a hoard of indignant banshees

There may be something of a large hullabaloo1 across the Buddhist internets in recent days in regards to the whole Buddhism v. science thing. The issue has to do with an opinion piece written by Athena Andreadis (whose name, by the way, is awesome) about how people love to find compatibility between science and Buddhism. Her argument, in sum, is that people who aren’t experts at something should really keep their yaps shut. Oh, and she said some stuff about Buddhism that was, shall we say, a little outside her area of expertise. That last little point was what got Barbara O’Brien’s hackles in a huff over on the eponymous Barbara’s Buddhism Blog where she thoroughly bemoaned Ms. Andreadis’ piece for its pot-and-kettle routine. I heard about all of this via NellaLou’s Enlightenment Ward. And I can only assume that this debate has spread far and wide because, at the end of the day, it is exactly the sort of thing that will turn a host of otherwise well-intentioned people into a hoard of charlatans, dilettantes, and indignant banshees. I’m going to stay well out of it.2

Well, I’m going to stay out of the “she’s right, she’s wrong” part of it. But I do want to say something about the notion that only experts should do the talking. It’s something that’s been on my mind for no less than the past six or seven years. And it’s something that Ms. Andreadis puts very well when she says

when people who are not conversant with a scientific concept use it to lend credibility to shaky or shady conclusions, they become demagogues and/or charlatans.  And before anyone trots out the elitism hobby-horse, all I can say is, just have the next person you meet on the street repair your car or give you a haircut.  The same logic applies, and no amount of skimming Wikipedia entries will make up for in-depth knowledge and critical thinking.

Right. On.

There is a well-worn thread of anti-intellectualism in this country, and it drives me nutty. People are quick to dismiss the experts in the sciences and humanities as “elitists”; but in our ordinary lives, we crave experts and elites. We want them to do their jobs and look out for us. We want, as Ms. Andreadis rightly points out, experts to fix our cars and cut our hair. We want the best and the brightest to serve on our police forces to keep us safe from crime. We send the most elite athletes in the country to compete at the Olympics. Hell, even Nascar has the most elite drivers. Sure, anyone can learn to fly a plane; but right now, at this exact moment, my wife is flying to Florida. And I hope to hell that the folks sitting up in that cockpit went to school and learned how to fly a plane. I hope to hell that they’re “experts” in their field.

So I think Ms. Andreadis is absolutely right in her critique. Reading The Tao of Physics does not make you an expert on Quantum Mechanics. But know what else? Reading The Tao of Physics does not make you an expert on Daoism.

And this is precisely where Ms. O’Brien’s critique hits hardest (even if, as NellaLou points out, it’s a little righteous-indignation-y). I find it deeply, deeply frustrating when scientists make this argument that non-specialists can’t talk about science, but then go on to talk about religion as if they are experts in both fields. The truth of the matter is that Ms. Andreadis’ quote up there could just as easily be talking about the study of religion. The study of religion is rife with its own, specialist language and rhetoric; there are multiple, competing “Grand Unified Theories”; there are contentious debates that would put the most committed of my committed Buddhist readers to sleep. And if you’re not aware of that then you really don’t know what you’re talking about. So, please. Don’t.

However, I don’t think that Ms. Andreadis is wrong. I think she’s right. Her details about Buddhism are, at the very least, misguided oversimplifications of centuries-long complex social systems and histories. But the thrust of her argument is spot on. And I think it isn’t at all unrelated to something I said in the latest installment of the DharmaRealm. Somewhere toward the end, I made a comment that is sure to come back and haunt me. But I’m going to try and elaborate on it here and, if it holds up to scrutiny, stand by it.

The gist of what I said was about the ease with which people are able to become ordained or receive “dharma transmission” or engage in Buddhist practices here in “the West”3 which, heretofore, were restricted to monastic or ministerial elites. And I wonder if this does not diminish the important role that priests or ministers or monks or nuns play within religious communities. What I said (poorly) in the podcast was meant to suggest that religious specialists are just that — specialists — people who have dedicated their lives to a profession and are experts in their field.

There is clearly a large and ever growing (and growing ever more vocal) cadre of people out there who think that they Know Everything About Everything. And their mouthpiece has become the Internet, a space where these folks will tell anyone who will listen (or makes the mistake of reading their blogs4) that they do in fact Know Everything About Everything and don’t need anything more than a bookmark to a couple of self-selected and reaffirming websites to back up their positions. And, they will argue, everyone should have access to everything so that not only anyone but everyone can become an expert.

But, if everyone is suddenly able to become an expert with little or no training, is anyone an expert?

This kind of terrifies me.

When we create a system where anyone with access to Wikipedia is allowed to consider him or herself an expert, then no one is.

I am no doubt going to get into trouble for saying this. I am no doubt going to rub the freedom-loving, elitist-hating folks out there the wrong way. And I am no doubt going to rub those of you who tacitly assume that democracy is always a good thing the wrong way. Egalitarians beware! I am going to offend you. But I am going to say it anyway: we are not all equal.5

Look. The fact of the matter is, I suck at math. I also suck at spelling. Not to mention meditation. And I’ve never changed the oil in a car, and I have no hair to get cut. Also, I’m pretty sure I’m tone deaf. So, I can effectively scratch off my list of potential careers: any kind of scientist or medical professional, English teacher, meditation instructor, auto mechanic, hair stylist, and musician. I am, however, pretty good at grappling with large, complex social systems and grand historical narratives. I seem to have an uncanny ability to easily grapple (and sometimes actually know in fullness) the thinking of social theorists and snooty continental philosophers. Aha! I’ve stumbled into the perfect career path for myself! Religious scholar!

Having experts in various fields is not a bad thing. I worry sometimes that when we reach that point in the history of this so-called “Western Buddhism” where everyone thinks they know what they’re talking about, there will be no qualified teachers to make sure that we are getting it right. Instead, there will just be a host of otherwise well-intentioned people who’ve been turned into a hoard of charlatans, dilettantes, and indignant banshees.


  1. I say “may be” because, quite frankly, I don’t have the time or wherewithal to see how far afield these opinion pieces have spread. I’ve got my own hullabaloos around here to contend with, and this piece is sure to raise the hackles of some of my readers. [ back ]
  2. It goes without saying that my “banshees” description above is not intended to describe Ms. Andreadis, Ms. O’Brien, or NellaLou, the three of whom I’ve never known to be anything less than kind, smart, and appropriately-volumed people. [ back ]
  3. “The West”? “The East”? “American”? “Western”? Egads. Let’s not get into that whole debate again, shall we? [ back ]
  4. I know, I know. I’m a guy writing on a blog. But I’m writing about something I actually know something about and have the bona fides to back that up. [ back ]
  5. Let me be perfectly clear here: in the eyes of the law, we are all equal. In terms of ability or even physicality, we are not all equal. Equality is not the issue. It is the judgement of those those differences and the relative worth we assign to different classes of people that is the problem. That old cliché of “celebrate diversity” is absolutely true. We ought to strive, as a society, to value each and everyone’s differences while at the same time working toward giving each and every one of us equal protection under the law. Got it? Good. [ back ]

4 thoughts on “a hoard of indignant banshees

  1. I consider myself pretty egalitarian, philosophically speaking, and I didn’t find your post offensive at all! As one anarchist blogger put it, “Against authority but not expertise….”

  2. I do agree with your assessment. A little knowledge is a bad thing. I don’t want chef Gordon Ramsey taking out my appendix just because he knows how to use a knife.

    On Western Buddhism I also agree. I too have studied religion and social science(Anthropology) academically. I have railed on (Siouxie and the Banshees style) at length about qualifications in the area of religion especially for people in a position of trust such as priests. As well too much of it (WB) tends to get a little mushy-have labeled it pablum at times. Maybe that should be overcooked stew wherein all kinds of things just get thrown in and mixed up. Everything from psychotherapy to yoga gets labeled Buddhist Dharma. And all manner of charlatans call themselves Buddhist abbots, Dharma teachers or Buddhist scholars after reading a couple of magazine articles.

    If one doesn’t want to do the work then don’t try to claim the credit of the knowledge.

    The anti-intellectualism and anti-institutionalism go hand in hand. Not a big fan of overdoing either but some structure in which a student can broaden their understanding is helpful if not necessary.

    There is a difference though between grounding oneself with an adequate education and specialized expertise. One shouldn’t need a degree in Computer Science to type a letter in Word.The ordinary Buddhist may not need to know the intricacies of temple ceremonies but some clue as to why one is there is definitely useful.

    What many people seem to dismiss is the possibility that their current state of knowledge is limited. No one knows everything. But to admit not knowing seems to be shameful. So it turns into a lot of confused bluster.

    Personally the moment I started to say I don’t know is the moment I started to learn something.

    I think some Zen guy said something similar one time.

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