Dawkins and Jainism January 22, 2007

Dawkins and Jainism

Radio host Terrence McNally recently interviewed Richard Dawkins. The transcript can be found here. Most of it is a rehashing of words Dawkins has said many times before, but this particular response bugged me:

TM: In other words, if [a religion was] just a philosophical belief that had no impact on the world, fine.

RD: Exactly. I don’t think you’ll find many people criticizing any gentle religion, like Jainism.

Sam Harris echoed that thought in The End of Faith.

Do these men actually know the details of Jainism? I do. I was raised with the faith.

I assume they’re referring to the fact that Jainism hinges on the belief and practice of non-violence. And it is true that, as a result, you probably won’t see Jains blowing up buildings anytime soon.

However, for all the diatribes Harris/Dawkins leash upon religious beliefs that have no basis in reality, they seem to ignore the beliefs of Jainism entirely.

I criticize certain aspects of Jainism in the book, but let me mention a few of the illogical beliefs now:

  • Jains believe in a never-ending, cyclical time cycle, with phases of “rising” and “falling” happiness. Each phase lasts several thousands of years.
  • Jains believe that they can accumulate and shed karma and this impacts our future lives (reincarnation).
  • Jains do not believe in Evolution (PDF).

For all the insults Harris/Dawkins bestow on religions that have similar beliefs, they are too kind to Jainism.

Again, these beliefs are not going to hurt anyone and I’ve never heard of Jains pushing their beliefs onto anyone else. But I can’t imagine why Harris/Dawkins fail to criticize these beliefs.

Unless they’re simply unaware of them.

[tags]Terrence McNally, Richard Dawkins, atheist, atheism, Indian-American, Desi, Jainism, Sam Harris, The End of Faith, karma, reincarnation, Evolution[/tags]

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  • Diablo_haiti

    Wow Hemant, all I can say it that I think you have erred tremendously in this article. I will provide my view and I hope I do not disrespect or offend anyone. I only mean to do so in a respectful friendly manner.

    I am a Jain but I am a Scientist and fully acknowledge the fact of evolution and the scientific process. In modern Jainism you will find that notions of evolution are rarely if ever discussed or touched on and indeed in the very document you provide there is no strong opposition to evolution that is taken. Instead the position is really more of indifference or lack of emphasis. It is RADICALLY different than the fundamentalist Christian stance that demands evolution be false and the age of the earth be 10,000 or so years old. Saying Jainism doesn’t agree with Darwinian evolution is not as correct as saying it is really indifferent to it. The only principles that Jains (certain Jains) follow is the notion of the never ending cycle which you mention. Indeed even Stephan Hawking in his writing remarked on the possibility of a universe with no beginning.

    In regards to karma and reincarnation there is no doubt that this belief is strongly held. Personally I don’t give too much weight to it one way or another and instead choose to focus on Jainism as a philosophy and taking the teachings of Mahavir about learning how to best improve myself and live life. Regardless this and many more mystical components of the religion are magnitudes less harmful then the beliefs of other religions such as those of Islam and thus criticism of them should be markedley less. Yes they are typically mystical and without Scientific merit but at least they do not negatively impact society. Moreover I think young Jains (especially in my temple at least) are growing up with the ability to understand that such principles are more metaphysical and thus not as prudent in the immediacy of their lives.

    Of course I am biased but Jainism is really the highest religion (or philosophy). A religion whose core tenet is Non-violence no matter what (even if someone insults Mahavir or damages your temple, you do not respond, you do not go on holy wars or kill people to defend your religion). This is a great and pure example of a religion that has mostly beneficial effects and little negative effects.

    The same arguments apply to karmic theory being a non-harmful belief. If you look at the totality of Jainism it really drives the individual and society to respect others, never harm others and operate in the noblest possible manner.

    When Dawkins discusses about how morality should never come from the bible or christianity he is absolutely right. But is Jainism a good template of morality? Absolutely it is.

  • Diablo_haiti

    I wanted to add 1 point. I find the notion of such a prominent declared atheist quite confusing when you are ultimately coming from a religion that is AS ATHEISTIC as a religion could possibly be.

    Its almost like saying I used to be a Tic Tac addict but now I have broken my addiction! I can talk about my struggles and do a blog about how I transformed from being an addict to not being an addict anymore and hold talk and conferences about my harrowing experience.

    I don’t mean to say this as an insult but just to express my profound curiosity of your position.


  • Diablo_haiti — Upon rereading the linked document, I think my main problem was that Jains don’t openly admit evolution is correct. The document says Jains “cannot ascertain” it. Yes we can. It’s solid science, end of story. You know that, too. To not admit that is as (almost as) irresponsible as saying it’s wrong.

    Also, I do have problems with any Jain who believes in reincarnation or the concept of karma actually existing. Those are both ridiculous notions, not based in reality. Is it harmful? Certainly not in the same way other religions’ dogmas are. But it’s mythology accepted as fact in the Jain community. That’s why I cannot call myself a Jain and I encourage others not to, either.

    I still follow certain Jain values (vegetarianism, for one) but those ethics transcend life cycles and thirthankars and religions. Why not just drop the silly stories and follow the good teachings? We don’t need Jainism to follow them.

    Anyway, I know you didn’t ask for that sort of response 🙂 But I don’t like it when people give credit to Jainism as a good philosophy and simply ignore the fact that it also teaches patently absurd beliefs that have no place in our society. I think Jainism teaches wonderful ethics, but that doesn’t mean people should adopt all the baggage that comes with it.

    While Jains may be technically atheists, most Jains I know will admit to believing in a god. Furthermore, Jains still believe in supernatural deities and superstitious nonsense. To me, that’s the same thing.

    I appreciate your comment!

    — Hemant

  • Curious

    Hey Hemant,

    I’m an atheist and former Jain myself.

    “give credit to Jainism as a good philosophy and simply ignore the fact that it also teaches patently absurd beliefs that have no place in our society”

    What Dawkins, Harris, and others do is to display that religion can have very real effects. One promoting violence can (and will in some cases) lead to it. That is all.

    It seems you take issue with not calling out Jainism at every chance. I find this interesting, because you yourself have trouble finding things to call it out for, specifically speaking.

    The problem is that if you look at Jainism scientifically, or analytically, they do not denounce evolution and they do not really believe in a God. If someone in Jainisim is praying to God for help, they are simply doing it wrong. Jains themselves aspire to be “godly” and consider those who have done so to be teachers. Demigods etc don’t really seem to play a significant role and are often misunderstood because they are often comprehended as “gods” as described in other religions/mythology.

    So, if you’re going to reply, I’d ask that you spell out the blatant absurdities that bother you so much about fundamental Jain philosophy.

    A few last things…

    Jains do not claim to know about evolutionary science – the texts are rather old – however it’s quite clear to most that Jains believe in evolution and do not believe in creation (they believe the world has always been here, in some way or another – which is in line with science.)

    So your only other issue (stated so far) was reincarnation. As an atheist I cannot accept this paradigm, however it is a religion – so of course we (as atheists) must reject it. But on the scale of all theistic philosophy it’s just not what we as atheists find offensive though, as it doesn’t carry many implications other than being nice to everyone (a principle of natural human nature, shared by atheists.)

  • @Curious

    So, if you’re going to reply, I’d ask that you spell out the blatant absurdities that bother you so much about fundamental Jain philosophy.

    Where do I start…? Belief in heaven/hell? Karma? Reincarnation? knowledge of Thirthankars’ lives? Belief in Nirvana/moksha?

    Like I said, Jainism isn’t as bad as other faiths, but it has its fair share of false beliefs.

  • Curious

    Thanks for the response. I agree, those are all examples of false beliefs in Jainism. However, I don’t believe they are offensive (or as offensive) as the some religious beliefs can be.

    I think that is quite clearly Dawkins & Harris’ point. They don’t endorse any religion. They just pointed out the pervasive power of belief. More specifically, how one belief can result in violence while another can yield the exact opposite. In other words, they are indicating that it’s not just inherrent human nature to be bad – these religios doctrines have a powerful effect on our behavior and reasoning. That is their point.

    Your article reads like a refutation of this point, or at least a misunderstanding of this point. They never endorse Jainism or indicate a lack of knowledge on the subject. More importantly, they never say there is NOTHING illogical in Jainism (or any other religion.) They don’t even imply that.

    “For all the insults Harris/Dawkins bestow on religions that have similar beliefs, they are too kind to Jainism.”

    No they aren’t too kind. They never excuse it as an acceptable religion. That’s never their point when they bring it up, and saying it is is unrepresentative of what they are talking about.

    Why would they hurl “insults”? They carefully save those for the immoral beliefs brought to us by religion: Advocating the death penalty for apostasy, acceptance of human sacrifice, endorsement of slavery/stoning/killing, the commitment of those who don’t accept gods divinity to hell etc. They usually don’t say “hey, how about those silly hats jews wear?!” or “how about that silly belief in karma!” because its implicit in their stance and really does not need “insulting”.

    This is just my lengthy opinion, and I didn’t mean it as a debate or argument. Infact, we agree on most things as I am a fellow atheist. I have a lot of respect for the fact that you run this blog.

  • I have recently been looking into Jainism and I have to say that while I agree the idea of individual reincarnation is proposterous, I do not find the idea of karma preposterous — only the metaphors used to help one understand “karma.” Since Jainism is so ancient, they may have created concepts to embody beliefs that were at that time unexplainable by science.

    I think that if you interpret karma more loosely, the concept of karma can be valid. Also, if you think of karma as a collective phenomena rather than an individual one, its is a good way to create an understanding of how all things come back to us.

    We have been pouring pesticides on our lawns for decades to kill insects we found pesky. “Bad karma.” The pesticide runoff is impacting water quality, fish, etcetera. Also, it is now believed that a particular pesticide is responsible for the deaths of the honey bees, without which we lose a key pollinator.

    Global warming is another example of what could be called “karma.” Our harmful behavior toward other creatures, gluttonous and wanton use of resources far beyond what we truly need, and overpopulation are coming back at us, by destroying the atmosphere on which we depend for life.

    These can be seen as purely scientific phenomena, entirely explicable physically. And they are. But they can also be seen in their moral or ethical dimension as karma. In this sense, I see these Jain beliefs, interpreted from a more modern viewpoint, as compatible with science.

    You might rightly ask: Why have ANY religion? You don’t need to adopt an external system of proscribed beliefs to understand these realities. True. But an ethical system is in some ways a “shortcut” or provides convenient metaphors for moral principles.

  • advocate

    Guys, hate to pop your bubble but Jainism has its own downfall just like all religions-
    messed up geologic sense, 7 heaven and 7 hells (yes the non violent Jains have 7 hells of increasing pain), made up dietary rules (like wont eat potato because it kills germ life forms but milk and yogurt are heavily used), priests hate everyone who is not Jain at every preaching, sex ratio is 6 girls born to every 10 boys, others are aborted (does not seem to bother their non violent selves either), karma is a great way to oppress lower castes and feel good (it is just their karma that has birth them in misfortune not my oppression), Jains control 20% Indian business despite being .1% of population and make “good” business decisions right and left like slave wages, pollution of environment, stealing resources by destructive means, making corrupt political alliances etc. Jains have as much claim to peace and good philosophy of life(OR NOT) as any other religion.

  • Stefani

    I’m not a jain and i am not defending jainism, but I am not sure how you can be so sure that the metaphor of karma (yes, i know jains believe it is a physical substance which sticks to you, and that is pretty preposterous) is not true.

    I think that karma can be observed. It is really just the principle of your deeds coming back to you. This principle may not hold strictly true on a personal level — you and I know unethical people who have prospered greatly and suffered few consequences — but collectively, I believe we can see the basic concept of karma affirmed. Look at how we live, without regard for the long term consequences of our actions. We see what this is doing to the environment on which we depend. When we failt to invest in education, we get young people who can’t get jobs –> become desperate –> turn to crime. This cycle plays out not with flawless accuracy on an individual level, but on a societal level it does. And, more often than not, we can see “karma” (or use whatever word you want) play out on an individual level. More often than not, as my grandmother would say, “the chickens come home to roost.” There are consequences to behaving carelessly or exploitatively.

  • Asdf

    Hi hemaint,
     make a distinction between jains you know and jainism as a philosphy. You make several mistakes about your ideas of jainism as a philosphy. Let me give a few examples.
    –  jainism believes in caste system. (wrong, if anything socially it was a movement against the prevalent hindu caste system.)
    –  jainism doesnt believe in evolution. (wrong, the concept of time in jainism is infinite, it doesnt really have much to say about evolution. Jainism is quite compatible with modern ideas of evolution.)
    – phases of rising happiness and falling happiness is not true according to you.
      (status of this proposition unknown, I personally think it’s a brilliant hypothesis. If there was a way to measure sum total of all living beings on earth and plot it against time, we could have an answer for certain. However, you can do a computer simulation and i can see a property called happiness varying rythmically over time. )

    anyways, you really need to study more, read more and contemplate more before calling  some jainism theories as “false” because that is not the way of science as well. 


  • Diablo_haiti

    It has been a year since my last comment but I happened upon this page and felt the need to reply.

    Firstly as I mentioned I am not in disagreement about evolution or the scientific method but I feel the problem with your analysis is you are taking 1 small relatively non-important stance (indifference to evolution that some Jains may have) and blowing it far out of proportion. Jains are very scientific and logic oriented people. They will in general not decry or criticize evolution or science and most will openly acknowledge it. Jainism simply has no firm stance on the matter unlike Islam, Christianity or practically any theistic religion. Additionally to say not admitting evolution as fact is as bad as saying its wrong is a laughable point. The latter is clearly much more severe in terms of its infraction upon the intellectual analysis of reality.

    You remark about letting go of baggage about reincarnation and karma and I do appreciate this point. But to not believe in these aspects and still follow the principles of Jainism does not make you a non-Jain in my view. The most important aspect of the Jain practice is not thinking about the next life or past lives or about your soul/karma, it is simply being a good person and not harming other people or living things (or as little as possible in the case of microorganisms and plants). The talk of karma is merely a mythological way enforcing the ultimate tenet of non-violence. An intelligent follower of the religion can easily disregard this aspect of it, still follow Jainism like a philosophy and visit the Jain temple/partake in Jain activities.

    You don’t care to pray to Tirthankara and thats fine but doing so is not illogical even from an atheistic perspective.   Tirthankaras like Mahavir are no more than inspirational people who we strive to be like. When we bow down to them its no different then bowing doing to our parents or a master sensei in a dojo after martial arts training.  Furthermore, Tirthankaras are deistic entities. They do not influence our world, they don’t grant us wishes, they don’t forgive us, they don’t bring about miracles when we cry out for them. They are simply role-models we aspire to be like. When you pray to them you are really reinforcing your desire to have the strength to emulate them and their profound examples of non-violence. 

    As for the Jains you know that believe in ‘god’, you can inform them that they have no idea of what their religion even is. There is no theistic, creationist or intervening  ‘god’ in Jainism. You can perhaps pluck out what might be considered ‘gods’ in the Jain mythology, but that is a far cry from the interventional judeo-christian god. Their belief in such a singular god has nothing to do with Jainism and simply demonstrates their lack of understanding of the religion rather than any point against Jainism as a religion. Thus, such an argument is baseless and irrelevant save to say it would be apt to educate these people further about their religion and the incongruency between such beliefs and the Jain religion.

    Through my writing on your blog I simply cannot distance myself from the truth of my tic-tac analogy because thats what this entire blog, posts and your speaking out as an Atheist amounts to. I’m glad you gave up the tic-tac addiction… but was there any big paradigm shift or accomplishment made to begin with? While you decline to walk anywhere near candy stands for fear of conjuring up horrors of your old addiction to the minty white abominations, other individuals (breaking faith with religions of much more substantial violations of the intellectual pursuit of reality and morality) are getting over nicotine, alcohol, cocaine and heroin dependence. Please keep this analogy in mind when doing any further writings or when thinking about yourself and the stance you have taken.


  • Vikas Shiva

    I’m not really sure if I’m religious right now. My parents are Hindu but i’m not sure I like Hinduism (though I do SORT of like Advaita Vedanta). I looked at Buddhism and Jainism and I like both of them quite a bit more. The only concern was your first point on evolution. However, from reading your pdf, I think you straight up misinterpret the guy’s answer. He quite clearly says the universe is constantly evolving, but we cannot have proof of any natural phenomena because everything is an illusion (which is quite possibly true given the holographic principle).

  • Vikas Shiva

    As for the other two points, just trusting in our 5 senses is arbitrary as it is so my philosophy is just believe what you want since we all have a tiny chance of getting it right.

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