A Few Words on Why I Don’t Believe What I Don’t, and Why I Believe What I Do
James Ishmael Ford
In a recent blog posting I celebrated a singular Anglican thinker, but quickly digressed into a rumination on how I find the premises upon which the Christian churches are founded to be past unlikely. I continued to say there could easily be a new church not based in theism, but elsewhere. This fairly quickly generated a rejoinder from an Anglican cleric and one or two who agreed with him. The most positive response of the critics was that one thought maybe I was close to being a believer. But on balance I was dismissed as if my disbelief in a god was at best misguided, but more likely wild-eyed ravings unrelated to reality.
I felt called to pull some of my thoughts together as regard religion.
An old friend was asked if he believed in God? He replied no. He was then asked if he were an atheist? He replied, no. Frustrated, the questioner asked, what do you believe? He replied, as little as possible.
I consider this the great method of spiritual inquiry. Look. Listen. Touch. Feel. Smell. Consider. Don’t draw conclusions too quickly. And all along the way believe, hold some view as axiomatic only when you must. And even then always be prepared to revise your belief in the face of new information. However, this doesn’t mean there is nothing to find. Far from it. Rather, I believe we are often looking in the wrong direction and using the wrong tools.
Unlike my hard atheist friends I do not find belief in a deity the source of the ills of humanity, not that people haven’t done very bad things in the name of various gods. The truth is people do bad things, and they seem always able to find a good excuse for doing those bad things. Now a god telling them to do what they want to do has been pretty standard operating since from just about forever. However the rise of the modern atheist states have shown how easy it is to substitute another outsized justification to do the ills to others if we really want.
I can experience a frisson of fear when I hear some current horror perpetrated by followers of some religion or other, in my corner of the globe usually Muslim. But, let’s be real, Christian rhetoric condemning some “other” can be bone-chilling, as well. And it isn’t hard to picture hard times with some Christian fundamentalist strapping a bomb to himself and visiting someone taken as not really human. And, frankly, as far as the propensity to violence goes, no big religion is off the hook from Hinduism to Buddhism to Judaism. That said, I think it more reasonable to lay bottom-line responsibility to deeper currents of the human heart simply given justification by their religion. Religions are used to justify those deeper currents that one wise person saw as constellations of greed, and hatred, and certainties.
Nonetheless, I do not believe there is a god in the sense of an entity with a human-like consciousness that exists outside of the causal world, but can reach in and change things as it wills. For the most part I find the belief patently human projection. And the evidences of intervention offered up kind of shabby and often sad, like the saving of one child from some horror while tens of thousands of others are not rescued. The arguments I’ve seen in favor of such a god existing simply do not convince me.
The most compelling of them is probably the argument from design, and setting aside that it supports none of the major religions but rather some form of deism, still, me, I simply see no necessity in leaping from seeing everything exists in patterns to thinking a human-like consciousness is at the source of it. I think there’s a vastly more useful conclusion to draw from the observation of pattern in the universe and our human lives. And it is that we human beings can discern them, and discern them in ways with practical application. This suggests to me, not a deity at the heart of it, but that we can know things, not all things, but many things with relative accuracy. And there is magic in that. Something wonderful.
But, to finish with the deity and the closely related soul, before moving on to things that I believe are true. I do not think believing in a god or gods a kind of mental illness as some of my friends opine. Nor do I think there’s no strong evidence one way or the other and intellectually honest people can go either way. I think the belief in a god and the idea of a soul an unfortunate consequence of the way our brains work. Some animals are fast, some are strong, some can fly. We are smart. We observe, and can slice and dice what we observe, and project from that and make decisions. This has made us the most successful creature on the planet. But, like with any animal gifted with an edge through the workings of evolution, that thing isn’t a perfect thing.
And it turns out the shadow of our ability to observe and plan is an inclination to reifying the things we see. That is we see ourselves as nouns when in fact we are verbs. What has been useful for us in many ways, when it comes to how we understand ourselves, this skillset betrays us. We think we are permanent when we are not, and we project our image into the sky and worship it, when the universe is vastly more complex and mysterious and wonderful than our imaginings.
I am deeply taken with the Buddhist analysis that points out the dis-ease of our human condition, the anxiety, anguish, longing we find as universal human experience comes right out of this misunderstanding of who we are and our place in the universe. I think there are some internal contradictions within the Buddhist analysis that need to be questioned, but the general thrust that we find ourselves wounded in some real way, and that it comes out of our misunderstanding of who we are a critical insight.
Based on what I’ve said to this point it should be obvious I’m a big fan of human reason, and its most lovely child, scientific method. Big fan. These have proven to be the most reliable tools we have among the many tools we use. But, of course, they are tools. What reason and scientific method lets us do is know the world around us, and the ways we ourselves are made up with ever increasing accuracy. They allow us to approach the how of things, and with enormous consequence.
What they do not do is explain the why of things. No great revelation in this observation. People have noticed this for a long time. Now, for ages religions were the repository of our collective wisdom about both how and why. Over the years science in its various disciplines have all separated from religions, and in my opinion to the good of both. We still see religions attempting to describe the how of the world by reference to ancient texts, and how persisting in that brings disrepute to the whole religious project. The sooner they get over it, the better for everyone.
But, what about that why? I find as I disentangle the sacred texts of the world that I’ve read, not a whole lot, but the Bible, mostly the Bible, but also the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, some of the Vedas, a bit more of the Upanishads, a variety of the Chinese texts including the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, the Chuantzu, a handful of other writers, a fistful of Buddhist Sutras, and most deeply the koan anthologies, and of course commentators on much of the above, I’ve noticed they are all subject to critical analysis. The older the texts the more likely they are patched together and represent a variety of opinions only loosely congruent. So, as best I can tell from my reading the scriptures, seeing coherence in the Bible taken together is more an act of will than of anything else.
I believe the official sacred texts are neither collections of adages and prejudices that simply exist to order society, nor am I precisely a perennialist, that interesting assertion that all the world’s religions are at core teaching the same thing, and that these texts all teach some same message. Rather I think they represent the best efforts of human beings to get a handle on the great why.
I have a deep and abiding sympathy for the religious project, the great investigation of why.
Of course, there is another question bubbling within that why. Why a why?
I find it some deeply human thing. It is about the hurt of our lives. It is about uncertainty. Pursuing the why of things is about human love.
And it is here while I find the scientific enterprises have been helpful, they hint at some of the hows of the quest for why, but they cannot carry me across the river. And I believe there is a farther shore.
The story of Job speaks to that place, where in the end Job’s prayer is answered, not by words but by presence. A terrible and beautiful presence. Which we tend to experience as love.
And it is that thing upon which I hang all my hopes.
And it is here I find myself mining the spiritual traditions.
I’ve come to cherish a handful of writings considered primary sacred texts. The book of Job, Ecclesiastes, the Gospel of Mark, the Tao Te Ching, the Diamond and the Heart Sutras, the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, and the Gateless Gate. A few others. A few more that would considered commentarial or secondary. Mostly these are Zen Buddhists, but also mystics from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Some Hindus. Several Taoists.
But nothing has proven as useful as the two great disciplines of the Zen way. The first the practice of presence distilled into an active sitting, engaged with the moment. The second a path of inquiry into the realities of our lives through ancient questions, guided by people who have found them pointers of the heart and who have lived with them for many years.
There are other things that can help. My little mind bubble that started this, touching on a Christian church without expecting belief in a deity describes a possible way in.
In my youth I prayed to know God. I prayed with complete earnestness, with the fullness perhaps only a youth can muster with a deal. Show me your face and after that you can kill me. I meant it. And I was met with silence.
Many years have passed. Today, by most conventions I’m an atheist. That is I do not believe in a human-like consciousness that directs things. In a universe of uncertainty I come as close as a human mind can to certainty that there is no deity that acts within history.
And, within my experience there is something. Sometimes I call it presence. Sometimes I call it love. I suspect I know the grubby roots of that love, how it arises within my mammalian consciousness. But, it seems to have a larger existence, as well.
I’ve found how the Unitarian Universalist two truths that the individual is precious and that the individual is created out of a world of mutuality results in an experience of love. I’ve found how the (Zen) Buddhist two truths that everything and everybody in the universe is mutually created through a dance of causality, and that everything and everybody in the universe has no substance, but rather is wildly open, boundless results in an experience of love.
Of course this love is completely a-moral. It is desire and it can extend beyond desire. And it is here I think we find our work as human beings. The Hindu sage Sri Nisargadatta gives a further wrinkle on it all, when he says “wisdom is knowing I am nothing. Love is knowing I am everything, and between the two my life moves.” I find a pointer in this.
How my life is directed out of this experience, and how a range of behaviors as ideals and as pointers, and as warnings emerge. The five Buddhist precepts perhaps the clearest of the many intuitions of this path of intimacy, this path of love.
What I find in this world of hurt and loss is something precious and powerful, terrible and beautiful.
Out of the silence I have indeed found something. As a word love falls so short. It has to do too much work, standing for sentimentality and the burning away of self and other, and so much in between. And presence, well, it doesn’t quite work, either.
But. Language is like that. Falls short. And, and, points…
If we want a meaning in a world that exists beyond meaning and meaninglessness, I suspect this encounter with, if you’ll excuse the image: the face of the divine, is it. Not the god who created heaven and earth, but the god beyond all ideas of a god. The silence on the other side of our chattering about a god. Another name: Presence. Another name: Love. This place this presence is a path to walk. It is a sea in which to swim.
Our source and our sustenance and our destiny.
A terrible and beautiful presence.