Sunday, October 30, 2011

Losing My Religion and Gaining Another One

"But if one carefully considers all the facts, one must be convinced that at the basis of all suffering lies the principle of craving desire. If avarice can be removed, human suffering will come to an end." -- The Teaching of Buddha

"In Japan, it's a religion to be Japanese."

That's what the Japanese man told me at a cocktail party the other night. We spent about an hour discussing U.S. politics and religion, and of all the things he said, his comments on Japan and religion were the ones that stuck with me. While acknowledging that the dominant religion in his country is Buddhism, he made the interesting point that Japan's true religion is embracing elements of all religions. That, he said, is what it means to be Japanese.

And that, I thought to myself (or maybe I actually said it out loud -- I did, after all, have three glasses of white wine), is unorganized religion that I can get behind.

I grew up in a household where organized religion played a huge role in everyday life. My family attended church services every Sunday morning and sometimes on Sunday evenings and occasionally at night during the week as well. I would have preferred to spend that time pursuing other interests (like reading about U.S. history and Norse and Greek mythology, whose gods I found far more interesting than the star of those church services), but the only thing that frightened me more than the wrath of God was the wrath of my mother. She's the loveliest woman I've ever known, but she can also be the most intimidating. I did as I was told.

It wasn't all torture. I always enjoyed the musical part of the church service most and wished that would have been the end of it. It wasn't so much what the preacher said during his sermons that didn't sit well with me but the fire-and-brimstone delivery. I found it difficult to buy into the Church of God religion to which my family adhered when it seemed to be largely based on fear and blind faith. I was already a cowardly kid who didn't need to be constantly threatened with the burning flames of hell, and I was always too headstrong for blind faith.

I think the moment I truly lost my religion was when I was 23 years old, and I was reading The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky nailed my sentiments exactly in the chapter in which Ivan had his nightmare tete-a-tete with the devil and wondered why God would bother giving us free will if His endgame was to get us to follow Him blindly.

Ah ha! If He was the one who bestowed upon us the gift of rational thinking which might lead us to reject Him, could he really blame us if we did? Why stop at creating man in His own image? Why not also fill man (and woman) with the unwavering desire to follow Him? Wouldn't that have made everything so much easier?

I, for one, have never been able to bring myself to totally reject Him or believe in Him. So what does that make me? I'm not sure. Atheism has always seemed too cold and austere. Agnosticism falls more within the borders of my philosophical scope, but it's still a bit too vague for someone like me who likes to define things.

I feel that there has to be something, or someone, bigger than us. When I look at the world, and I see all of the beauty and organized chaos in nature, I feel that it's not merely a product of science. Yes, science had its place, but maybe someone set science into motion. The Big Bang theory and creationism are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but that's a topic for another post. Or not.

Despite my tendency toward theistic evolution, what I haven't been able to fully embrace in organized religion (besides all of the judgement and intolerance) is the traditional Western concept of God. I have a difficult time believing that there is someone watching over me, a God pulling the strings whom I can thank for all of the good I have in my life, and one who only demands that I worship Him in return.

Besides the obvious arrogance of a character who would create an entire race to worship Him or else, there is the "Why me?"/"Why them?" factor: Why do some people get to be rich and famous, or beautiful, or finders of true love? Is God really responsible when someone wins a Grammy? Why do some people have to live with the burden of blindness or deafness or limited mobility? They say 1 out of 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Is He pulling the strings to determine who will be the lucky/unlucky ones? Why them?

These questions have never been answered to my satisfaction and as long as they aren't, I will continue to doubt Him. I respect those who don't feel as I do. If devoutness gets you through the night, then by all means, hang on to it. And if it's just too fantastical for you to accept it, then don't. God knows (if He exists), that if I had been raised on Greek mythology, and not just reading books about it, I wouldn't be so quick to bow to Zeus, who was basically a gigolo in a toga.

Aside from The Brothers Karamazov, the thing that influenced me most when it comes to my religious views was a class on Eastern religion that I took in college. The ones we studied seemed to be based more on psychological concepts than the Western ones with which I was most familiar.

I found a book called The Teaching of Buddha in the drawer by the bed in my hotel suite in Bangkok. I guess I should have known better than to expect The Holy Bible in Thailand, a country where Buddhism is the primary religion. I opened the book, and the first words I read spoke to me more powerfully than anything I'd read in years.

"Where is the source of human grief, lamentation, pain and agony? Is it not to be found in the fact that people are generally desirous.

They cling obstinately to lives of wealth and honor, comfort and pleasure, excitement and self indulgence ignorant of the fact that the desire for these very things is the source of human suffering."

It's easier for me to embrace a philosophically sound idea that I can apply to my everyday life than it is for me to accept being told that heaven awaits only if I follow some arbitrary life plan. Religion is supposed to make us better people, yet historically, it's spawned so much physical and psychological turmoil. Major wars (including the ongoing one on terrorism) have been fought in its name, and too many people use it to justify their intolerance (the Bible often being cited as a reason by many, including Sherri Shepherd on The View, to deny gays the right to marry). I'm too skeptical and suspicious to buy into all of that.

I like the idea of picking and choosing bits from different religions and applying them to your life in a way that works for you. And while you are selecting what to use and what not to use, remember to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's called the golden rule for a reason. Follow it, and so much that is good will fall right into place.


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