I am an atheist (and what that means)

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.

8 thoughts on “I am an atheist (and what that means)

  1. 1) This post is fantastic.

    2) Your first point is bang-on. That, and isn’t it funny how organized religion seems to cause the most strife? Wars, fighting, killing…..all over disagreement of what is considered godly.

  2. I’m interested in this idea of Buddhism being a “evidence based faith.” I have not listened to that podcast, and don’t have context for the claim, but as I use the terms faith and evidence are opposites. If the term “faith” is used in the sense of a religious institution (which would contradict the point), as if to say that Buddhism is an evidence-based worldview or philosophy, then I suppose I might agree (or not, it would depend on the precepts of Buddhism).

    I am generally uncomfortable with the idea of doctrines that anyone would have to bow to or chant about. I completely disagree that there are, or should be, ideas or beliefs which are revered in any way; Ideas are in the wrong category for respect. it’s not that I refuse to respect doctrines, ideas, etc; it’s that I think that the concept of respect cannot rationally be applied to ideas, and that what we often mean is that we respect people’s right to have ideas.

    Also, I’ve never been interested in group activities like church, sing-a-longs, etc so that is no surprise that I feel turned off by the idea of bowing or chanting in any circumstance. For me, there is nothing at all compelling about a service or ritual for any religious, philosophical, or political idea. The pledge of Allegiance seems silly to me too, for example. I understand that some people feel psychological needs for such things, but I have never experienced any good aspects religion, including ritual and sacred spaces. The only good religion can do is what can be achieved without it. That is to say; religion has nothing unique and good to offer.

  3. Shaun, the point Brewer was making was that even when one has facts, there is still, often, a need or at least a desire to commit to a choice or a plan of action based on someone else’s expertise. For example, there might be two different treatments for a medical issue and you can a) review the facts about the treatment yourself and come to your own decision or b) have “faith” (trust) in your doctor to pick the right treatment (of course, doing both is probably optimal).

    A second way of understanding “evidence based belief” is when you yourself find a gap between the collection of data and a decision, perhaps because there are equal choices or because the choice doesn’t work for everyone, or because the result is separated from the action by enough time that the action has to be performed “on faith.”

    “I am generally uncomfortable with the idea of doctrines that anyone would have to bow to or chant about”

    I’m sorry I wasn’t clear–Buddhism does not require or suggest chanting “about” doctrines or bowing “to” doctrines. At least in Zen, bowing and chanting are ways to build community, as most repeated actions performed by a group are. I’m not saying you have to have any resonance with those methods yourself. My point was that I think those aspects of religion can be separated out from the elements of religion I think are dangerous–rejection of rationality, rigid morality, etc.

  4. Ah, I see. That seems like equivocating trust with faith, as I use faith to mean ‘belief without justification,’ not ‘belief based upon reasonable expectation’ or ‘reasonable trust of experts.’ When I trust a doctor’s opinion, I have a reasonable expectation that they have enough information and information to make a rational choice to suggest I take. This is different then believing in something with no reasonable evidence, like with god. One might try and argue that priests, theologians, etc are experts, but the fact is that they don’t have any powers that i don’t have; their reasoning is bad.

    We can, in principle, check the reasoning of medical doctors. We have checked the reasoning of theologians and have found it wanting in all cases, not so with doctors. Medical science has earned that trust, theologians have not.

    As for bowing and chanting to build community…

    Not much of a difference from where I stand. Community builds itself, and I find group activities like these extraneous. It seems to more likely cause groupthink than create genuine intimacy. Community either coalesces organically, or it doesn’t/ Rituals seem like an artificial substitute for genuine group intimacy.

  5. @Shaun – I disagree about rituals building community. Communities are often built upon shared experiences. Creating a shared experience (and especially an experience which takes some kind of sacrifice) can surely create a sense of togetherness, belonging, and camaraderie. I also don’t think that communities build themselves. I think most communities (especially idea-based communities) are build through the hard work of the organizers.

    @Annalisa – I think I’m misunderstanding. You said that part of the ritual was promising to uphold the precepts, which, according to your link, appear to be set of commandments, or at least guidelines. I (and I think I share this with Shaun) am uncomfortable with any ceremony that involves some sort of swearing to uphold a doctrine (bowing and chanting aside).

  6. @Wes

    Yes, I see your point. I suppose I can clarify what I mean by saying that I find intentional, ritualistic, group behavior itself largely unhelpful in creating communities (I’m tempted to say “for me” but will resist). Yes, organizers do a lot of work (and this work was what I mean by community happening “organically,” but I think I articulated it poorly), but I get a bad feeling when I am in a room with people all doing the same thing; whether in a church, some of my experiences with the fraternity I joined (which was not unlike a church service in some ways), or even some humanist celebrations I’ve been to. it’s one of the reasons I never liked UU services, the Ethical Society Sunday services, etc.

    I never feel closer to a group or people in a group through group activities, if they are ritualistic rather than spontaneous. I have felt closer to people after experiencing something emotionally intense (like surviving a tough experience together), but I think there is an important difference between these two things. With the former, you gather people together to say words, do acts, etc which are symbolic of tying social bonds, with the latter the symbolism is unnecessary. Symbolism, myth, and sacred spaces, words, and ideas never have real meaning for me, and I have trouble understanding how they have real meaning for other people.

    They seem artificial and hollow.

  7. I (and I think I share this with Shaun) am uncomfortable with any ceremony that involves some sort of swearing to uphold a doctrine (bowing and chanting aside).

    As am I. I think this was the part that I was least comfortable with. It reminded me too much of the Catholic masses of my adolescence.

    That said, I’m now very curious about Wes and Shaun’s weddings and vows. I’m assuming there probably weren’t any vows at all, but if there were, what’s the difference between pledging to follow certain “precepts” with respect to one’s relationships with one person and pledging to follow group precepts? I’m not saying there’s not a difference–I think one could argue that there is–but the purpose of most weddings is to say, in public, I promise to do “x” and not do “y” in this relationship.

  8. A great example of “evidence based faith” that really helps other to understand is this video, So worth the watch, its where science meets Budism.

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