Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Memetics of Religion: Fundamentalism as a Parasitic Adaptation

Recently on Google+, I posted some Bible quotes with the caption, “Jesus, on Family Values”:
“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” — Luke 14:26

“And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”— Matthew 19:29

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” — Matthew 10: 34 – 37"

One of the replies I got was:
"You can't even read these passages allegorically. How can these believers BS themselves into believing this crap?"

As I was replying, it got longer and longer, so I turned it into this essay.  While I was quoting from Christianity in my original post, I think that it applies to all religions.

I think part of the problem is that most don't believe this crap.  What we have are a bunch of different memes contending with each other for replication opportunities.

The first meme of importance is the moral meme.  The bearers of this meme are primarily focused on living a moral life according to standards that are designed to maximize well-being, treating others with kindness and charity, avoiding conflict, enjoying family time, etc.  We can shorthand this group of behaviors as “being moral”.  All of these behaviors have sound evolutionary reasons for existing, and many of the predecessors are readily observed in our fellow primates.  But the moral meme doesn’t usually exist on its own, it often combines with a doctrinal memeplex (large collection of memes) called religion.

The first branch retains much of the motivation of the ethical meme itself, and only partially adopts the religious memeplex.  These meme-bearers have vague notions of the myths and stories of their doctrine, but they haven't bothered to sit down and actually examine the doctrines that they purportedly believe in.  Being moral, from an outside observer's perspective, is what they actually care about and how they define themselves.  The problem is that even though it's apparent that their real focus is on being moral, they call that "being religious", and due to various other factors involved in the structure of the religion memeplex itself, they get "being moral" and "being religious" tied up in their heads so much that the two terms become inextricably intertwined.  For the purposes of this essay, we'll call this type of confusion the moderate meme.

Then we have the second group.  These meme-bearers aren't dedicated to “being moral”, they are actually dedicated to accepting the content of their doctrine as "truth".  That is how they define themselves.  This “truth” includes the actual moral content of the doctrine, the bits of the doctrine that correspond to a maximization of well-being, but also the assertions about how the universe functions, the petty prejudices of ages past (misogyny, racism, bigotry towards the sexually adventurous), as well as the literature content, et al.  This tendency to accept doctrine as “truth” we can shorthand as "being religious".  They also conflate "being moral" and "being religious", but for them, the prime concern is the acceptance, not the maximization of well-being.  We can call this type of confusion the fundamentalist meme.  

So we have two groups of meme-bearers, moderates and fundamentalists, both running around calling their memes by the same terms.  Worse, both the moderates and the fundamentalists consider that “being religious” and “being moral” define who they are as people, and they use both terms interchangeably and to refer to different behaviors.  But because they are using the same terms, they fool themselves into thinking that they are both working towards the same goals, and there ends up being memetic drift between the two groups.  The moderates, who are generally decent people, end up picking up on some of the doctrinal memes (the assertions about reality and petty prejudices) of the fundamentalists and feel obligated to believe in them too, because subscription to doctrine is a part of their "being religious" meme, even though it has a lower priority to them than "being moral".  You also get some fundamentalists with a certain amount of tendency towards maximizing well-being, because being moral in actuality is also part of the doctrine, even though it’s of lower priority.  Both of these crossover situations can cause cognitive dissonance when the underlying conflicts are pointed out.  As a defense against dissonance, there is often a strong reaction in the meme-bearer of either sort against processes that draw attention to the dissonance, like critical thinking procedures or investigative methodologies like scientific empiricism or historical analysis.

Scientific empiricism and historical analysis are memes too, of course, but the difference is that they are investigative memes, not religious memes.  Religious memes are about certainty, about knowing “truth”, whether it’s a moral truth or a truth about the way the universe is put together.  Investigative memes are about discovery.  Some of the products of those discoveries can be elevated to truths, and even turned into doctrines for religions (especially in the past), but the emphasis in the meme-bearer is on discovery, not truth, so as long as they can keep discovering, they don’t mind overturning yesterday’s truths, as long as the new discovery can do so via application of strict standards.  These meme-bearers define themselves as investigators, not as truth-possessors.  The source of conflict between the different classes of meme-bearers becomes obvious once one identifies the identity issues at stake.  The religious meme-bearers have their identities locked into a static “truth” position, and the investigation meme-bearers have their identities locked into a process of challenging static “truths”.

Keep in mind, this isn’t actual different tribes of people who possess only one meme or the other.  These memes are in everyone’s minds, influencing our behavior.  What does seem likely is that in any given person, certain memes are going to be more dominant in influence at any given time.  People in the real world are going to have multiple points of commitment to these memes and others with varying levels of intensity.  I’m necessarily simplifying to be illustrative.

Fundamentalist memes arise, I suspect, when investigative memes and moral memes combine and replicate.  The religions that exist in the world today seem to be a result of this type of interaction.  Investigative meme-bearers are today constantly producing models of the world which are then picked up and adopted as doctrines.  In the past when technology memes hadn’t progressed to the current level that they exist at today, it took a long time for investigative meme-bearers to produce new models.  This exerted a selection pressure that naturally favored fundamentalist memes, as the models had a seeming eternal “truth” aspect, since most meme-bearers of any type didn’t get the opportunity to observe the emergence of a new model.  Potential moderate meme-bearers would be fairly invisible in the general population, since there was no pressure to differentiate from fundamentalist meme-bearers.  So for centuries, fundamentalism was a decent survival strategy, as it could parasitize the investigative memes, and change happened slowly enough that fundamentalism, which is highly resistant to change, could adapt when necessary.

This all changed with the acceleration of technological know-how, and the gradual process of improvement and refinement that the investigative meme-bearers were always pursuing.  Even the old obsolete models were useful data, because it gave them a base to build on and improve.  As time goes by, new discoveries are made, and old discoveries that proved valid end up stronger.  So the foundations get more and more certain (although never 100%), and provide a wider and wider base to use as a launchpad for new discoveries.  The more time goes by, the more information is accumulated, the more the discovery methods improve and the faster new discoveries come in.  Unlike with biological genes, memetic evolution is Lamarckian as well as Darwinian, and enjoys an accelerated learning curve.

This is a problem for the survival of the fundamentalism meme, because it can no longer get nourishment from the relative stability of the “truths” thrown off by the investigative memes as they go about their work.  The selection pressure now favors memes that aren’t tied as strongly to doctrinal issues, since truths change so rapidly.  This is what has been allowing the moderate meme to assert its own identity, that of a religious meme focused on “being moral” in practice.

Now that we actually have moderates, things are improving, but it’s not all roses.  The problem is that the moderate meme-bearers still conflate “being religious” and “being moral”.  This keeps them believing in things that are demonstrably false, even if that belief is shallower than that of the fundamentalists.  It also leads them to make excuses for the hateful doctrinal material of the fundamentalists, which can cause dissonance on its own. 

Finally, this conflation often leads to prejudice amongst moderates against those who have untangled the semantic confusion of “being moral” and “being religious” by getting rid of the religion meme and retaining the moral meme.  This isn’t any one particular group, but a whole category of groups that generally err on the side of secular humanism.  It’s like the semantic confusion of “being religious" and "being moral" is an adaptation that the religious memes developed because the confusion does actually help the religious memes hold on longer in people's heads by inculcating the notion that without the doctrinal content of “being religious”, they would descend into immoral chaos.  The meme-bearers don't want to be immoral, and the meme fights against the realization that moral and religious can be separated.

The memetic warfare, therefore, is geared mainly at liberating the moderates from the religious memes.  There are many tactics in play at any given time.  There’s the frontal assaults on the religious doctrines themselves by the so-called “Four Horsemen,” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, as well as others that fall under the rubric of the “New Atheists”.  There’s the historians like Jennifer Hecht and Susan Jacoby, doing valuable work illustrating the long history of philosophical skepticism and doubt about doctrinal hegemony, undercutting the religious memes’ efforts to assume a universality that has never existed.  There’s the scientist educators and populizers, Carl Sagan, NeilDeGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, out there explaining the fascinating discoveries of science in a more digestible but NOT dumbed down manner, and illustrating the awesomeness of the natural world.  The legal strike forces like the FFRF, AUSCS, and Eugenie Scott and the NCSE* in the courts fighting the efforts of fundamentalists to undermine science directly. There’s the artillery division of people like Penn & Teller and the Mythbusters making skepticism awesome in the popular imagination, one explosion (or bullet catch) at a time. 

Most important of all, however, is the infantry of the common everyday atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers.  Using the more gentle approach of things like the Atheist Out Campaign, raising consciousness via similar tactics as the gay liberation movement, causing direct cognitive dissonance in the prejudiced by letting the religious meme-bearers know that not only can one be good without god(s), like the billboards and buses say, but that they already know good moral people who happen to be free of the religious memes, they’ve just been concealing their irreligion because of the intolerance.

I think we need all of these combatants in this memetic war.  Some are going to rub people the wrong way, but for others, it’ll be just what they need to hear.  It’s a war on many fronts, and requires many different strategic and tactical approaches, just as the memes we’re combating have their own multifaceted approach.

The good news is that signs seem to indicate that there is real progress being made.  Survey after survey is coming out that shows that the fastest growing “religious” group in the country (adjusted for immigration) are those marking “none” as their preference.  More and more people raised religious are moderating or leaving their faiths, and becoming more tolerant of those without religion, focusing more on just living good, moral lives.  I think that the reason we see so much more craziness from the fundamentalists who are left is that the more morally focused are leaving that kind of religion and leaving behind a precipitate of concentrated doctrinal crazy.  These people still need to be fought against on the memetic battleground, and many of those skirmishes are bloody.  But while it’s not certain, I think that a case can be made that as with the trend Steven Pinker points out about violence decreasing over time**, I think a case can be made for a similar trend with superstition and toxic religious faith.  I think generally those bearing the memes of science, critical thinking, and rationality are winning globally, and we should remember that when things look grim, while also remaining vigilant in the face of victory.

Monday, October 10, 2011

New Houston Secular Buddhist Group

For anyone in Houston reading my blog and interested in secular buddhism, I just created a networking page on Facebook as my attempt to get something going.  Check it out if you're interested:

Houston Secular Buddhists

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Four Noble Truths and the Three Marks of Existence.

So what, after all, does Buddhism actually entail?  The philosophical tenets of Buddhism can be summed up with what it calls the 4 noble truths and the three marks of existence.  What follows is my own understanding of these “truths”.

1.  Sapient beings experience dissatisfaction.
2.  Dissatisfaction arises from craving, be it things, sensations, etc.
3.  Craving ceases when one realizes that everything is impermanent.
4.  One can realize the impermanence of everything by following the Eightfold Path.

I have used the word dissatisfaction because it seems to be a more accurate translation of the actual word, dukkha, than the more commonly used "suffering."  Suffering has a connotation of pain, and while that is related to dissatisfaction, it's not precise enough.  Dissatisfaction itself is pretty obvious, I think, it's a state of not being content with what one has.  This is seen most often when one contemplates unpleasant experiences, but it also happens with pleasant ones.  It's not that pleasant experiences are an illusion or that they aren’t actually pleasant.  It’s that they contain the seeds of dissatisfaction when one forgets that they, like the unpleasant experiences, are impermanent.  The good, the bad, there is no eternal.  There's nothing actually grim about this, it's just a fact of the universe.  It's part of the reality of everything being in flux, as I mentioned in my last post.  The fact of impermanence (annica) is neutral, but we humans have a habit of forgetting it, of craving (tanha) for the eternal, of expecting things to last forever.  This is what causes our sense of dissatisfaction with the universe we live in, and causes us to seek artificial illusions of permanence in things like religion, politics, superstition, drugs, hedonism, and all kinds of other diversions.  

None of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves, what’s bad about them is the part of them that feed our self-delusion, the part that tricks us into thinking that they might last forever.  We spend so much time craving an eternity that doesn’t exist, and that keeps us from fully enjoying the pleasant experiences when they are going on and also wallowing in the fear of eternal suffering when we are in the midst of an unpleasant experience that will subside sooner or later.  

Siddhattha Gotama realized this somewhere around 2500 years ago.  “Buddha” is not a name, but a title.  It comes from the word bodhi, which is usually translated “enlightenment”, but really means awakened.  Buddha means “the awakened one”, someone with awareness, who notices and understands things.  He’s not a god, not a wizard, not any kind of supernatural entity, as later traditions portray him.  

Sid was just a guy who did the hedonistic thing and then spent years after doing the ascetic thing, pursuing spiritual fulfillment and attainment.  He finally realized that neither hedonism or asceticism were satisfactory, so he kicked back under a tree for a while until he realized that we humans sure spend a lot of time chasing after bullshit, and we don’t really need to do that.  Once he awoke to this realization, he decided he wanted to help others realize it too.  But what exactly is it that he realized?

Sid realized that we lie to ourselves constantly about the truths of reality, which is made up of the three marks of existence.  I’ve already mentioned two of the marks, impermanence and dissatisfaction.  The third is not-self (anatta).

In the Indian Vedic religion, there is a concept of an unchanging, permanent soul, called atman.  It’s kind of like a form, in the Platonic sense.  The idea is very similar, for things to exist, there needs to be an ideal in some other realm for it to be a reflection of, otherwise there would be nothing.  Sid rejected this notion due to his recognition of impermanence and of applying it to the very concept of self itself, plus the fact that no one can directly observe a form.

This isn’t actually that hard to figure out.  As with all things, we change and evolve over time.  We gain new knowledge, we forget things, we change deeply held convictions.  The me that exists today is very different from the me that existed when I was 7 years old.  The me that exists today is different than the me from yesterday in many respects, and the me that exists in 20 years will be more different still.  You can’t step in the same river twice, the ship of Theseus, grandfather’s axe, and other similar philosophical notions are related.  So there is not a permanent self, there is a continuous process of becoming the new self, which goes on to become a new self, etc, from moment to moment (this process is called punabbhava, or just bhava, often incorrectly translated as rebirth).  Now, in the Vedic religion that was dominant in Sid’s time, this was a supernatural notion related to transmigration of souls and reincarnation, and to be fair, Sid didn’t really bother dismissing it as nonsense, he just figured it was unimportant, since the same process goes on within someone’s life, and he was nothing if not focused on trying to help people live better lives.  

The reason not-self is an important concept is that the popular notion of the self is made up of 5 aggregate attributes and those are causes of craving, but I will go into those in another post.  The point is that Sid developed the eightfold path as a way to help people realize the causes of dissatisfaction, realize the impermanent nature of things, and to help them stop grasping at illusions.  

Next post, the eightfold path, and possibly the 5 aggregates.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Atheism, Naturalism, and Buddhism.


The biggest confusion that always crops up in discussion is that atheists believe there is no god.  People like to call us intellectually dishonest, because you can't disprove the existence of god.  My reply, always, is "Of course you can't disprove god."  We don't try to disprove god because that's impossible; we can and do gleefully destroy the logical fallacies and bad arguments for the existence of god, gods, or the supernatural.  We show that the specific claims about the attributes of some gods are false.  Genesis, for example: science has demonstrated that life emerged through natural processes, as did the universe itself, although we're still working out the finer details.  So for someone who believes in the Christian god because they believe the Genesis account, it can be shown to them that that's a bad reason to believe in the God of Genesis.  The same goes for pagan gods as the source of natural phenomena like lightning, rain, storms, etc. Those gods, as best we can tell, seem to have been developed in order to explain those things, and when we have a better way to explain the phenomena, their necessity drops away.  It doesn't disprove their existence, however.  Anyone can come up with all kinds of theories about why gods might exist.  Here's one:  Gods pop into existence as the result of the collective psychic potential of people believing in them.  Occultism is full of notions like that and similar, and I used to justify my own belief in the supernatural that way.  It's a nonsense proposal, because the notion that belief can cause something to manifest has no evidence for it either, even though it doesn't assume a supernatural cause for the universe.  At best, it's an argument for memetics and their influence on human culture, not for a supernatural realm, and it's still at the mere hypothesis stage, needing confirmation.  But the point is that even if one eliminates the explanatory power that the gods used to hold, that doesn't rule out their existence as a point of fact.

To rule out existence entirely, one would have to search all of time and space, which we can't do.  On the other hand, proving the existence of a deity is relatively easy, a godlike entity can show up and present evidence of its own existence any time it likes if it does in fact exist (and it can avoid Oolon Colluphid and Babel fish).  This is why when people accuse atheists of having faith that there is no god, gods, or the supernatural, I'm always careful to specify myself as an agnostic atheist, and to clarify that when it comes down to it, most atheists are.  I admit to an outside possibility that a god might quit screwing around and present itself at some point.  But until that happens or any other type of evidence is presented, I have no reason to believe in any of them, hence, I'm an atheist, I have no belief in gods.  I have no belief in the existence of other things for which there is no evidence, either, so sometimes I use the word skeptic to be more inclusive, but atheist is usually sufficient.  I come into contact with more people who care about the existence of gods specifically than the other stuff.  

There's so many labels that fit me.  Skeptic.  Atheist.  Humanist.  Agnostic.  Epicurean.  Naturalist.  Shit-stirrer (that's nothing new).  The newest one that seems to fit, Buddhist, is funny given the others, but I'll get to that in a bit.  The problem with atheism is that it's narrow, it focuses only on what I am against, it doesn't say anything about what I'm for.  That's the topic of the rest of this article.

One of my online friends made an offhand comment the other day:  "I don't believe in the supernatural, I think the natural world is super."  That pretty much nails it for me.  Some people like to disparage those who don't believe in the supernatural, calling them materialists.  I am a materialist, but I think people like to conflate that word.  There's the economic materialist who views consumption and acquisition of goods as a good thing.  Then there's the philosophical notion who views everything as being made of matter.  Too many people seem to like to apply the oft-held disdain for the economic materialist to the philosophical materialist.  It's a word game.  To avoid it, I call myself a naturalist, since that's a better fit anyway.  What does a naturalist do?  Well, I'll tell you.

I contemplate the vastness of the universe and the scales involved, from the sub-atomic quark level and how much goes on there.  I think about the vast distances between objects in our own solar system, the distances between our solar system and our nearest neighbors.  I think about the vast amount of systems in our own galaxy and how many galaxies we can see out there, let alone how many exist.  I think about the growing possibility that even the immense totality of our own universe may be a single one in an even huger multiverse with whole universes popping into existence here and there every time we indirectly observe a black hole.

I contemplate the scales of time involved for galaxies and systems and stars and planets to form, the geological time scales involved in taking us from pre-organic molecules to complicated organisms, and the fact that it took billions of years even to get to those basic molecules even before life got going.  I think about how all of the component parts of everything we see on earth were born in the hearts of exploding supernovae.  How millions of years of evolution can take a single species and turn one branch into a T-Rex, and another into a peacock.  How thanks to a massive meteor or asteroid impact in the Yucatan 65 million years ago, we ourselves and all the other mammals were able to develop from small rodent like creatures dodging T-Rex footprints into one of the dominant families of organisms on the planet.  I think about how environment determines form, such as in the way whales and other cetaceans originally evolved from a wolf like looking creature that originally lived much of its life in water, like hippos do today.

I contemplate all of this and marvel at how it all fits together in so many vast combinations, constantly in flux and impermanent.  Everything is constantly adapting and mutating fractally on different time and distance scales.  Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable, everything flows stochastically from the smallest neutrino to the largest cluster of galaxies and everything else in between.  I see all of this and I elate in the fact that I'm here to see it, along with probably countless other species throughout the multiverse.  It's unlikely that we'll get to share that experience with them any time soon due to the distances in space and time involved, but it's sheer arrogance and ego to assume that in all of that vastness we would be the only ones to be able to enjoy it.  To me, if anything is going to be covered by the notions of "holy" or "sacred", it's this contemplation of reality and all that it entails, and even using that religious language seems insufficient due to the petty and parochial concerns of so much of religion.  In the face of all of that, there's an epiphany about how very cosmically insignificant we really are, and I find that incredibly liberating.

Don't get me wrong.  Some people might get all morose about this kind of thing, but that kind of nihilistic despair just doesn't bother me at all.  There doesn't seem to be anything out there that is disapproving of our ethical decisions, or what kinds of fashion we wear, or people we associate with.  Even if there were something like a god, what are the odds it would even bother to notice us or single us out as more deserving of punishment or reward than anything else?  All of the pressures that religion likes to try to put on us are irrelevant.  We don't need to worry about the external forces, even the natural ones, because they're going to do what they do.  What really matters, when one has a full realization of our actual place in the cosmos, is how we treat ourselves and each other here on this pale blue dot.

And this brings me to my recent exploration of Buddhism.

In Jennifer Michael Hecht's book Doubt, A History, she talks about various systems that are kind of between a religion and a philosophical school as commonly understood. She calls these "graceful life philosophies."  What a GLP is focused on is a philosophical approach to how one should live one's life.  They may or may not include propositional beliefs about the world or universe, but they do seem to share the fact that whether they have them or not, they are much more focused on the process of living one's life, not accepting the propositional belief.  Hecht uses the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans as some of the western examples, and the earliest forms of Buddhism as an eastern one, along with Confucianism and Taoism, Taoism to a somewhat lesser extent.  Over time, the western ones have pretty much died off, and the eastern ones have all pretty much transitioned to full religions, with all the superstition, unfalsifiable beliefs, and authoritarian structures that that implies.

I have no use for religion.  But I like the idea of the graceful life philosophy (GLP).  I think when I went from my initial stage of atheism at an early age to paganism and occultism, what I was really looking for was a GLP.  I have some sympathies with Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism and have for a while. I'm much more Epicurean lately in comparison to my past flirtations with Cynicism and Stoicism, especially when I account for Epicureanism's history as a synonym for atheism.  Its long association with Democritus' atomism and its opposition of supernaturalism and focus on ending suffering and its conception of pleasure as the greatest good also helps.  Epicureanism is often slandered as hedonism in the materialistic sense, but the early Epicureans focused on moderation in all things, seeking to increase pleasure by increasing their understanding of the natural world and the self, and realized that by limiting the degree to which they allowed their desires to control them, they could maximize the pleasure of existence.  Which is a perfect transition to Buddhism.

How does one get back to Buddhism the graceful life philosophy, rather than what it is in so many places today, Buddhism the religion?  Owen Flanagan, author of The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, has this to say in the introduction of that book:

"Imagine Buddhism without rebirth and without a karmic system that guarantees justice ultimately will be served, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without any deities, without heaven and hell realms, without oracles, and without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas. What would be left? My answer is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about how we come to know and what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live.  This philosophical theory is worthy of attention by analytical philosophers and scientific naturalists because it is deep. Buddhism naturalized, if there is or can be such a thing, is compatible with the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution and with a committment to scientific materialism. Such a total philosophy, again if there is or could be such a thing that could be credibly called "Buddhist" after subtracting what is psychologically and sociologically understandable, but that is epistemically speaking incredible superstition and magical thinking, would be what I call "Buddhism naturalized," or something in its vicinity. Such a theory might shed light on the human predicament, on how finite material beings such as human animals fit into the larger scheme of material being. Because such a theory would speak honestly, without the mind-numbing and wishful hocus pocus that infects much Mahayana Buddhism, but possibly not so much early Theravada Buddhism, Buddhism naturalized, if there is or can be such a thing, delivers what Buddhism possibly uniquely among the world's live spiritual traditions, promised to offer: no false promises, no postive illusions, no delusions. False self-serving belief, moha, is a sin for Buddhists."

There's several different types of Buddhism in the world today. Theravada, Mahayana, Tibetan (Tantric), as well as multiple variations within those categories, like Zen.  Zen certainly does have less of the mythological accretions that the rest of Mahayana does, though Zen itself is a subset of Mahayana. Zen still does retain a smattering of notions like rebirth and karma, it just doesn't accentuate them nearly as much. 

In addition to Flanagan's book, which I am still in the beginning of, I've been listening to a lot of talks by Stephen Batchelor, and reading some of his books.  I just finished his Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, and have listened to the audiobook version of his Buddhism Without Beliefs, the longer book version of which is next in my reading queue after Flanagan.

Stephen Batchelor's approach is that he takes all of the stuff that pre-existed Buddhism like the supernatural elements and strips them out, keeping only the stuff that Gotama himself taught. Gotama did mention stuff like reincarnation, but it was part of the historical culture that Gotama existed in, and it's not actually necessary to believe in that kind of stuff for the tenets of Buddhist philosophy and practice to make sense or be useful. Basically, it, along with karma and various other things that do exist in the early Buddhist materials are analogous to the few propositional beliefs that Cynicism and Stoicism contain, they're there, but they're not the focus.  The difference between Flanagan and Batchelor is that Batchelor is a former monk of the Tibetan and Zen traditions, whereas Flanagan is a neuroscientist and philosopher.  Both, however, along with various others, seem to be calling for a form of Buddhism that more fits Hecht's terminology of the GLP, and that's what interests me in particular. The result ends up being very much a form of secular humanism with more emphasis on contemplative practice, and that's right up my alley.

This has been long enough, so I'm going to post it now.  I will followup shortly with my understanding of the philosophical tenets of Buddhism.