account our degree of ignorance, recognising that much of what we reject as ‘evil’ is bound interdependently with what we accept as ‘good’. Instead of rejecting good and evil altogether, we need to understand a more genuine or integrated form of ‘good’ as lying beyond our current understanding, and ‘evil’ only as that which prevents or disrupts integration.Jung Tree of Life Xabier CCBYSA 4-0

If we focus only on the uncertainty in our current understanding of good and evil, and take that uncertainty to be a negative thing, we will miss the positive implications that Jung brings out in his image of the Tree of Life. The crown of the tree, he tells us, is clearly differentiable from the roots. This would be the case only in terms of experience, not conceptual analysis, because the difference between the crown and the roots is incremental. Nevertheless integrative progress is part of our experience. There may be some adults who have got irredeemably stuck in one set of rigid beliefs and thus stopped growing, but this can hardly ever be the case for children: if we compare ourselves as toddlers and as adults, we have all made some sort of progress, addressing conditions better than we did then. The crown is thus differentiable from the roots, even though there is no absolute point of change in between.

It is also telling that Jung writes “To unlearn all distinctions save that concerning direction.” The new good is a direction, not an absolute, because we do not have full understanding of it and cannot pin it down just by intellectual analysis. Even God  as encountered in our experience (as discussed in the previous blog) is a symbol for a direction: the direction of integration in which we only get better, not ultimately good. That also implies that we cannot deduce that direction from any account of an ultimate goal, such as the Buddhist Nirvana. There can be no final goal, for such a goal would be irrelevant to us. As Jung writes in another place:

Not that I know anything about what my distant goal might be. I see blue horizons before me: they suffice as a goal. (p. 276-7)

The roots of the Tree of Life are nourished by every aspect of our organic experience, whether by ‘good’ or ‘evil’ as normally understood. This point is also put very graphically later in the text, where Jung shows his utter disgust with the devil at the same time as a reluctant recognition that the devil is necessary. He describes the devil as having a ‘golden seed’.

He emerged from the lump of manure in which the Gods had secured their eggs. I would like to kick the garbage away from me, if the golden seed were not in the vile heart of the misshapen form. (p.424)

This passage tells us something about how difficult it is in practice to face up to the integration of the Shadow. Think of everything you most loathe: paedophiles, Daesh, Donald Trump. Then try to get your head around the way that they have gained control of things that are necessary for you. To start with, your representations of such figures are yours – take responsibility for them. It’s your inner Donald Trump that you hate, not the one out there. The energy that you’re putting into hating your inner Donald Trump is your energy: don’t let him steal it from you. You need to reclaim it from Donald Trump and put it to better use.

But if we are to integrate ‘evil’ without falling into relativism, there also still needs to be a genuine evil that we recognise. Such evil consists in whatever stops the Tree of Life from growing, whatever interferes with the integrative process. That’s where I would draw conclusions that go beyond Jung, but to me seem to be implied by Jung’s insights. That is that what blocks the integrative process is absolutisation. Absolutisation is found in our rigid beliefs, whether positive or negative, which prevents us from responding to new experience and benefitting from it. A given belief is only a part of us, so no person is wholly evil, nor is any tradition or organisation. However, metaphysical beliefs poison the Tree of Life.

This new account of evil is not wholly distinct from the old evil. I think it can be shown how existing common conceptions of evil show the features of absolutisation, and I have explored this in a previous blog as well as in my book ‘Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief’ (section 3.n). Evil is associated with power, despotism, egoism, greed, cruelty, obsession, manipulativeness, defensiveness, rigidity, impatience, pride, short-termism, literalism, despair, emotional impoverishment, and false emotion. Some of these qualities are found in Jung’s experience of evil as found in the Red Book, such as Jung’s encounter with the mocking and sardonic ‘Red One’. All of these kinds of qualities can also be associated with narrow over-dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain when we make judgements.

So it’s not that we have been wrong in our instincts about what sorts of qualities are evil – the problem is only in how we apply those instincts. We have assumed evil to be something external to us, consisting in whole people, objects or institutions, when instead it is to be found in the beliefs that poison the Tree of Life. We need to learn to separate the beliefs from the people: to stop projecting the Shadow onto others, or onto external supernatural forces, and recognise it as an archetype in ourselves.

Another implication of the image of the Tree of Life is that its growth will happen regardless (as a result of life) if it is not interfered with. As long as the roots can get their nutriment without hindrance, we do not have to make the tree grow towards good. However, preventing the hindrance to the roots may take much more deliberate action. If someone were to try to pour poison on the roots we would have to actively stop them. That’s why I think we can’t take the process of integration for granted, but rather need to be on the alert and using our critical faculties to detect and avoid absolutisations. That’s why the practice of the Middle Way, the avoidance of absolutisations on both sides, is not just a matter of innocent effort. It also takes a degree of educated cunning. We cannot just tell those who want to absolutise that they are entitled to their opinion and leave it at that, but whenever we can do so fruitfully we need to contest, not them, but their opinion. Even if we fail to convince others, we need to free ourselves of the shackles of intrinsically rigid ways of thinking.

You should be able to cast everything from you, otherwise you are a slave, even if you are the slave of a God. Life is free and choose its own way. It is limited enough, so do not pile up more limitation. Hence I cut away everything confining. I stood here, and there lay the riddlesome multifariousness of the world. (p.378)


Previous blogs in this series:

Jung’s Red Book 1: The Jungian Middle Way

Jung’s Red Book 2: The God of experience


Picture: from Jung’s Red Book (Xabier CCSABY 4.0)

The Tower of Babel

It’s about time we had some more visual art on the site. Norma Smith did a series of blogs on paintings during the first year of the site’s existence, but since she stopped doing those we’ve had very little art. I’m going to try to post occasional art blogs about paintings I find meaningful in relation to the Middle Way, but others are welcome to contribute likewise when they feel inspired.

The picture I’m going to look at is Bruegel’s Tower of Babel (click picture below to enlarge).

Bruegel Tower of Babel 2

The painting depicts the building of the Tower of Babel, as described in Genesis 11. The story (for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with it) is that in ancient times people all spoke one single language. They gathered in one place (Babel, i.e. Babylon), developed brick-making, and built a city. They set out to build a tower into the heavens. God saw them doing this, and complained “now they have started to do this, nothing will be beyond their reach.” So to stop them, he confused their language and dispersed them, so that they would not be able to work together in building the tower.

Bruegel imagines the tower under construction, under the command of a king, and using technology very much of his own time rather than of ancient Babylon. But for us the anachronism can be a good prompt to understand the painting symbolically, not as a depiction of a historical event. The Tower of Babel has often been interpreted as symbolic of pride: of humans trying to be like God, but not succeeding, and being punished for their hubris.

But we could go a bit further than this in interpreting the painting. It’s a depiction of a massive construction project: think of the Three Gorges Dam. The planners think they’ve got it all worked out, but fail to take into account the unknown unknowns. What are the conditions that really operate when you build that high? It points out a limitation in utilitarian-type thinking which fails to take into account the degree of human ignorance.

But the story also closely links the planning and the over-ambitious goal with language, and in doing that it can represent the close relationship between representational language and goal-orientation in the left hemisphere of the brain. The tendency of the left hemisphere, when it gets over-dominant and neglects the Middle Way, is to think its beliefs are completely accurate, and that its words correspond with reality. The ‘dispersal’ of the builders and the loss of a single language could be related to the recognition that we don’t communicate in that way: our language has no absolute meaning, but rather its meaning depends on what is experienced by each person. The linguistic assumptions in our big plans are thus dangerous and precarious ones. We think the words in our plans must correspond to things in the world, but they may not do so at all.

Bruegel represents the pomp and power of the organising king with his big plan in the bottom left-hand corner, with his servants prostrating themselves before him. But given what virtually everyone viewing the painting will know about the subsequent fate of his construction, this power seems empty. Like Donald Rumsfeld before the Iraq War, he probably throws all warnings about his tower into the waste paper basket, but things turn out rather differently from his obsessive projections.

The limitations of secularism

The group of people who first agreed to set up the Middle Way Society in 2013 came in contact with each other in the context of ‘Secular Buddhism’. But one of my personal motives in wanting to create a society distinct from Secular Buddhism was considerable dissatisfaction with that label. The best things I found in the Secular Buddhist movement seemed to me neither distinctively Buddhist nor distinctively secular; and the worst were both, somehow managing to combine two types of dogma in unholy alliance. The label was both unhelpfully ambiguous and incoherent, and instead I wanted to put forward a clear and positive account of the best of the values that I found under it, in the form of the Middle Way. Middle Way Philosophy is not Buddhist because, however much it may owe to the Buddhist tradition (which is probably less than instant pigeon-holers assume), it does not accept any authority from it and is far from culturally defined by it (see recent video). But the question of in what ways it is not secularist is an even more vexed one. What does secularism mean? For some people (such as Stephen Batchelor) it seems to mean something similar to the Middle Way, whilst for others it evokes figures like Richard Dawkins and the metaphysical certainties of scientism.Secularism march Andrew West CCSA4-0

My thinking on this point has been stimulated recently by reading this article about the efforts of the French education minister to overhaul the principle of secularism in French schools. The French principle of laicité, often translated as ‘secularism’, means the separation of church and state, so that the state is neutral and religion a matter for the individual. The French minister is concerned that the principle is being misinterpreted by Muslim students as an anti-religious attack on them and their beliefs, and that this is contributing to Muslim radicalisation amongst French young people. French secularism is innocent of contributing to such reactions, the narrative goes, because it is actually there to protect religious minorities and has just been misunderstood. However, I think there are two kinds of problems with this narrative: one concerns the meaning of ‘secularism’, and the other the idea of state neutrality.

The philosopher Charles Taylor helpfully distinguishes three senses of the term ‘secularity’. Secularity 1 is the separation of church and state, as constitutionally required in both France and the US since the eighteenth century. Secularity 2 “consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice, in people turning away from God, and no longer going to Church” (A Secular Age, p. 2). In this second sense the UK is a much more secular society than the US. Secularity 3 is a social transition “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others”.

Secularism, then, could probably be similarly divided, as the belief in the value of each of these respective types of secularity. The French minister’s laicité is Secularism 1. The promotion of atheism and anti-religious sentiment, as in the work of Richard Dawkins, is Secularism 2, which probably in most cases also encompasses Secularism 1. Secularism 3, however, seems to simply mean support for an open society where metaphysical beliefs are not imposed by the group – in that third sense, then, I’d be happy to count myself a secularist (along with most people, including most religionists, in Western society). But the dogmas that threaten open societies are by no means limited to religious ones, making ‘secularism’ possibly a misnomer for this third form. The USSR and other Communist regimes, for example, were probably not secularist in this third sense, given that there were no alternative possibilities, even though they were in the first and second.

The problem encountered by the French minister of education is the association of Secularism 1 with Secularism 2. She argues that keeping religious symbols such as the hijab out of French schools or other public places is not anti-Muslim. However, to me it doesn’t seem so surprising that people often have trouble telling the difference between Secularism 1 and Secularism 2. In practice they may look very similar.

The problem here lies in people’s assumptions about boundaries and about the possibility of neutrality. In official and legal terms the state is neutral, but the state is in practice represented by people, and people are not – indeed cannot – be neutral. Nor can the Secularism 1 of the Republic as a whole necessarily dictate the motives of the flesh-and-blood people who enforce the rules, which may well stray a long way into Secularism 2. The civil servant or other public employee is obliged to try to force neutrality onto herself by repressing her individual beliefs, when these are contrary to the role she has undertaken, and these are very likely to manifest themselves in terms of the body language, tone and whole approach of the ‘neutral’ person. Rather than unsuccessfully attempting to be neutral, the state should be much more selective in its fights and firm in maintaining values that will benefit all, and these may also be easier for the state employee to fully support: but the principle of division of church and state may interfere with that needful discrimination.

In the UK, of course, we also have plenty of problems with this type of false neutrality, associated as it is with bureaucratic managerialism, where paperwork replaces trust, and conceptual ideas of desirable goals are often substituted for informative experiences about how far they are actually occurring. But in matters of religion in the UK, the population has largely been able to persist in its steady drift away from the Church without usually needing to pretend neutrality in religious allegiances. There are up-sides to having an established church, when it is so broad and tolerant. So, broadly I think we have an incrementality about religious commitment that, although riddled with inconsistencies and political hypocrisy, has allowed Secularism 3 to emerge without as much conflict as is found either in France or the US.

So, the trouble with secularism in general could be summarised thus. The separation of Church and State (Secularism 1) is difficult to achieve in practice without anti-religious secularism (Secularism 2). Anti-religious secularism creates conflict, not just in society, but also in the individual, who may repress the religious dimension of their experience and fail to integrate the archetypes that are still powerful even in the strongest atheist. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some degree of separation between Church and State, particularly so as to try to avoid discrimination against religious minorities: but the absolute neutrality of the state is a fiction. Secularism in the sense of the open society (Secularism 3) is desirable and achievable, but hardly controversial in the West. To call oneself a secularist in the third sense when it is so strongly associated with the first and second senses doesn’t seem to be useful.

Instead, of course, I think the Middle Way is the answer here. Rather than committing itself to an unattainable neutrality, I think the state should recognise and promote the importance of Secularism 3 as the key to a harmonious and progressive multicultural society. Except that there’s really no need to call it secularism and thus antagonise the religious – it’s a Middle Way approach, and can be associated with agnosticism rather than atheism. A Middle Way approach requires us to recognise where we start, including the metaphysical beliefs that we may start with. At the same time, though, it is both more decisively anti-dogmatic and more even-handed than secularism usually is, in recognising that absolute beliefs are not desirable whether they are positive or negative. With students in school, one needs to recognise their beliefs fully and allow them to be expressed, but at the same time challenge them through a critical and psychological education that undermines both absolute belief and its denial. The riches of a student’s religious tradition at no point need to be denied, but their absolute interpretation of that tradition can be legitimately challenged at every point, and it is the state’s duty as educator to promote such challenges. What is the point of banning the hijab, when in some cases it may be merely a symbol with no practical implications, and yet leaving the underlying absolutist beliefs unchallenged?

The motives behind secularism are often ones that recognise the damaging effects of absolute belief, but secularism can too easily become an absolute belief itself, not only by denying claims that lie beyond human experience, but also by erecting absolute conceptual boundaries between church and state (or between public and private life). It seems to me that many secularists, if they were to look more closely at these issues, might well arrive at a Middle Way position. But it is important to keep the Middle Way separate from secularism so that it remains a basis on which people from any background can find common ground in experience.

Related pages:

Middle Way for Atheists

Religion resources indexed

Review of ‘The Moral Landscape’ by Sam Harris


Picture: Secularism March by Andrew West (CCSA 4.0)