I recently returned from a sesshin, a multi-day Buddhist retreat. That may be an odd way to start a post on an atheist blog, but between the sesshin and conversations I’ve had recently with Shaun, Alex and a good friend who has a doctorate in religious studies, I’ve been thinking a lot about what religion is and what exactly it means for me to be an atheist.
There is no doubt that Buddhism is, for many people and governments, a religion. it is certainly treated that way in America, where it has (at least officially) the same protected status as other religions. However, it is equally true that for many practitioners, including myself, Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy. Stephen Batchelor is only the most outspoken of those arguing that the Buddha was not a religious leader but a social activist. Western Buddhism has fused psychotherapy and neuroscience to the practices of meditation and the outlook Buddhism espouses.
Buddhism has always been based in what Judson Brewer, in a recent Buddhist Geeks podcast, called “evidence based faith.” Early sutras record the Buddha saying that no one should follow him based on faith alone, but that everyone should test his ideas and if they are not useful, or if someone finds something better, the ideas should be discarded. The Dali Lama has said that if science disproves any of the claims of Buddhist belief, it is Buddhism that must change, not science. So I feel quite comfortable saying I am a Buddhist atheist.
That’s not the point of this post however, because that’s a well understood point and not worth a whole separate post. However, at the sesshin, I took part in jukai, the Zen ceremony of transmitting and accepting the precepts. I did a lot of bowing. I promised to uphold the precepts. There was group chanting. Afterwards, Alex, who was there as a guest, later said he was a bit uncomfortable with the “cult-like” atmosphere at times. It made me think seriously about why I am comfortable with chanting and bowing and rules in the context of Zen Buddhism and not in the context of Catholicism or Islam. Having though seriously, here are my conclusions.
First, there are many aspects of religion that I see as neutral or even positive, especially creating community and allowing space to contemplate big questions like “what is the meaning of life.” And, interestingly, if you ask someone with an MA in philosophy or a PhD in religious studies what the definition of religion is, they are much more likely to talk about the actions a religion performs than the doctrines or beliefs about gods (here’s where I should totally have links to some of the definitions my friend mentioned, but we were in the car for the conversation and I was driving so I didn’t write any of the names down).
It was during the last of these conversations that I realized I am, very literally, an atheist. That is, I am against god, or the concept of god. I’m not really against “religion” per say, because I think it’s a big, amorphous idea that is hard to define. But I am absolutely against the idea of a God especially as presented by the big three monotheistic religions , for two very specific reasons.
1. This view of God locates morality outside the human realm and that is dangerous.
The all powerful god who sets up rules of conduct which are outside of context and time removes responsibility for individual humans to thoughtfully evaluate complex situations and decide what the best response is. I’ve had the common experience of atheists, being asked by a religious person why I bothering being “good” if I don’t believe in god. I find this question deeply frightening because what it says about the questioner is that the only reason that person is ethical is fear of not getting into heaven. No compassion for others, or an innate sense of fairness and justice or a belief in the social contract. Just fear of hellfire. That is not someone I want teaching my kids (if I had any) or running my government!
2. God is resolutely irrational
God is deliberately and explicitly about faith–the non-rational trust in something that not only cannot be rationally proven, but must not be. If god can be contained by rationality, if god must obey the laws of the universe, if god can be proven, then god’s power is severely diminished if not broken entirely. The point of god is to be beyond human understanding, so that things that don’t make sense to us (why bad things happen to good people, for example), we can take comfort in the belief that god has a plan and it is good.
For me, god is a dangerous concept, because it locates decision making and consequences outside of the human sphere and pretends there can be absolute right and wrong, good and evil. When this is translated into the realm of public policy, civil rights, education and sexuality, it must necessarily cause suffering, because the human world is not absolute.
So I’m fine bowing and chanting at the retreat. I’m fine with religion. What I’m not at all fine with is god. I am an atheist.