Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Food for Thought: The Need for Gods

The week before last, Bill Moyers interviewed Robert Wright, author of the new book, The Evolution of God (which I haven't yet read).

It was an interesting discussion but what stood out for me, as an atheist buddhist (yes, there are such creatures), was this exchange:

BILL MOYERS: But you're not saying that one has to be religious to be moral?

ROBERT WRIGHT: I'm absolutely not. I'm absolutely not. One of my own closer contacts with, I would say, a form of consciousness that's closer to the truth than everyday consciousness, came at a Buddhist meditation center. These were essentially secular Buddhists and that was the context of the experience.

But through the meditative practice performed intensively for a week. No contact with the outside world. No speaking. Five and a half hours of sitting meditation a day. Five and a half hours of walking meditation a day. I reached a state of consciousness that I think is closer to the truth about things than the form of consciousness that is kind of natural for human beings.

BILL MOYERS: Was it a consciousness that had an ethical and moral issue in it or was it a state of being? A state of simple acceptance?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Well, it absolutely had ethical implications because it involved much broader acceptance of other beings and it involved being less judgmental of other beings. I mean it reached almost ridiculous extremes. Look looking down at weeds and thinking, "I can't believe I've been killing those things. They're actually as pretty as the grass. Prettier."

But in the realm of humanity, I mean I was just by the end being very much less judgmental about just people I would see on the street.

And I would just my focus moved away from myself. And I think that is movement toward the truth. I mean the basic illusion natural selection builds into all of us is that we are special. You know, that's obviously something if you were natural selection you'd want to build into animals, right?

Because that's how you get them to take care of their own and get their genes into the next generation. But it really is an illusion and it's more fraught with ethical implications than we realize, I think. I mean it just suddenly blinds us to the truth about people I think.

BILL MOYERS: I do find more people like you who are seeking a spiritual practice without a governing deity presiding over it.

ROBERT WRIGHT: Yeah. It seems to work. Now these people, they do though, even these secular Buddhists I would say, they do believe in a transcendent source of meaning. They believe that there's something out there that is the moral truth and that they are aligning themselves with.

Secular perspective that doesn't not involve belief in anything that you might call transcendent, although that's a very tricky word.

My reaction was: why the need for a God figure then? Why isn't it enough to be able to look inside yourself and to see the "truth", as Wright experienced it?

I was also reminded of the concept in this quote by Alan Watts:

"To see the moon, you must forget the pointing finger, and simply look at the moon."

And , if you have the time and the inclination, I'd suggest reading his Lecture on Zen which expands on that quote and this idea that we need something beyond ourselves - some authority figure - some doctrine - in order to live a satisfying, complete life.

In the western world, although we like to think of ourselves as being much more free than foreign societies with their strange traditions and religions, we are still so undeniably bound to paternalism, dogma and conformity. Yet we somehow believe that our version of "freedom" is far superior. How free are we? Really? And why do we continue to support political and religious systems whose main aims are to tamp down that freedom in our lives?

I don't know if there's a "God gene". But I do know that when we willingly restrict ourselves by only holding onto whatever the conventional so-called wisdom of the day is while not examining how that only serves the power structures we have been taught are so absolutely necessary to our well-being (see this book by Alice Miller for an insightful look into the results of that), we only end up giving up whatever it is in each of us that could truly set us free.

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