Friday, March 20, 2009


Our conversation had touched on metaphysical topics, and he asked, casually, "Are you religious, Dale?"

"Yes," I said.

He sat bolt upright. "You're shittin' me!" he exclaimed.

"I've been a Buddhist for ten years," I said.

"Oh. Oh. Well, Buddhism," he said, relieved, "that's more like a philosophy than a religion." He sat back again.

For some people it's a philosophy. For me "religion" is more accurate. I didn't say that, though: I felt I'd alarmed him enough for one evening. And it's difficult to convey both the distinction, and my sense of its importance, to people who have no vocabulary for them. He belonged to the group of people for whom the opposite of "religious" is "rational." With such people it's difficult to know even where to begin. Really what he was asking was "are you a dangerous lunatic with no respect for evidence or truth?" By that definition, I hope don't qualify as "religious." I respect reason and evidence as much as the next person -- often, it seems to me considerably more than the next person.

The same question is often phrased, "Do you believe in God?" And that's a question I find similarly difficult to answer, because it's inlaid with assumptions I don't accept: that religion is primarily about a person named God, and that what one is supposed to do with this person is believe in him or deny him. Atheists and fundamentalists alike make this assumption: and it's difficult to know how to answer, since "yes" and "no" both imply that you accept the premises.

As I've said before, the answer I really have to whether I believe in God has to be, "well, tell me what you mean by 'God,' and I'll tell you if I believe in it at the moment."

But the whole conversation is steered, by this assumption, into shallow waters that I find both dangerous and boring. I don't understand this business of "believing in" things. Don't you have to believe what you think is true, whether you like it or not? It's not a moral decision. If you don't think something is true, affirming it won't make it so. It will just give you a mental crick in the neck.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, in their mainstream forms, all place a heavy emphasis on subscribing to a set of propositions about reality. They have such sway in the world that the question "what is your religion" is to most people virtually the same as "to which list of propositions about reality do you subscribe?"

But there are very few religions outside of those three that care much about subscribing to propositions. There are many thousands of religions: almost none of them care about what you "believe" in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic sense. I'm often asked if I "believe in" reincarnation, as if that's what being a Buddhist would be all about. My answer is "sometimes, kind of. Not usually." Believing in reincarnation is not central to being a Buddhist. (And anyway it was not something that Buddhism invented: it was simply the standard science of the day. The Buddha Shakyamuni "believed in" reincarnation for the same reason I "believe in" gravitation: because the people who are supposed to know about these things say that's how it is.)

So at this point I'm probably sounding reassuringly rational to people like my alarmed friend, hardly religious at all, possibly even harmless. So why do I insist on Buddhism being my religion, rather than my philosophy?

Well, for one thing, it gives me a way of thinking and talking about things I would do anyway, but which a materialist outlook insists that I ignore. I talk to dead people, for instance. And I'm aware of unbodied, non-human intelligences coming and going. I don't "believe" that this is in my head. I don't "believe" it's outside my head either. I don't particularly care where it is in relation to my head. It's a basic human faculty, which most peoples have exercised in one form or another throughout history. Perhaps I'm tapping regions of my own unconscious. I'm fine with that. Perhaps I'm really interacting with ghosts and sendings. I'm fine with that too. I don't see how a person could confidently know, and anyway I don't feel my own claims to be "real" are all that impressive either. What I do know is that I value these interactions highly. To me they're a fundamental part of the human kit, and I have no intention of abandoning them.

Or again, I bow to statues and I say prayers to them and give them gifts. I do not do this under the misapprehension that they are living beings with the same ontological status as, say, you, or my cat. But neither am I willing to forgo the benefits of the relationships I have with these pieces of wood and metal. There are, likewise, places in the wilderness that strike me as obviously sacred. I worship in them, and I would object strenuously to their destruction. I know as well as my friend that there's no instrument that will give me a reliable numinosity reading on a particular grove. But I'm not willing on that account to simply abandon my responses, and the opportunities those responses create.

And again. I may or may not be reincarnating, life after life. I may or may not be in complex, ongoing, and intimate relationships with every single sentient being I encounter. I don't know, and neither do you. But I know that if I approach people (and animals) that way, as if each was precious to me, as if there was no such thing as a stranger, no such thing as a one-off, meaningless encounter, my interactions with them are much richer, stranger, fuller, more rewarding.

So that's why I regard myself as religious, why Buddhism is not just a philosophy to me. Although to say "just a philosophy" actually is to participate in the de-spiritualization of philosophy that's been underway since the Renaissance. To Socrates, philosophy wasn't just thinking up opinions and arguing about them. It was a way of living. It was supposed to change you, to work moral and spiritual changes in you. It was a way of understanding and participating in a larger world.

If I were a scientific materialist of the most common sort, I would still experience these things -- relationships with the dead, with presences, with statues and groves, with strangers who are not strangers -- but I would feel morally obliged to ignore them, to resolutely set them aside and treat them as inadmissable, as system malfunctions, as noise. Since they include the greater part of my experiential life, the richest and most interesting of my experiences, and since they form the basis of my most intense and satisfying relationships, adopting scientific materialism as a creed seems to me -- since I see no compelling reasons to believe in it -- like willful self-impoverishment.

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