Sunday, November 23, 2008

Remedial Religion

I started writing this in response to a post by Zhoen of One Word, who wrote:

I will never call myself a Buddhist, for instance, because that involves accepting their dogma and ceremonies.

But it got a bit long for a comment, and she wasn't looking for arguments anyway, so I'm posting it here instead.

Huh. Well, I guess it depends on what Buddhists you get hooked up with. I've been a Buddhist for, what, fifteen years? And no one has ever asked to believe or affirm anything. (Which is good, because I don't and can't :->)

With Christians, who are often terribly anxious to know what you "believe," I always have to say, "well, tell me what you mean by God, and I'll tell you if I believe in it at the moment." & the answer, if we get so far, is usually "sort of." Very few religions make such a huge deal of committing to believe a checklist of cosmological assertions. They've just been extremely successful ones. (If I were in a contentious mood, I might say extremely virulent ones.)

But I think that, as William James observed long ago, there are two basic sorts of people: people who are at ease in the world and people who aren't. People who are at ease can be happy with any religion or none, and don't really take any of it all that seriously. But those who aren't at ease -- such as me -- have an intense and seldom-absent perception of being fundamentally and obviously wrong in the world. So I'm drawn to religions that have plausible programs for changing my relationship to the world (or to "God," if you're talking theistic religions.) I have less than no interest in convincing people who are at ease in the world that they shouldn't be. It's quite possible that religion is a sort of remedial course for people who are spiritually or psychologically damaged. I don't resent people seeing it that way at all. I see it that way myself, in some lights and at some times of day.

So to me my religion is more like an exercise program or a diet than a set of beliefs, which explains why I'm not enthusiastic about "cherry picking." The parts of any program you tend to leave out are probably the parts that will change you most, so if the point is to change yourself, you'd probably better view the impulse to leave things out with suspicion.

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