Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ya Don't Gotta Believe!

The recent CNN.com article Religious belief is human nature huge new study claims begins, "Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings, a massive new study of cultures all around the world suggests."

This is no surprise if we consider our distant ancestors. Cavemen who failed to see tigers in the bushes often died too early to pass on their genes. Those who saw tigers even when they weren't there may have been stressed-out, but they survived and procreated just fine.

Evolution must therefore favor those who perceive patterns, whether they really exist or not. (If you have any doubts of this, look up at the clouds and see the duckies.) Perceiving patterns leads to perceiving meaning and purpose, where they exist and where they don't. Hence, the natural and instinctive "religion" that CNN reports.

Buddhists -- not to mention Existentialists -- would say that originally there's no meaning or purpose. If we want them, then we make them ourselves. This view can be learned and practiced, but it doesn't come instinctively to us from the get-go.

There's evidence all around that religious belief is inherent. Consider the May 21 doomsday scare. Ordinary-appearing people devoted their lives to a belief in end-times prophesy, based on the flimsiest of evidence.

Or watch Sister Wives on the TLC cable channel. Perfectly functional people, risking arrest by following a polygamous belief-system. God bless 'em, it's horrific that the government harasses them... but how can these otherwise intelligent people follow a religion that defies simple arithmetic? (If men have multiple wives, but no women have multiple husbands, it simply doesn't add up.)

The majority of us follow religions that are obviously silly; this is solid evidence that we're hard-wired to believe. Yet it's possible to live and learn. As I go through life, I find less and less interest in holding beliefs, and more and more in questioning, watching, wondering.

Often I've encountered people proclaiming beliefs unsupported by logic or evidence. Many seem to embrace a belief purely because it's old, or popular, or written in a dusty book, or asserted by charismatic people in fancy costumes. I ask the faithful why they choose to hold their beliefs, and have repeatedly heard responses like, "You've got to believe in something. You can't live without belief."

A while back, in the ayahuasca-soaked web zine Reality Sandwich, Charles Eisenstein wrote:
Last time I wrote about this, a commentator suggested that we not “believe” anything. I find this position disingenuous, akin to certain misunderstood Eastern teachings about non-attachment. We are born into the world of flesh and dust, and are not meant to be aloof from it. We are meant to experience the joys and sorrows of attachment. If you want to build a bridge, or a relationship, you have to believe something and act accordingly. You believe the steel will hold. You believe someone will do as she has said. Life in the world is built of beliefs. The world is built of stories. We enact them and live in the world that they create.
I suspect that the commentator he's referring to is me. Whatever. To the above assertion, I replied thusly:
The point isn't believing vs not-believing. It's whether or not you recognize belief for what it is. When you embrace a belief, do you recognize it as your own creation? As a choice that you can examine and question? Or do you assume that your chosen beliefs represent substantial truth (as "religious" people do)?

The use of the passive-voice "meant to be" belies our own power to examine and question beliefs. Who or what is it that "means" for us to do this or that? Are we assuming there's some God or Force that decides that we're "meant to" feel this or that? Or do we take responsibility for how we choose and create our own meaning?

You could say, e.g., "I choose to see myself as living in a world of flesh and dust, and I want to be attached to the joys and sorrows of this world." Wouldn't that be clearer than speculating about what's "meant to be"?

To question your chosen beliefs is hardly being "aloof" from the world. Indeed, taking refuge in a belief-system is a common strategy to avoid engaging with the living experience of each moment. When these joys and sorrows appear... how much are you present for the experience itself? How much are these experiences filtered through a belief-system?

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