Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Atheism, Science, and Zen

In the recent Atheism post, Doug commented, "I don't pay much attention to Dawkins since he took up the provocateur robe... Personally I find arguments against the existence God as frail and unconvincing as those for him." So perhaps it's possible to get muddled on either side of the razor's edge, in belief in God or in no-God. How do we navigate?

In the Zen traditon I practice, the fundamental point, the one pure and clear thing, is what I perceive and what I do in this moment. In a formal kong-an (Jp: "koan") interview, the Master might place a bell in front of you and ask, "Does this bell exist, or is it emptiness?" The "correct" answer is to pick up the bell and ring it.

The key point isn't whether you call it a "bell" or anything else; that's just a name. It isn't whether you think of it as existing or illusory; those are just ideas. As human beings, our job is to connect with the just-now situation right in front of us. What can you do?

Making names for the bell, or holding ideas about the bell, is something extra and unnecessary, like painting legs on a picture of a snake. Likewise, names for God (e.g. Energy, Mind, Buddha, Truth, etc), and holding ideas about God... may be a distraction from our job.

How does this whole issue of God vs Atheism connect with how we actually live our moment-to-moment lives? In many situations, we have a choice between following something external (i.e., believing what we're told by an authority, a scripture, or a group), or looking to our own experience. I believe that when Dawkins speaks of "religion" or "God," he's fundamentally criticizing this tendency to believe in an authority. When he speaks of "science" or "rationality," he's fundamentally encouraging us to instead to look to our own perceptions (and understandings based on these experiences/experiments).

From this perspective, I can appreciate Dawkins and the other "New Atheists." That is, I spent much of my life following the assertions of others (authorities religious or otherwise). At those moments when I can put aside all those words and ideas that come from outside, and return to just-now experience... there's a wonderful sense of clarity.

I do see a connection between scientific method and Zen practice. In both cases, we must completely put down what authorities tell us will happen, what we want to happen, what we expect to happen. All that matters is what does happen, what we directly perceive and experience. In Zen, we speak of a clear mirror, which reflects the moment without adding or subtracting anything with our thinking. Doesn't scientific method take a similar stance?

It seems like a natural maturing process, to move away from following authorities and towards seeing for ourselves. As individuals, we begin life by blindly following our parents, then slowly we grow towards believing in ourselves. As the human race, we've moved from superstition and dogmas, and are slowly moving towards testing things for ourselves ("science"). To whatever extent we've made this leap as individuals, we can be available to help others who are ready to do so. To the extent that Dawkins et al are doing this: wonderful.

I'm not sure, though, that there's the need or possibility of completely putting aside following authorities. On my recent trip to Europe, I often found myself in situations where I had no understanding of the language or rules of the surrounding culture. My default strategy at these times was to follow what everyone else was doing. This seemed like the best option, and indeed, it seems like DNA in her wisdom has hard-wired this default strategy into us when we're born.

Perhaps for many people at many times, believing and following is the best option. Perhaps individuals and societies survive best this way... as long as there's a balance: there must also be some people who are experimenting, exploring, pushing the envelope by questioning the conventional wisdom and thinking independently. This balance between belief and doubt may be the natural order of things. That's why I don't always feel the need to consider religion like a disease that would best be eliminated. I may part company with the New Atheists here (though some of them might share this "live and let live" attitude).

Scientific method has been a huge help to me in putting down superstitious/religious beliefs. In ashrams, you'll often find hundreds of people who share a belief, e.g., that if the guru hands you an object, you can feel his spiritual energy radiating from it. It's very easy to fall into accepting such beliefs as truth. Through rational testing though (and perhaps no other method), we can demonstrate that such felt energy is mind-created. It's something like a casino, in which it really feels like you can predict where the roulette ball will land, and almost all gamblers have strong belief in such feelings. Yet rational testing proves such feelings to be imaginary.

On the other hand, Dawkins and his followers often seem to hold out hope that everything can eventually be explained by science, and I can't believe that. Who am I? Why am I alive? Why is there something rather than nothing? Along with Socrates, I'd say that we must ultimately make peace with Don't Know. My original Zen teacher always said that this Don't Know Mind is better than anything.

To add legs to this snake just a little... in Zen teaching, looking for God is like seeking water in the ocean. "God" is a name for the substance of everything; there's nothing that's not God. This means that whatever situation is in front of me in each moment is, by definition, already "God." It follows that I can forget about "God," and put all my energy and attention towards responding to just-now.


goooooood girl said...

i like......

gniz said...

Great post Stuart...
However, I think the atheists in general are trying to dispel notions of a "God" that are far more unrealistic and perhaps even damaging than what you're asserting.

Most atheists don't necessarily have a problem with belief or consideration that there may be a kind of overarching "oneness", wholeness, whatever you want to call it...

They have a problem with fundamentalism and the kind of ignorance, violence, etc. that it tends to perpetrate.