The Problems with Jainism — A Friendly Atheist Perspective
I don’t write about my parent’s religion here very often, but since this weekend marks the 16th Biennial Jaina Convention, we might as well discuss Jainism.
For those who don’t know, Jainism’s major tenet is non-violence. If you know anything about Jainism, that’s what you know about it. Unfortunately, that one idea seems to negate all the other nonsense Jainism propagates.
Sam Harris wrote about the non-violence aspect of Jainism in The End of Faith (where he argued that even moderate religions were harmful):
A rise of Jain fundamentalism would endanger no one. In fact, the uncontrollable spread of Jainism throughout the world would improve our situation immensely. We would lose more of our crops to pests, perhaps (observant Jains generally will not kill anything, including insects), but we would not find ourselves surrounded by suicidal terrorists or by a civilization that widely condones their actions.
Even Richard Dawkins said as much in a 2007 interview with Terrence McNally:
TM: In other words, if it were 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.
It’s true — You rarely see criticism of Jainism. But if we’re concerned with spreading the truth instead of religious beliefs, we shouldn’t stay silent. So what’s wrong with Jainism?
A lot. I know because I grew up in the faith and my parents still practice it.
While the “non-violence” aspect is admirable, Jains still believe in plenty of bullshit:
Jains believe in a never-ending, cyclical time cycle, with phases of “rising” and “falling” happiness. Each phase lasts several thousands of years. This is all fiction, of course.
Jains believe that they can accumulate and shed karma and this impacts their future lives (reincarnation). There’s no evidence of this.
Jains support being free of materialism — not because it can be destructive in and of itself, but because it’ll allow you to more easily break free from the cycle of reincarnation. They’re doing a good thing for the wrong reason.
Jains don’t believe in a god, per se, but they do believe in supernatural beings who have broken free of the reincarnation cycle to attain Nirvana. In fact, there are 24 beings who have done that… and we know their names. We memorized their names as children. Though there’s no evidence any of them ever “attained Nirvana.”
Jainism encourages an 8-day-long (or worse), unhealthy fasting during the holy time of the year. During the fast, you may only consume water that’s been pre-boiled.
The Jain rules regarding a vegetarian diet seem like they’re made up on the spot. Eggs are bad, but milk is ok. Potatoes and other food from the ground are bad, but there are exceptions depending on the day. Alcohol is forbidden, but young Jains go to bars all the time. The rules make hypocrisy rampant… but almost unavoidable.
An article profiling a Jain “nun” by Morgan Wilson in the Houston Chronicle shows just how absurd the faith can be:
“There are plenty of difference between Hinduism and Jainism; the biggest being the gods” said . “Essentially, we don’t believe in the same things; we share eight demi-gods with Hinduism but even then we don’t worship them like a Hindu would. But we do have similar faith traits, that being giving up world materials to achieve Nirvana.”
“The karma you accumulate in this life and previous lifetimes will determine your condition for your next lifetime,” Mehta said. “We associate karma to be like a black cloud. The more karma you have the more ignorant you are; the less karma you have the more aware you’ve become.”
Demi-gods, nirvana, “next lifetime,” karma? Those beliefs sound like something out of Scientology. But Jains take them very seriously.
The funny thing is that so many Jains go into scientific fields, and yet, I never hear Jains say this stuff is untrue. They find a way to compartmentalize it and ignore it. When you ask them what they believe, they’ll say “Non-violence”… but they won’t mention the several levels of Hell and multiple levels of Heaven.
They’ll do research in a lab one day, and then sing a chant praising prophets, saints, and “liberated souls” the next, without ever realizing the two worlds ought to be colliding. (I sang that particular mantra every day growing up. Can you imagine how I felt when I finally figured out what it actually meant?)
As far as religions go, Jainism isn’t the worst one you’ll find. But there are plenty of lies that it spreads that we need to call out. Young Jains should be concerned with the truth and they ought to know that the religious leaders in the temple are trying to lead them away from it — as most religious leaders everywhere do. The fact that even the most outspoken atheists put on kid gloves when dealing with it is upsetting.
It’s always nice to see a religion that advocates kindness and respect, but that shouldn’t make it immune from criticism when it’s warranted. Jains are very bad at being self-critical, and it has plenty of beliefs that are untrue. I’d love to see a Jain organization, or blogger, or adherent offer up the evidence for their supernatural beliefs because I’m convinced there is none.
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