Not Religion

I just came back from a week at Tassajara, a Zen Buddhist monastery, and when I was there I casually referred to Zen Buddhism as a “religion” a few times – to which, other people often responded “oh, I never really considered Zen a religion.”  Wikipedia refers to Buddhism as a “religion” within the first five words of the article, which at least points to the fact that most non-Buddhists probably consider Buddhism to be a religion. However, I suspect many Buddhists do not. I also suspect many Buddhists do not consider themselves Buddhists, which makes them a lot like bisexuals.

According to the Dharma talk I went to (given by Greg Fain,) if I’m remembering correctly, “Buddhism” is really a Western translation of something that reads more like “the Buddha way” in Chinese or Japanese. The “ism” is a Western concept, perhaps an indicator of the framework we’re using when we talk about belief systems. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist – I just go to the Zen center and meditate one two times a week.

How would a similar statement read, “I don’t consider myself a Christian, I just go to Church and pray two or three times a week?” Would you consider that person Christian? Do most of the people who go to Church on Sundays think of themselves as Christian? I think so. Do most Christians consider Christianity a religion? Again, I suspect that they do.

One of the big differences between Christianity and Buddhism is that Christianity seems to be defined by what you believe. If you don’t go to Church, but believe that Jesus Christ is your savior, then you still count as Christian. The Western Zen centers I’ve been to have tended to say something more like “why not just start meditating, and see what happens?” There has never been a request to believe any of their metaphysical ideology, or even a solid description of what that metaphysical ideology may be.

While we’re on the topic of fruitlessly categorizing religions, where would “science” fall? Some people call science a religion, but like Buddhists, I suspect many scientists do not consider science a religion. And, perhaps unlike most Buddhists, I think most scientists would be offended by the idea that science is a religion. And, although I’m all for offending scientists, I personally don’t believe science as correctly understood is really a religion, but science as implemented in our society is practically a religion.

If we change “believing in a metaphysical ideology” to be “believing in things a higher authority tells you to without calling on your personal experience” then science is a religion. Practically, for most people. Sure, some of my friends at MIT replicated some of the classical physics experiments – and I, myself, have personally seen the double slit experiment thus providing personal evidence for the wave/particle duality of light. Yet, most of the scientific things I believe, I believe without personally examining the evidence. I believe it because someone I consider reliable told me it was true.

And, in a way, that’s the way it has to be. Unless you have a big mirror, and can bogard two mountains to measure the speed of light for yourself, you’re going to have to take someone’s word for it.

However, the danger comes in dropping science into a culture that’s basically primed for Christianity. Christianity is still the most prominent religion in the west, and it definitely was – say – 200 years ago, and Christianity as implemented was essentially a perpetual appeal to higher power. I mean, maybe not *real* Christianity (I have no idea what the experience of Christianity is like for Christian nuns) but practical Christianity as exists in the world. People use it to prove themselves right, by appealing to a higher authority (God, if you get all the way to the top) the same way many people use science now. Not *real* scientists, of course, not the people who actually ran the experiments and are likely aware of the fallibility, and limitations in what they have discovered.

Consider, for example, the entire vaccine/anti-vaccine debate that’s happening as more parents choose not to vaccinate their kids. I don’t really care which side people come down on this debate because we’re all going to die anyway*, but the fascinating thing is that both sides are intent on *clothing* their arguments in the *appearance* of science, or appealing to scientific authority.

Check out this article on Jenny McCarthy on hollywoodlife. Actually, you probably shouldn’t, but checkout a few choice quotes:

despite all the medical research and recommendations by the World Health Organization

Even though she doesn’t have a medical degree or any medical training

Jenny clearly feels that she and other parents know better than doctors

There is an appeal to scientific/medical authority with no real attempt was made to actually disseminate information about vaccines. Conversely, on the other side of the argument “Studies Prove Without a Doubt That Unvaccinated Children are Healthier.” (Pro-tip, basically nothing can be proven “beyond doubt.”) This article digs up quotes from some scientific study done in the 90s to prove its points.

Thing is, scientific papers are sort of like the Bible – you can really dig up a section that supports your point of view on anything if you want. Yet, most people seem deeply disconnected from anything approaching actual science, which is, essentially, being open minded. Having an opinion, then hand selecting evidence to support it is not “science” even if it looks like it. You have to start with a hypothesis, do a fair test, and then check if your results supported your hypothesis. To be fair, it’s actually really hard to do science. Most scientists don’t even do it right. And, that’s ok – but, there is no authority. No one *knows* – there is no safe path, no way to do it “right.”

You are always open to being wrong, and no *one*, no *ideology* can save you from that. And, as long as that’s where our energy is focused, we’re always going to be wasting time to some degree.

That doesn’t mean science is useless – I am using a machine to type this right post now that owes its entire, complex creation to science. I’m just trying to point out that, as a culture, we tend use science and religion similarly, to either justify beliefs we already have, or to get someone else to tell us what to think.

In Greg’s Dharma talk, he said one of the things that a lot of people new to meditation want to know is what to think. What should I be doing with my brain, when I meditate? I think that’s a big part of our current Western cultural heritage – even though we have, to some degree, in some parts of society, dropped our “Christianity,” the type of structures it lends itself to still permeate throughout, and those structures permeate deep into our minds. When I go meditate, even though I have been an atheist or agnostic most of my life, and even though both my parents are atheist/agnostic, I cannot escape the deep structures of Christianity. Even to call it Christianity is itself likely wrong – Christianity is probably an expression of a pre-existing cultural tendency that is without name.

Don’t believe me? Check out this Last Psychiatrist article, he’s really smart, AND a psychiatrist, so maybe you can believe him instead.


*fwiw, if I had kids, I’d vaccinate them, and ideally send them to a school that mandated vaccines – but, I respect the right of people not to vaccinate. On isolated hippy communes. Far away from me.

Wicca and Atheism

I’m visiting in my parent’s house for the holidays, and last night I started skimming through one of my old Wicca books. I often pick them up quickly when I visit, but don’t usually read them for very long. For most of my adolescence, I identified as “agnostic,” but for a period (especially when I was younger, like 13 or 14) I thought of myself as a sort of “agnostic Wiccan.” Eventually, I traded this out for just “agnostic,” then “agnostic atheist,” “weak atheist,” and finally just “atheist.” Atheist is still probably the label that fits the best, but some people don’t like that label.

“So, you think there’s no God?”

“I don’t know if there’s a God.”

“Well, you’re not really an atheist then, are you? You’re more of an agnostic.”

Some people get the heebie jeebies around me when I tell them I’m an atheist – I think they imagine that an atheist is the reverse of a religious fundamentalist, or that I’m going to start chastising them for their religious beliefs. However, as Richard Dawkins pointed out, the strongest atheists aren’t usually as attached to their atheism as the strongest religious folk are attached to their theism. Usually, the strongest atheists say “I don’t believe in God, but would be willing to change my mind if I saw evidence suggesting there was one.” The strongest religious people often say “I believe in God, and if I saw conclusive evidence there was not one, I would view this as a test of my faith and still believe in God.”

My own personal atheism is sort of, “I haven’t seen any strong evidence I should be part of any religion, but I’m willing to experiment and try things out, and if other people are religious I am willing to believe they may have had a personal experience that makes their choice reasonable for them.” I have no interest in converting other atheists, but I do like calling *myself* atheist because I think their is significant overlap in my own viewpoint and the viewpoint of many other atheists. Agnostic is a less used label, but if you don’t like atheists, I’ll happily be an agnostic for you. It’s accurate.

However, I think there is one big gap in atheism. Confronting the void is fucking terrifying, and the most comfort atheists offer on this point is “isn’t it great being right?”

Sorry, no. If I could pick, I’d like a few lifetimes of reincarnation followed by an eternity of eternal bliss rather than “being right,” mmk? Thx. The problem is, you can’t will yourself to believe the most fun sounding religion. Heaven sounds great, but I don’t have faith in it.

In fact, what I realized after reading my Wicca books, is that I had internalized some of the rituals in them and called on them in my darkest moments. Atheist philosophy provided me nothing in this respect. When I was scared, or lonely, I resorted back to some of the meditative visualizations I had learned when I was 13, and I had no idea where I’d picked them up. In fact, it was sort of unsettling to read one of my favorite Wiccan books last night. I saw instructions from visualizations that are extremely similar to the ones I still use – it was like someone had read my mind and wrote it down, but actually, my mind formed around these teachings years ago. Even now, every night when I fall asleep, I imagine myself laying in a shallow stream of light until all the emotion of the day is washed away and replaced by a sense of calm. This visualization of is the basis of showering ritual I must have learned about 15 years ago.

Atheism, particularly the kind I faced at tech school, often has this sense of bravado about it, “who is the most willing to face the cold truth that when we die our consciousness ends?” But, have you ever tried to imagine that? To feel what it really means to have your consciousness end? It’s hard! I think most atheists haven’t, and instead just don’t think about what it’s going to be like to die very much. Yet, that fact alone makes them a little untrustworthy – I don’t think they’ve faced the truth their own belief system implies. (To be clear, these are just the ones I met – not all atheists.)

The best instruction I’ve personally found for facing the void has come from Zen Buddhism. Basically, you just sit there, with your mind, and just see what’s there. The zen teachings I have read, or seen in Dharma talks admit it can be scary, and difficult, and painful at times – and that’s ok. The zen teachings I have received also claim it is inadvisable to believe anything you haven’t experienced yourself, which I also agree with. The biggest issue I have with Wicca, and why I probably will not adopt it as an adult, is that they talk about things like there being “energy” which you can pull into yourself, or direct. This ideology eventually drifts into spell-casting. The thing is, for me, because I don’t already believe in this energy, it would be like having faith in Heaven. It would require a period of sort of trying to trick myself, or brainwash myself, into believing it before I could work with it. If, somehow, someone already believes or “feels” this energy, and it and this works for them, great! But, I don’t. However, the rituals and the visualizations that don’t require faith from me work pretty well, no matter where they come from.

It’s OK not to believe. It’s OK not to know.