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Losing My Religion

I was recently asked why I stopped considering myself Buddhist. My response:

The first answer that popped into my mind was the last few lines of a poem by the iconoclastic Zen monk Ikkyu:
To harden into a Buddha is wrong;
All the more I think so
When I look at a stone Buddha.

To answer the question more completely, I think I have to recount my whole progression from where I was four years ago (which was, to recap, a panentheist progressive Christian who practiced Buddhist meditation) to where I am now (an atheist), because I think being a Buddhist was just a brief way station along that path.

One of the main things I learned about myself by living in a Muslim country is that my worldview is fundamentally a naturalistic one. My Muslim friends' belief in jinn and witchcraft seemed painfully off-base to me, not because I thought they believed in the wrong set of supernatural forces while Christians believe in the correct supernatural forces, but because I really don't believe in supernatural forces at all. I've never believed in angels or miracles, for example; I haven't believed in an afterlife since I was 12; and I don't know how many years it's been since I believed in a personal God in the sense of a discrete, anthropomorphic being "out there" who influences the goings-on of our universe. I nonetheless believed in some sort of ineffable divinity, and in a Western, mostly secular country, it's fairly easy to overlay some vague belief in the Ground of Being on top of an otherwise naturalist metaphysic and call that Christianity.

Encountering religious people (both Muslim and otherwise) who really fundamentally believe in the existence and power of supernatural forces, though, made me come to terms with the fact that I'm not one of those people. And, to be honest with myself, I had to admit that the kind of worldview espoused by the Scriptures and church tradition was also a supernatural one, despite the efforts of Tillich, Robinson, Spong, et al. to update the Christian understanding of God in the light of a modern worldview that rejects supernaturalism. It began to bother me that I spent half my time in church affixing mental footnotes to every creed I recited or hymn I sang -- for example, mentally noting that by "Christ" I meant "the spirit of compassion and self-sacrifice" rather than "that dude named Jesus who lived a long time ago." I got tired of the mental gymnastics necessary for me to affirm the things Christians affirm.

One day I sat down in the library to read Tillich's "Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions" and read the sentence: "It is natural and unavoidable that Christians affirm the fundamental assertion of Christianity that Jesus is the Christ and reject what denies this assertion." Even though I've certainly read more thoughtful and well-reasoned expositions of the relationship between Christianity and other religions (most notably Diana Eck's in Encountering God), somehow that sentence was my proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Even Tillich claimed that "Jesus is the Christ" is the "fundamental assertion of Christianity," and that's just not something I could assert without all those aforementioned mental footnotes. I realized that if I was finding Paul "The god of theism is dead" Tillich impossibly conservative, I should really stop pretending the wide umbrella of Christianity could (or should) extend as far as where I now stood. In that instant, sitting in the religion section of the CMU library, I realized I wasn't going to call myself a Christian anymore. The thought felt like vertigo, but I also felt the weight of all those mental footnotes lift.

I didn't leave Buddhism in the same instant because reconciling Buddhism with my otherwise secular worldview didn't require the same mental gymnastics. I always appreciated that Buddhism focuses pragmatically on how to alleviate suffering rather than on metaphysics, that the Buddha doesn't seem to have cared about whether there was a god or not, that the Buddha taught that we should test his teachings against our own experience and reason instead of blindly following set doctrine. Because of these things, practicing Buddhism as a secular person didn't feel dishonest or disingenuous.

But as I started to practice meditation more often and listen to weekly dharma talks, it dawned on me that Buddhism is hardly free of dogma. Its teachings on the afterlife are both as central to its teachings and as implausible as Christianity's, for example. And, in practice, the vast majority of Buddhists in the world practice a supernatural religion, whether they are superstitiously chanting the name of the Amitabha Buddha or undergoing body mutilation in order to channel the emperor-gods -- or offering food to the hungry ghosts, as I myself did at a Zen retreat 3 years ago. It's possible to practice Buddhism without these things, just like it was possible for me to practice Christianity without believing in an afterlife, but then we're back to mental gymnastics.

Ethics is a good example of this. I think the Five Precepts are a better guide to ethical behavior than the Ten Commandments. But why do I think that? I am measuring both sets of rules against my internal sense of what kinds of behaviors do and don't cause harm to others, and the Precepts seem like a better approximation of what secular ethical reasoning suggests. But then, if my fundamental yardstick is the utilitarian one, then I don't need the Five Precepts any more than I need the Ten Commandments; I just need to employ ethical reasoning. So why not cut out the middleman, as Sam Harris puts it, and do what I think is right instead of trying to find a religion whose moral code approximates what I already think is right.

On a deeper level, though, I think I stopped practicing Buddhism because I stopped craving the things that I had looked to it to provide. I was initially drawn to Buddhist practice because it seemed to hold out the promise of inner peace and the power to still your own chattering monkey mind. To a naturally anxious kind of person like me those sound heavenly. Another way of saying this is that I wanted to use Buddhism as a tool to help me become the person I felt I ought to be. (I think now that this is a very un-Buddhist reason to practice Buddhism -- although I'd still like to hear an answer to the question I asked of that Zen monk three years ago: isn't the desire to extinguish our cravings itself a craving?) Somehow, perhaps as I've gotten older and a little less insecure, I feel less need to fight the way my mind works on its own. I no longer feel like I *ought* to have one-pointed mind; I have monkey mind because I am descended from monkey ancestors, and on the whole a distractable psyche has served our lineage well. One day I realized that cravings and attachments bring me most of the joys I experience as well as most of the suffering, and that I'm actually not all that interested in extinguishing them after all. So I took off my dharmachakra necklace and prayer beads and stopped calling myself a Buddhist. I still have warm feelings towards Buddhism: my dharmachakra and fo zhu are still at the top of my jewelry box; I'm reading Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist right now; just yesterday I idly looked up the closest zendo to my new house. But I don't want to harden into a stone Buddha; I just want to be a flesh-and-blood Marjorie.

Which somehow reminds me of another poem I love, Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese," which I think comes closest to summarizing my current perspective on spirituality:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.



( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 19th, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC)
The short version (unofficial, not approved by Marjorie).

1. Believing in supernatural shit is questionable dubious merit.
2. Ethics and morality don't need religion, so get rid of it.
3. Using religious words in symbolic ways makes shit confusing and ought to be generally avoided.

(Deleted comment)
Jul. 19th, 2010 11:27 pm (UTC)
I don't understand. There are several reality-based conclusions in the above writing. What exactly is backward for you? Surely not those.

Jul. 20th, 2010 12:41 am (UTC)
lol, it's hard to imagine this in reverse without it being the story of a person who loses their self-confidence, stops engaging in ethical reasoning and then feels the weight of self-deception fall onto their shoulders. But I'm going to assume you just mean the atheist -> Buddhist -> Christian part. ;-) I'd be interested to hear your version in more detail sometime.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 20th, 2010 01:18 pm (UTC)
It kind of sounds like we both concluded that progressive Christianity's tendency to redefine the key terms of the faith to mean more sympathetic things was untenable... only we then ran in different directions. (Although, to be fair to progressive Christianity, Spong is kind of a jerk; there are better spokespeople.)

I'm fascinated by the idea that you find more mental footnotes in heresies than in orthodoxy. If anything I would lean towards saying the opposite: the early heresies seem to say fairly straightforward things (Jesus was a man and not God, Jesus was God and not a man) while the orthodox position is one that has to employ very careful definitions of things like "persons" and "nature" and "will" to make any sense at all.

"There's no empirical evidence for or against God, so therefore the question is irrelevant" seems odd to me because I don't see the logical connection between whether something is provable given current evidence and whether it's important. (P vs NP, anyone?) Pascal certainly believed that we have no rational way to decide God's existence based on the evidence at hand, but he still thought that the correct answer was relevant. (Pensee 229: "If I saw nothing [in nature] which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; ... My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.")

I also wish I'd taken better notes of how my ideas have changed over time. :-)
Jul. 21st, 2010 12:51 pm (UTC)
"There's no empirical evidence for or against God, so therefore the question is irrelevant..." <-- Does this even mean anything? It sounds like gibberish.

(Deleted comment)
Jul. 21st, 2010 01:06 pm (UTC)
What kind of God are you talking about? One that does miracles and stuff, things which would actually qualify as empirical evidence? Or, one that kind of lingers in heaven or something and never actually does anything tangible?
Jul. 21st, 2010 01:07 pm (UTC)
Forgot to sign.

(Deleted comment)
Jul. 21st, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
I don't care about relevance, just with what you're talking about. What kind of God are you talking about?

(Deleted comment)
Jul. 22nd, 2010 01:25 pm (UTC)
If your question was fundamentally bogus, wasn't it absurd to draw /any/ conclusion from examining it?

Ho, hum, let me think up something really stupid. Oh, damn, this thing is really stupid. Well, I guess God exists. High five!

Jul. 21st, 2010 02:27 pm (UTC)
I am still confused about the relationship between the two ideas, which makes it hard for me to imagine what the internal contradiction you were wrestling with was. You said that the fact that the evidence is unclear means that the question is irrelevant, but that seems like an odd thing to say since I can imagine lots of questions whose possible answers lack clear evidence, but for which an answer surely exists and is very important -- for example, what happens to my consciousness when I die. So maybe I don't understand what you meant by "irrelevant."
Jul. 20th, 2010 01:35 am (UTC)
I find Buddhism fascinating in that I can view it is a nonreligion.

Specifically, my simple understanding of (mostly Theravada) Buddhism is that it has essentially three parts, (which, granted, are all intermixed)

1. Cosmological teachings, about reincarnation, spirits, ghosts, other worlds,
2. Moral teachings, mostly the eightfold path (although this is mixed up in teachings about enlightenment in a way I am kind of confused on), and
3. Mental teachings, which are mostly the Four Noble Truths, and the fact that by performing certain mental exercises ("meditation" is kind of a loaded term :-P), one can come to a fundamentally different way of understanding or observing the mind.

Essentially, I view the first two as being carried over from the ambient religious culture of ancient India (and later mixed with other religions).

The third, I am very interested in. I find the sort of entry level mental observations (there is no actual "self", but just an illusion caused by mental processes) to be obviously true, and so I am very curious about what the actual mental results of years of meditation are. Maybe I will try it some decade.
Jul. 20th, 2010 03:05 am (UTC)
Buddhist-inspired nonreligious philosophy is unusually honest in its understanding of human nature. There's a lot of good stuff to be found when the christian heritage of western thought is understood well enough to see it and when we, through history or creativity, walk a ways in other directions - while my first experience with this was trying to understand ancient greek morality (particularly the role of hubris in that), buddhism made a more lasting impression. I'm not sure if I owe more to Freud or to Buddhism, but both are great starts for understanding big parts of human nature - if I ever meet someone and have kids, I suspect I'd raise them based heavily around ideas extracted from those traditions.
Jul. 20th, 2010 01:25 pm (UTC)
I've never put a ton of thought into what parts of Buddhism are not just inherited from Hinduism (other than the gods), as you can probably tell from my emphasis above on things like monkey mind and one-pointed mind, which I believe are really more concepts from yogic meditation than from the Buddha. However, coincidentally, I finished reading Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist last night, and he addresses this very question in his conclusion:

"What is it in Gotama's teaching that was distinctively his own? There are four core elements of the Dhamma that cannot be derived from the Indian culture of his time. These are
  1. The principle of 'this-conditionality, conditioned arising.'
  2. The process of the Four Noble Truths.
  3. The practice of mindful awareness.
  4. The power of self-reliance."

I'm not sure if Hindus would appreciate hearing that they don't practice mindful awareness. :-p
Jul. 20th, 2010 04:14 am (UTC)
A very good read, thank you! Quite a lot of it sounded familiar, I must admit. :) And also thank you for the poem; I like it a lot.
Jul. 20th, 2010 10:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing. I think I identify with the vertigo. Despite not having a similar story with religion, I think most of us have had "viewquakes" at some point in our lives.

Can you list some of the forces that attached you to the Christian faith and to your self-image as a Christian?
Jul. 23rd, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC)
Just a bit of smarm.
One should never publicly proclaim that he/she is an atheist; pretty soon like-minded atheists will find you, ask you to join a club, and before you know it you you have to get up on weekend mornings to talk to people that agree with you about why you agree. It is like being religious, except you can't run for public office in the US. :)
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )