Sometimes I want to found my own religion, but then I remember L. Ron Hubbard. And Joseph Smith. Apparently, you can’t found a modern religion without being cynical or a crackpot.
See, I’ve been reading about Buddhism. Not just recently, but over the past fifteen-plus years since I took a course in college. There’s a lot of kooky stuff in there, like in all religions: karma and reincarnation and celestial Buddhas and magic and demons. But it’s also a religion that meshes fairly well with the secular, scientific modern world. At its core, Buddhism is an agnostic religion, at least when it comes to gods, and its tenet of mindfulness is close to the scientific ideal of observation.
I’ve said a lot over the years that if I were forced to pick a religion, it would be Buddhism. But several things have increasingly bothered me about it in recent years. An old Slate article by John Horgan that I just came across explores some of those conundrums. I could quibble with a lot of his statements, or at least rhetoric. (For instance, saying that karma and reincarnation “imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness” seems to fundamentally misunderstand the metaphorical process of karma. Might as well say that the processes of genetic variance and natural selection imply some god-like guiding hand to raise some deserving species to dominance and condemn others to extinction. In the case of both evolution and karma, the key difference from theistic religion is that there is no Santa Claus.)
But as you see, this quickly devolves into theology. That just leads to doctrinal schism and different denominations and to one side calling themselves the High Road and the other side the Low Road.
It’s actually his conclusion that dovetails with the topic that’s been on my mind for many years:
All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.
Argh. Again, I quibble with his word choice. “Incidental, accidental, happenstance.” They imply the religious disappointment of a lapsed Catholic asking about the meaning of life. It’s a non-sequitur. Only we create meaning. It does not exist without consciousness. And contrary to our self-importance, there is no evidence that the universe would be any the less without our meaning. “What is the meaning of an apple? Of dirt? Of pavement?” Nothing is incidental, accidental, or happenstance. Everything simply is.
(“Is” demonstrates the insufficiency of English when attempting to capture these notions that are at odds with the some-odd millennia of Western thought. “Is” implies stasis. Essence. The sine qua non of a subject. But what I mean is that, “Everything simply dances. Everything simply changes. Everything simply moves invisibly. Everything simply does what it must do.” That’s a lot of freight for a single word, and “is” doesn’t really carry it well, but we’re stuck with it for now.)
But I digress…
Horgan hits the nail on the head with his last line. Can any form of spirituality be compatible with the scientific method? I sure hope so, because the uncertainty of science is not compatible with the human brain. People seem to need the certainty of religion, or at least the comfort of religious practice. And while science as an abstract, devoid of the personalities that fuel its progress, seeks truth, something in the human mind craves certainty. Buddhism appears to be the only religion that attempts to make peace with the uncertainty of the universe (multiverse?) and of human existence within that often unfathomable emptiness that contains everything.
Yet Buddhism has thousands of years of often unwieldy baggage, so perhaps it is not the answer for modern suffering/ennui/existential doubt/uncertainty. Hence, I wish I could start a new religion, one with no god and one that made people comfortable with the perpetual disproof of the scientific method. I’m uncomfortable with some atheists who seem to deify science and make it into Science with the same sort of unassailable Truths that they decry in religion. Humans need some sort of spirituality that can embrace both the intuition of religious/creative experience and the reason of the scientific method. Without it, I’m afraid that the religious meme, which has been such a powerful thought virus throughout human history, will wipe out the brief flowering of scientific enlightenment that we take for granted today.
Unfortunately, I think I’d be a pretty shitty prophet, so I hope someone else is up to the task. And I hope they’re not a nutjob, fraud, crackpot, or thief. And that the high priests who inherit the new religion aren’t power-mad, duplicitous dicks.
What are the odds? History suggests nil.