Home > philosophy, religion > The Road to Atheism Part IX: Journey into the East

The Road to Atheism Part IX: Journey into the East

This is a story that I think may be typical of some Atheists, it as at least typical in my experience as two that I have known have gone on the exact same path. It deals with seeing a new culture, realizing that it is new, and then realizing that it isn’t so new. I’ll have to explain that a bit.

One concept that I hear as being the most dreaded of the Conservative set, is that of multi-culturalism. I don’t undertand this dread, it’s as if having knowledge about people that are different than you is somehow bad. This isn’t unique to the United States either, I want to be clear on that, France is particularly bad on the acceptance of cultures that aren’t French. Still anyone that opposes the introduction of a new culture to an already existing one, is just fighting a losing battle. The tide of history tends toward this interaction. I have also yet to have anyone make an explanation toward why multi-culturalism is bad. Why? Because I might learn something? Oh no, knowledge. (This is different than what is known as multi-cultural education, which I find to be bad because it tends to not focus on the education part, and more on how everyone is special…they are not the same)

If I had to guess, I would think it was because one group doesn’t like to have their ideas challenged. That’s the only guess I can make with some reasonable confidence. That’s obviously work for a sociologist. In school, prior to college, there wasn’t a great deal of discussion of other religions. As a Catholic, we were taught about Judaism for obvious reasons, and a tiny bit about Islam. Given that the three religions are all Abrahamic it would be academically irresponsible not to at least mention them and how they are different. As far as the Eastern religions were concerned there was only the mention that they existed. There wasn’t even a casual remark about whether they were wrong, they just were a thing that happened in far off places. It was up the person to pursue knowledge about them if they wanted to.

There’s a curious debate on the internet about the Eastern religions and whether they ought to be considered “atheistic religions.” If you google up “Atheism” and “Buddhism” for instance you’ll find message boards with posts discussing how perfectly consistent it is to be both an Atheist and a Buddhist, the most common claim is that Buddhism isn’t a religion it’s a philosophy. This is unmitigated bullshit. Buddhism, Taoism (I use the “T” some people use the “D”), Hinduism, are all religions. Perhaps, you can consider Confucianism to not be a religion along the lines that it is more a system of laws than anything else, but even that’s a stretch. I think it was Hitchens that once wrote that everyone is an Atheist, it’s just that religious people deny one less religion.

If Agnosticism is Atheism for those unwilling to committ either way, then “going-Eastern” is for those people who want religion but don’t want the discipline of Abrahamic traditions. That’s probably going to be a controversial statement, but a person going from Christianity to Buddhism is rarely committing to the robes, the diet, and the constant meditation. More than likely, they are going to be dilletantes. It’s also unlikely that they had a “Saul on his way to Damascus” moment and instead had a “this sounds cool and whatever they are all the same anyway” moment.

In the Baghavad Gita, the god Krishna states, “no matter which of the false gods a person worships in the end he worships me.” All of the religions in the world, all of the major ones anyway, have essentially the same moral code. The prohibitions against murder, theft, lying, being a general asshole are all there. So if a doubting Catholic picks up the “Seven Pillars of Zen” they can find that while they have to behave in roughly the same manner they don’t have to go to church every Sunday, instead having to meditate which you can skip if you feel like it. Furthermore since Zen doesn’t require you to deny other religious figures, you can still keep the belief in Jesus and hedge that bet. The change isn’t that drastic. It’s more like chanigng teams than changing sports.

The primary differences between the world religions are texts and practices. The text issue isn’t that major, especially now when they are all available on the internet. After all, openeness is what separates religion from cult (i.e. you shouldn’t have to pay to learn about a religion). It’s really just a matter of sitting down and reading the texts themselves. Some of the texts, like the aforementioned Baghavad Gita are much shorter than the Abrahamic Bible, in fact most of the Eastern religious texts are shorter (with the exception of the Hindu Upanashads).

My Eastern experience was with Taoism. A religion with no god to speak of, although there are some gods in a cultural aspect. I was first introduced to the religion through the classic “Art of War” by Sun Tzu. In this book Sun (“Tzu” means “teacher” or “master”) outlines strategems by which a general could win wars. One of his estimations is to determine which general posesses “the way.” He is referring to having the blessing of the divine. Looking back now, I realize that he means which ruler has the blessings of fortune, but this constant referral to the “Way” made me wonder what it was. The word for “way” is “Tao” in Chinese and its referent is host of many things. Without getting into Chinese language etymology, I can say that my inquiry led me to Lao Tzu’s book the “Tao Te Ching” (The Way and its Virtue). A book of proverbs with some morality, cosmology, and life lessons all told in little poems. It runs maybe a hundred pages, it’s a quick book to read and possesses some decent wisdom for life. For instance instead of pushing forward in a task the sage, “instead of advancing an inch retreats a foot.” In other words, maybe take a step back, breath, and then proceed forward. The Tao itself is rather enigmatic, it cannot be conceptualized or defined but it exists permeating through all things and underwriting the existence of the universe. Fans of Greek Philosophy will find a resemblance in Heraclitus’ “Logos.” If that’s too obscure think of Yoda’s description of the Force in Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas didn’t invent it out of whole cloth. From the Tao Te Ching, I proceeded to the book of Chuang Tzu, called simply, the Way of Chuang Tzu. This is a book more of parables to drive home the proverbs in the previous book. It’s a simple religion that requires almost nothing of the adept. It’s de-centralized, there’s no real authority figure and it has the built in martial art of Tai-Chi Chuan. What more could you want?

Admittedly now, it was the uniqueness of the religion that appealed to me…well that and no church. I have yet to meet another person who can claim that they are/were a Taoist. Not even the pretend kind that I have met in droves considering themselves Buddhists. Which is one of the problems with the Eastern religions. While I am sure that there are people that have truly converted into Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, or Hinduism; most of the people that I have met that claim to have converted, are doing just that–making a claim because it sounds cool and makes them unique. It allows them to make an assertion that makes me shudder whenever I hear it, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” They seem to think that these religions are not religions but ways of life, as if being religions doesn’t contain the word “being” in it. Religion is a way of life, and if you are a Buddhist you are not an Atheist. Which is a huge problem I have with the relationship Westerners have with the Eastern religions.

For some reason they get the pass that the Western religions do not. I hear it quite frequently, and not just on the internet either. At a non-academic philosophy club I used to attend but for reasons of annoyance I very infrequently go to anymore, we were discussing religion. And, as can be expected, there were a lot of people bashing religion. Criticism of Judaism tends to be muffled because no one wants to be considered an anti-semite as if it’s impossible to criticize the religion without attacking the people. Christianity, as to be expected, took the brunt of the criticism. When I began to attack Hinduism and Buddhism I was met with a surprising amount of resistance. Especially from a person who apparently wanted to spend the entire meeting bragging about how much Zen-Buddhism made him special. The irony is that if I attacked that same person only he was talking about how he found peace through submission to Allah, or through Jesus; I wouldn’t have encountered the same push back. Why does this Buddhist get the pass? Because it’s not native. That’s it, and there’s some romanticizing of the person who gives up their belongings to attain peace with the divine; despite the fact that Jesus literally says the exact same thing.

My disillusionment with the Eastern religions came about because I kept meeting the same type of person that I mentioned above. It was one of those mirror moments, where you see a person acting like a smug idiot and you wonder if that’s how you appear to everyone else. I realized that being different for differences sake didn’t really help you attain enlightenment or whatever it was that you were after. The wisdom of the Taoists wasn’t anything different you could get in any other religion, in fact, all it really was was dressed up common sense. Getting angry at things you can’t change is foolish says the sage (although that’s not a quote). That’s not unique to Taoism, in fact Roman Emperor Marcus Aurellius says the same thing in his Meditations. The advice is good, but it’s not taken from the divine it’s just made up by people who educated themselves and reflected on their life. Of course, my observations of this kind were met with resistance from reverse cultural superiority types (I don’t know if that’s the correct term but these are the people that automatically assume that if its from a different culture its better).

These people were infuriating. Buddhism isn’t better because it’s not Catholicism, it has to be better on something more than just its accidental differences. There must be something essentially better because accidental qualities are just that, accidental qualities. Buddhism is more than just inter-connectedness of life and karma (especially considering that Karma is Hinduism). I was on the defensive with this guy and he didn’t know what he was talking about. I knew the type, and just like how fundamentalist types like Falwell and Phelps give decent Christians a bad name, here it is the least fundamentalist that ruin it for the Eastern religions. Mainly because they possess a different type of ignorance. They like the shine of the foreign religion, but have no understanding of the meat. Just like a guy in the cafe conspicuously reading Proust, they can’t tell you one thing in it other than what everyone knows. Why is it “Free-Tibet” and not “Free-Taiwan,” or even better, “Free-China?”

Here’s a religious paradox you can meditate on: how is it that I am supposed to reject all desire and all sense of self, and yet still want to achieve Moksha or Nirvana? That’s a contradiction, I can’t want to not want. It’s like purposefully forgetting something, it can’t be done. And while Hinduism has a great epic poem, it has all the problems that organized religion has in the West. Not any of these have anything philosophically over the Western religions.

“But,” our goateed, sandal, ponytail, Proust reader will reply, “If they’re all the same shouldn’t we pick the one that hasn’t committed the atrocities that the Abrahamic religions have? There is no Buddhist version of the Crusades or the inquisition. Taoism doesn’t have the corruption, so isn’t it better at least morally?”

No it’s not. For the simple reason that backward thinking, and religious wars aren’t unique to the Western hemisphere. Ignorance to history doesn’t mean that history didn’t happen. Islam has its wars but then so did Taoism throughout the history of China. There were schisms, book burnings, forced codification. None of these things bear the catchy title of “Crusade” but they did happen. Prejudice against other people? Sure, Hinduism has got that, the caste system which renders an entire group of people as being unworthy of assistance–literally untouchable is justified through the doctrine of reincarnation. In a past life they did something to deserve their present station. They are literally at fault for being born, just as the Jewish notion of inherited sin.

“But c’mon,” the bespectacled teenager with a worn out Beastie Boys tee shirt replies, “that’s not me. I’m a Zen Buddhist, surely there’s nothing in its past that comes close to the inquisition.”

Oh, so its genocide you like? How about the tragedies inflicted upon China and the Pacific by Imperial Japan in the 30s? The emperor, who was considered a literal god through the combination of native Japanese ancestor worship religion of Shinto and their version of Zen, wasn’t just giving orders to the Japanese people he was giving commandments. When you are the chosen people, and god is literally speaking to you, its much easier to commit the crimes the Japanese did in Nanking than otherwise.

“But,” our horn-rimmed glasses, hemp skirt, alternative medicine woman will retort, “that wasn’t real Buddhism.”

Not it wasn’t, that’s a good point. However the Crusades weren’t real Christianity either. The problem is that without the historical knowledge the Eastern religions come off as being morally cleaner than their Western counterparts. It however only seems that way. Sex-scandal in the Catholic church? The same thing happens in the Hindu temples, there’s even sexual slavery among the women of the lower castes. Religion standing in the way of progress like that of Galileo’s trial, how about Ghandi’s belief that India ought to scrap the industrialization that had begun and return to simple village farming? It sounds good until you get the rampant starvation. For all the good that he did, his religiously motivated non-violence wouldn’t even allow him to approve of the fighting against the Nazis.

Despite the misuse and historical travesties the edicts of these religions all appeal to the same wishful thinking wrapped in local mythology. If you think that Buddhism isn’t a religion then please explain the virgin birth and the prophecies surrounding the Buddha himself. Ultimately all of these do the same thing, they consider this life to be the least important only a test for the next life. Whether its reincarnation into a rich man through Karma, or the eventual dissolution of the ego into Nirvana, it’s all the same. Maybe they don’t possess hell (eh, the Chinese mythologies have a lot of hells), no Sunday services, but in the end they aren’t any different. You can’t be an Atheist and a Buddhist/Taoist.

I finally faltered from Taoism when I realized that, as I said earlier, it was just common sense wrapped in translated words that sounded more profound. Like my Catholic experience, I don’t lament my delving into it, wisdom is wisdom no matter how it’s cloaked. However, I don’t need the force to tell me it. If anything pretending they are different is just self-deception, and Plato has told us how well that works.


hint: it doesn’t

Categories: philosophy, religion
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  1. July 3, 2012 at 2:07 am

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