Speaking personally, I’ve had a rather complicated relationship with “God” from the very beginning. My family is a strange mix of Jewish, Catholic, Methodist, Atheist… we even have a few Jehovah’s Witnesses in there. However, despite this variety of religious opinion, by the time I reached my early 20′s I had settled into the label of an “agnostic atheist”. I openly mocked those who described themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”. I ruined many polite dinners by insisting on discussing my list of historical, scientific and logical errors found in the bible. I didn’t just reject God- for awhile there I outright hated him (a surprisingly common paradox among self-described atheists).
In Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening Stephen Batchelor was kind enough to talk some sense into me. This started me on a strange path that has led me to some frightening places, far beyond the edges of my “comfort zone”.
Does this mean I’ve become a monk, writing this article from within some wifi-enabled temple atop a mountain? Nope. I still remain a functional “atheist”; I don’t believe in magic, and I have total confidence in the scientific method to determine objective truth. That said, I can also admit I was silly to “toss the baby out with the bath water” when it comes to the subject of spirituality.
You there- the one in the “Dawkins Rules” t-shirt- hear me out before you scoff…
1. All religions contain some goofy stuff
According to the Torah (a.k.a. the Old Testament), slavery is a-ok. There is, of course, a certain delicious irony here for those familiar with the story of Moses (who liberated the Jewish slaves and led them to the promised land). So long as you don’t mind blatant hypocrisy, the logic is pretty solid: slavery is fine, just so long as its the other guy.
According to Jesus Chris (c/o the New Testament) God is love, and eager to guide and forgive us. Unless, of course, you reject the holy spirit, in which case you will be damned and tortured for all eternity (no backsies!).
Anyone capable of reading this article, alive in the 21st Century, should have enough intellectual honesty to admit to themselves that the bible contains…implausible scenarios. Many people use that as an excuse to turn to Eastern philosophies, so as to avoid silliness like talking snakes and Noah’s ark and hating gays for no logical reason.
Bad news: these Eastern religions contain goofy stuff too.
Without dwelling on the obvious, whenever we use faith and feelings, instead of observation and science, we get goofy results, and Buddhism is no different. Just as with the bible, there are varying interpretations regarding how literal to take various stories, but it is undeniable that modern Buddhism still contains beliefs that remain totally unproven by science, the most obvious of which is reincarnation.
In a radical move forward for religious equality, author Stephen Batchelor makes a bold, and obvious claim: ignore the goofiness, regardless of source.
2. If you remove the goofy stuff, some good ideas remain
There is an interesting paradox in America today: atheists know more about the bible than self-described Evangelical Christians. How is this possible? The main argument among witnesses I’ve met is that “atheists are ignorant of the word of God”. But that’s simply not true- if anything, modern atheists understand the bible better than those trying to preach it. It is an ironic phenomenon, and one that can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the greatest American author in history. He wrote the Declaration of Independence. He wrote legislation in Virgina that would serve as the model for the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. He also wrote a lesser known work entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.
In an age before computers, Jefferson wrote this book with good-old-fashioned “copy and paste” technology (thus pioneering the preferred method of writing term papers some 200 years before the invention of Wikipedia). By removing passages that contained supernatural elements, or interpretations he felt to be wrong, Jefferson was left with an interesting biography of a man named Jesus, and the very real, very secular values he discussed.
According to Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism is no different. Supernatural elements should be discarded, and illogical passages should not be defended. However, as with “Jefferson’s Bible”, even after we strip away the baloney, good ideas remain.
3. It is ok to change your mind
Like most profound truths, this idea is extremely simple: as an individual, you have the right to change your mind, to embrace ideas you formerly rejected, and to reject ideas you formerly embraced. And the same is true for religions themselves.
In the above video (sorry for the poor quality) Carl Sagan asks the Dali Lama: “So there is no conceivable finding of science which would make you say that Buddhist doctrine is wrong, or that you are no longer a Buddhist?” This question gets right to the heart of the matter, and the Dali Lama’s response (fully in favor of science) is revealing.
Some people are fond of arguing that science and religion need not conflict. In my opinion, this is total bunk. To use just one of a thousand potential examples: according to the bible Pi is equal to exactly 3. Simply stated, that claim is false, and no amount of prayer is going to change that. Sometimes religions make claims which the scientific method later proves to be false. This conflict is real, and it is inevitable- and my answer is science every single time.
So how can I call myself a Buddhist? I don’t. I don’t believe in magic, and this is just as true of Buddhist reincarnation as it is the Christian hell. That said, science is starting to take a closer look at meditation, and modern observation is showing that this practice does indeed help to grow the parts of the brain responsible for concentration and focus. Just one example as to why the debate continues to rage- is Buddhism a religion, a philosophy, or a science?
But what about “spirituality”? How can a self-described “atheist” like myself talk about a “spirit” or “spirituality” without violating our own scientific values? The issue is semantics. When I use the term “spiritual” I am using it as a placeholder, not unlike, say, “dark matter“. I am referring to that fuzzy space between what we know, and how we feel. I am speaking to the depths of the mind, the mystery of where our dreams come from, and what it means to be human. It is a “touchy-feely” subject, and I have more questions than answers.
That said: when challenged with cold hard facts- I stand with the scientific method, and I’ll suggest you do the same.
Want to read the book? Want to support your friends at 3 Things I Learned? You can do both at once when you order “Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening” via Amazon.com. Got no money for books? Get it at your local library instead.
Looking for more books on spirituality? Check out “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” by Donald Miller or “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. This article included references to agnostic, atheist, Buddhism, ethics and hopefully that will impress the nice folks at Google.
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