The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Don't Leave God to Religion
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We humans have come up with many, many ways to cultivate a life of connection with something larger and longer-lived than ourselves, something to provide rudder and keel for our short voyages on the rough seas of embodied existence. That "something" may be a belief in the potential of humanity to evolve a collective commitment to social justice and sustainable life-ways for all. It may be contemplative and engaged attention to interconnection itself. And then there are the many kinds of relationships with ultimate being/s conceived of as singular, multiple, ineffable, personal, wrathful, compassionate, and the various combinations thereof. One's rudder and keel may be the development of understanding and skill itself, devotion to a particular aspect of the material world or to "the sciences" broadly understood, or devotion to a human art or the arts in general. Any quest to navigate with real skill and grace involves ongoing efforts to understand and gain control of oneself, one's field of cultivation, and one's medium.
As far back as we can view the efforts of our species, humans seem to have been fascinated by one medium in particular: the control of other lives, human and non-human. (According to the Upaniṣads, the reflexive relationship of eater and eaten is the dawn of the known universe, but let's stay focussed on very recent history.) Our means of control have proliferated exponentially over the last two centuries, always with the amplification of effects we cannot control. We are living through a global cultural revolution, involved in daily battles over the ever-increasing reach and complexity of the medium known as the market, in shell-shock due to the effects of market volatility and the related hysteria of fear-based legislation, and constantly bombarded with new information and misinformation -- not to mention suffering the effects, with varying degrees of immediacy, of ordinary wars over resources and geo-political control.
In these rough seas, who can afford the time and effort needed to understand oneself and one's conditions? We could all benefit from longer perspectives, but the political and ideological excesses of our times have polarized discourse about evolution, human history, and the possibility of immaterial connection. In reaction against the vocal dogmatism of fundamentalist religious groups, scientists increasingly disavow any possibility of middle ground, retreating to strict and equally dogmatic materialism. Religious fundamentalism, market fundamentalism, and materialist fundamentalism are arrayed in a "clash of the titans" over the meaning of life on earths forging alliances. With all due awareness of the limits of my own perspective, I am seeing an unholy alliance between corporations as persons and persons as corporations who are wealthy enough to make and break state's laws, scientists willing to have their calling defined by the development of marketable technologies, and religionists whose fear and hatred can be tapped and channeled.
Our political and economic struggles are analysed daily, with greater specificity, by other Huffington Post writers. In the sphere of public discourse, my personal heroes are Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and Elinor Ostrom. But what I am concerned with here is my medium of choice -- religions. Both my partner and I have chosen to devote our lives to studying, thinking about, and practicing different forms of the relationship between material and non-material fields. As I wrote about in an earlier post, we've taken very different paths, and yet we've managed to develop a dialogue about our differences. This is what Nash wrote to me recently about his own dismay over the fate of God:
I am a believer. I believe in God. But I am not religious, and I am not alone. The recent U.K. census sparked a lively discussion among those who wanted to identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious" but were given no box to tick.
We are not a minority, but we don't have institutions or institutes to back us up and make us visible. We are a forgotten majority in the clash between the likes of Richard Dawkins on one hand, and the likes of Ann Widdecombe on the other. Both sides are getting more and more radicalised. Stephen Hawking, who wrote in his first bestseller that the ultimate triumph of science would be to know the mind of God, in a recent book denounced not only God but philosophy and more or less everything that is not strictly materialist science. At the same time, the marching drums of the "religious right" are beating louder and louder, especially in the U.S. This all may appear to be a necessary consequence of democratic freedom of expression. But history teaches us that the most horrible episodes in human experience have started from polarisation of worthwhile perspectives and ideals. We cannot hold Darwin or Marx responsible for eugenics and gulags, anymore than we can hold Jesus and Mohamed responsible for the Crusades and suicide bombers. Those who make dogmas out of inspired reflections and scapegoating slogans out of complex ideas are to blame.
The real divide is not really between believers and non-believers, but between those who burn bridges and those who are willing to build them. I believe that in order to build these immaterial but nonetheless important bridges, we need to appeal to reason. Reasoning is certainly not the only way, and possibly is not the best way to approach the truth, but it seems to me to be the best way to understand and communicate to each other our diverse experiences. Reason helped us to build the ground of our beliefs, but belief systems tend to disregard reason if they are allowed to solidify.
It is ironic that Dawkins, who likes to position reason against belief in God, himself seems to sacrifice good reasoning when it doesn't fit his ideological framework. For example, he describes living organisms in terms of mechanisms, replicators and robots -- but mechanisms and robots are artefacts designed with a purpose in mind. How does this fit with his atheism? A more serious example is Dawkin's insistence on directionless evolution, in spite of overwhelming evidence that evolution tends toward greater complexity (see, for example, Michael Denton's Nature's Destiny). There is also Dawkin's famous claim that the driving force of evolution is "selfish" self-reproduction and competition. However, Lynn Margulis and others demonstrated that the process of evolving complex organisms meant that some cells and even some individual organisms gave up the option to reproduce themselves. Margulis characterised "competition" dogmatists as "a minor 20th century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon Biology."
On the other hand, the voices of religion are often so irrational that it becomes easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Yet should we do so? If religions cling to irrational, anachronistic and intolerant views, must it mean that the very idea of God must be irrational? I would argue no, not necessarily. Religionists, social theorists, and even scientists tend to point out that any construct, constrained as all constructs are by historical and cultural conditions, is simply inadequate to capture ultimate reality, whether God or quantum strings. Perhaps the God hypothesis can contribute to our understanding, but almost certainly ideas of God that would be consistent with the way we live now and with what we have learned would be very different from the ways of talking about God that are familiar.
If we really want to understand our world and ourselves we need to move on. Science, spirituality, common sense and philosophy need to work together and not against one another. Rigid allegiance to a simplified version of an old system allows believers, whether religionists or strict materialists, to avoid responsibility. I am not arguing that we should simply jettison our various religious heritages -- only that we should not be slaves to them. We still respect Aristotle and Newton, but we have revised and developed their ideas. It is hard to imagine what the world look like now if we hadn't. I argue that we need to take the same approach to our spiritual heritages. After all, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Socrates, Nietzsche and Freud all have something in common with Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohamed. They all revolutionised our views of the world. We are betraying them if we revere them but do not follow their examples.
Many people throughout history have prepared for the end of the world. Yet the end of the world has so far refused to arrive -- unless we are now bringing it upon ourselves. If we choose to believe in a future we will need to abandon both scientific dogma and religious dogma and start talking and listening to one another. Strict materialism does not seem to be able to provide a coherent view of reality, but our relation to and understanding of the immaterial must evolve as well.
It may be that belief in engagement with the transcendent and scientific inquiry are not ultimately incompatible. To find out if this is the case we need first to ask ourselves what is more important, God or religion. We also need to ask whether we are faithful to the principles of scientific inquiry, or to the comforting boundaries of the ideology of materialism. Only if we work together may we get closer to understanding the meaning of God. What is certain is that if we do so it will be a different God from the one we usually hear about now.
Nash and I are partners who talk to one another across divides -- his quest for non-religious theism compatible with the practice of reason and science is often at odds with my fascination with the messy histories of all religions and my Buddhist practice. However, we no longer argue about who is right, we argue about the best way to build bridges. In spite of our real differences, we support each other's work. Very recent and perhaps very brief appearances in the cosmic scene, we humans may never be able to agree about "ultimate truth." However, my reason, highest aspirations, and everyday experience all tell me that the ones who are in the right are the ones who don't insist on it.