Today is the 163rd anniversary of the birth of Annie Besant, a principal in the Theosophist movement of the 19th Century and an influential campaigner for human rights and Indian self-rule. A remarkable women. Check her out.
And how do you compare with the average American? Here’s your chance to find out.
The new U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, finds that although 86% of us believe in God or a higher power, we don’t know our own traditions or those of neighbors across the street or across the globe.
Religion should not enjoy a privileged status, especially when many religious people strive to influence politics and public policy based on their religious beliefs. Do I violate some rule of civil discourse if I draw or publish a cartoon lampooning the Catholic Church’s position on abortion when the Catholic Church is trying to influence public policy on abortion? If so, I fail to understand the reason for such a rule. Such self-censorship merely serves to perpetuate the taboo mentality that has protected religion for too long.
While I agree with the writer in principle (and the article is well worth reading), I have to reiterate a point that I have made a number of times on this blog.
Religion is not just another subject for debate. It is the foundation of the world view and basis of hope for billions of people. Its roots go far deeper than belief in quantum theory or evolution, because what are believed to be its effects are discernible by ordinary people without arcane training, if they choose to interpret their world uncritically.
As compassionate practitioners, we owe it to believers to treat them gently. While it is true, as the writer points out, that they attempt to influence policy and government in the direction of their own beliefs, that is also true of other special interest groups, including secularists.
I believe it is fine to debate religious ideas, within reason, but debate is always with the consent of both sides. It is not accomplished with bludgeons on unwilling participants. We need to understand that when people’s core beliefs are threatened, they become defensive and inflexible regardless of the content of those beliefs. To pound, willy-nilly, on issues they find threatening will only stifle debate, not extend it. Furthermore, to attempt to alter someone’s core beliefs without offering something that will adequately replace the framework of his life is to commit cruelty of the first order. Morally, it no different from the acts of those who attempt to force religion on others.
Very few secularists were born to their belief system. Most of us came to it after many years of searching for a direction that made sense to us. Furthermore, some of us were traumatized by religious people, and have yet to deal adequately with those issues (which may explain some of the vehemence in discourse). So, let us debate if we must. But let us also remember that minds are unlikely to be changed, and — above all — that when it comes to religion, logic is never an issue.
And let’s be gentle, understanding that discussion is not battle and that, even if it were, this is not one that we are really equipped to win. We need to remember that secularist fanatics are no more correct in their behavior than religious ones, regardless of the logic in their arguments, because reasoned discourse requires mutual respect. How can we demand that of believers if we do not deliver it ourselves?
Occasionally people find the stuff I write interesting enough to comment. One reader made some remarks yesterday that I found intriguing, and I thought I’d share his comment and my response with you.
The question of “Who Is A Buddhist” seems to occupy some folks’ minds quite a lot, since I see blog posts and articles about it all the time. (BTW, don’t forget to visit my commentator’s blog at the link below; it’s really interesting.) I don’t quite understand what all the fuss is about, and hadn’t given it a lot of thought. However, this gentleman’s question caused me to toss the idea around a bit.
I’d be curious of your take on my religiosity or lack thereof. It seems we share much but that you may be a bit more tolerant. Today I did a post asking if I am a Buddhist? which toys with the concept of orthodoxy, atheism and such. I liked this post. Thanx. I will follow you for a while.
Thanks for writing. It is an honor to have a reader who obviously takes such questions very seriously. Let me say from the outset that my opinions are only my opinions, and that I make no claim to guru-hood, roshiosity, or lamary. That said, I do think about it some.
First of all, it seems to me that a Buddhist does at least some of the things that Buddhists do, and believes at least some of the things that Buddhists believe — otherwise, calling oneself that would be meaningless. However, the attempt to quantify the whole thing would seem to indicate a grasping and attachment to names and labels that is not consonant with Buddhism (at least in terms of basics).
Second, there are as many Buddhist sects as there are Christian or Muslim. That renders the concept of “buddhism” pretty vague. I am of the Zen pursuasion, since my lack of religious belief and desire to experience my path with as few trappings as possible give it the most appeal. My approach, therefore, is as far from that of one who practices in some of the more esoteric areas of Tibetan Buddhism (for example) as a Quaker is from a Eastern Orthodox Patriarch — or the Archbishop from an Indio practicing the Central American variety of Catholicism, and consulting the local brujo on the side. On the other hand, from the Zen point of view I’m a touch aberrant, because I do not practice with a sangha, although I have taken the Precepts and sit zazen.
Third, there is the issue of tradition v. adaptation of Buddhist beliefs to modern conditions. Many practitioners believe that practice includes deep involvement with and discussion of the suttas and other writings. I believe that this is a good thing, but that one must live in the modern world, and that rational people approach teachings with that in mind. I am also mindful of the fact that there is absolutely no reason to believe, as Brad Warner is fond of pointing out, that there weren’t plenty of bullshit artists back in those days — just as there are today — who wrote about things from their ivory towers or thrones of personal aggrandizement without having actually lived the kinds of lives about which they pontificated.
Non-attachment is not about discarding the things of this life. It is about living life from moment to moment, dealing with issues as they arise, and neither coloring them with personal preference nor clinging to the results out of unwillingness to change. It’s about staying in the present and allowing ourselves to see its reality, letting it flow past and being concerned only about those things that we can (and need to) influence. This requires flexibility, and involves some number of unpleasant experiences such as having to change our minds about things (to which we might prefer to cling, because we feel comfortable in old mental clothes that are well-worn and broken in). In short, Buddhism is about practical reality, change, and — of its essence — is non-doctrinal. We adopt certain guidelines for living, certain practices that make it easier to follow those guidelines, and then we live them in our lives.
Which brings up my fourth point. If we are comporting ourselves with compassion, tolerance, kindness toward others, willingness to learn and change, living a balanced life, and are forgiving, loving and know how to laugh at ourselves and live joyfully when life affords us the opportunity, it doesn’t make any difference what we call ourselves. We are following the Middle Path whether we know it or not. If we are not living that kind of life, we probably need to make the changes and practice the skills that make it possible, and it makes no difference what we call the result of that, either.
So, I have no opinion about whether or not you are a Buddhist, and I don’t think it’s anything you should be worrying about, either. Adopt some guidelines that look good to you. Try to live a good life. Don’t mess with folks if you can avoid it. If you can’t avoid it, do as little harm as possible.* Be compassionate. You have my permission to call it anything you want.
*In fact, that’s the whole thing, right there.
A woman writes in her journal every night, focusing on her struggles with anger. Two friends sit down over coffee and discuss their recent efforts to perform at least three acts of generosity every day. A man posts on an online forum about how easily he is distracted by needless concerns but how daily Jewish prayer has helped him to focus his mind. A group studies Jewish teachings on greed, and they commit themselves to taking concrete steps to limit their consumption. Another group pores over a medieval Hebrew text about pride, and they conclude their weekly study session by chanting some of its words out loud to a haunting Jewish melody.
These American Jews display a good deal of moral seriousness, a tendency towards introspection, and a concern with the virtues to a degree that is somewhat uncommon in mainstream American Jewish culture. In describing their behavior, they might refer to the Jewish tradition of “Musar” (“moral discipline”) and explain that they are carrying on the legacy of a nineteenth-century, Lithuania-based movement known as the “Musar movement.” Most American Jews have not heard of the Musar movement, and many, upon learning about it, would write it off as requiring too much self-criticism, too much moralizing, and too much work. And yet interest in Musar has been steadily growing in contemporary America, in part as a counter-cultural phenomenon….
People who believe that I am an Atheist sometimes seem nonplussed that I’m tolerant of religion in general. There appears to be an idea amongst some non-believers that they must either be completely disinterested in religious ideas, or vehemently opposed and outspoken about it. In either case, it seems, they must be prepared to pooh-pooh “superstition” and point out at the drop of a hat all the evils perpetrated in the names of various gods throughout history, and all of the ways that the shamans take advantage of the folks they’ve hoodwinked. While I find the former positions distastefully closed-minded, I am indeed inclined to agree with the latter — at least when it involves the religious hierarchy.
My feeling is that those who are obtrusively dogmatic, pro or con, are just as bound up by the chains of their beliefs as any fanatic building bombs in the mountains of Pakistan. To paraphrase John Bradshaw, a 180 degree turn leaves us in the same rut, only now we’re moving against the flow and annoying the other travelers. If we want to change things, we need to get off the treadmill for a different perspective.
For the record, I am neither an Atheist nor an Agnostic. The latter claim that they are not convinced of the existence of a god or gods, the former that they are convinced that there are no such entities. I am Ignostic, one who believes that no discussion about the question of gods’ existence can even be held, because it is not possible to come up with a coherent definition of a god. To put it another way, I believe that when it comes to gods, no one really knows what they’re talking about, and no one ever will.
But I am not anti-religious. I try to practice Buddhism which is, by most definitions, a religion. While I accept that definition, I do not practice for religious reasons, but because Buddhist teachings give me a structure, based on pure logic, around which I can try to live my life and discipline my thinking.
That gets around to my position on religion in general. I believe it is inevitable, for most people in most circumstances, and that generally-speaking it does far more good than harm. It provides structure, guidance, community, hope — in short, a framework for living. It matters not a whit to me whether the underlying beliefs are pure superstition or divine revelation, except when religious teachings are used for ill rather than good; to separate, rather than to draw people together.
The folks who administer religion are usually the problem in that regard. They are the ones who teach, by their example, inflexibility, lack of compassion (although many of them give great lip service), and who perpetuate the tribal concepts of “us” and “other,” with their implied conclusions that “we are right” and “they are wrong.” They are the ones who foster self-serving and self-congratulatory, complacent followers who seem unwilling or unable to think for themselves.
This tribal thinking is, perhaps, hard-wired into some people’s brains. We are beginning to learn that the brains of liberals literally function somewhat differently than those of conservatives. There is every reason to believe that such dichotomies are necessary in primitive societies. They are not, however, appropriate to situations such as those that exist on the Earth at present, with many people in need, and many who are unwilling to share. This seems often to involve use of force on both sides, and in many circles it seems that two wrongs are presumed to make a right…or, at least, a lot of money for the people who profit from wars and strife in general.
Those are character defects that are engendered and supported by some shamans in the guise of the “will of God/Allah,” and in that respect religion is not a good thing at all.
The troubles in the world today cannot, it seems to me, be resolved by black and white thinking. The True Believer in the hut is evidence of that, and those who attempt to hunt him down, without regard to the number of innocents killed in the process, are yet another. People who seem to feel that they must contradict the beliefs of others, and put down the intelligence of those who believe other than they, are a third. That ain’t how you build togetherness, folks.
Ben Franklin wrote at another critical point in history, “If we do not hang together, we shall certainly hang separately.” As long as we continue to blame our problems on the other guy, we continue our trek to the gallows. To the extent that religion (or non-religion) supports that journey, it is most certainly at fault.