Monday, May 18, 2009

Skepticism & Belief: Pew, Proust, Buddha

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
Rick Fields in his masterful "How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America," quotes one adherent, warier after one of the many sex scandals that in the 1980s rocked centers in the U.S., that these precepts "should be tattooed on our eyelids." Given her probable experience with meditation, I am not sure if it's inside the lid to miraculously enhance comprehension or on the reverse to elicit the gaze of intimate readers of necessarily tiny inked incisions, but still, the reminder of the veracity of these remarks from Shakyamuni Buddha's caution's admirable. I was reminded of them when an old high school classmate and friend-- who since he had left after his sophomore year I had not heard from for 32 years-- through Facebook contacted me and renewed a conversation (if much altered) about how both of us still sought tenuous, restless forms of belief or its opposite verity, even if now we had wandered far, both by marrying Jewish women and raising Jewish children, into realms unpredictably distant from our Irish Catholic upbringings.

On Facebook, I'd changed my quotation from Bloom's protest in Nighttown from my favorite novel, "Ulysses," to Foucault. "Visibility is a trap" appeared appropriate for the Net; but when Thomas Merton's "Our real journey is interior" popped up as the epigraph to Seán Dunne's memoir that I reviewed earlier this month (here and Amazon), "The Road to Silence," I figured bibliomancy cast its spell again on me. (It's from Merton's "Asian Journal," September 1968, less than three months before his sudden death; he apparently found himself ready for such a departure from what a contributor to an anthology I'm now studying on Merton & Buddhism calls "the human space-time continuum," in his recent understanding of how Buddhism fit into his Christian views and monastic practice.)

In Stephen Batchelor's epigraph to his agnostic apologia, "Buddhism Without Beliefs"-- surprisingly difficult little book to retrieve given that it's missing (Bad karma! I posted a review on Amazon US and this blog) from local libraries and always checked out from others--he has a related quote from Proust starting his defense of his existentialist philosophy that's confrontation with the Big Unanswerable Questions rather than consolation.
“We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we at last come to regard the world.”
I reviewed last week (here and on Amazon US) Veronica Chater's memoir "Waiting for the Apocalypse." In that, too, I found a kindred spirit, a Catholic girl a year younger than me, who had grown up in and then drifted apart from a strictly traditional, rigorously severe, "weltenschaaung," the Cold War-Fatima world-view that her father had of a "anti-revolutionary underground" determined to cling to a pre-modern attitude in both Catholicism and culture, even within 1970s California. The tension between outmoded orthodoxy and disco-era laxity (much as I hated disco!) entered my own teenaged world-view. As with Chaten, Proust, and former monk (in both Zen and Tibetan monasteries!) Batchelor, I stumbled towards an uneasy, more intellectual, less emotional understanding of my belief-system, or its denominational lack. This separation of one's identity from a venerable institution, be it lamasery or parish, shul or chapel, comes for many of us with no little hesitation.

Layne sent me this link. The Pew Forum think-tank's "Faith in Flux" reports nearly half of Americans have either left their childhood affiliation for another denomination, or lost faith altogether. Over one-fourth of all Americans have changed religions. As I expected, Catholics lead the way in leaving the pews.
Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change. Many people who leave the Catholic Church do so for religious reasons; two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, as do half of former Catholics who are now Protestant. Fewer than three-in-ten former Catholics, however, say the clergy sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision to leave Catholicism.
Many who left Catholicism do so out of a combination of gradual drift and a loss of belief in its teachings. The recent scandals may have accelerated some who went into mainstream or evangelical Protestant options, but many married an evangelical and/or became disenchanted with Church teachings on the Bible.
One-in-ten American adults is a former Catholic. Former Catholics are about evenly divided between those who have become unaffiliated and those who have become Protestant, with a smaller number leaving Catholicism for other faiths. In response to the yes-or-no questions about why they left the Catholic Church, nearly six-in-ten former Catholics who are now unaffiliated say they left Catholicism due to dissatisfaction with Catholic teachings on abortion and homosexuality, about half cite concerns about Catholic teachings on birth control and roughly four-in-ten name unhappiness with Catholicism's treatment of women.
There's a lot more of interest at this site for any explorers of the religious terrain that's being reshaped this new century. (See also James O'Toole's study of "The Faithful," on lay Catholicism in America, that I reviewed on the usual two places earlier this month.) I find such studies as fascinating as the attacks by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins (all reviewed by me on Amazon and here!) even though I step back from total agreement with what I find as exaggerated assaults on the tenets that many sincere people who do much good in our world still profess.

It's ungrateful and rude to condescend to criticize the beliefs held by loved ones, family members, and close friends. I tend to keep my counsel and do not confess my own unpredictable congerie of doubts and premises unless directly asked. I despise that annoying condescension that many "brights" carry in their dismissal of everyone else as dim.

The neo-atheists claim my sympathy for those who believe, if less intolerantly, exacerbates the problem by allying my namby-pamby inclusion to the causes of the spiteful adherent. The spokesmen claim that humanists ("brights" in Dawkins' neologism) could help heal our shattered planet much more effectively, if freed of genuflection to Lord Sky-God. With the possible exception of Harris, who as with so many other secular Jews admits a lingering liking for meditation (which may align him nicely with similar conclusions pondered by agnostic Batchelor!), those opposed to God(s) appear to place Buddhism on their "organized religion" hit list.

As Obama's inaugural address, a bit to my shock, recognized, we are as much a nation of "non-believers" and, say, Hindus, as the traditional Catholic and Protestant and the pro-forma ecumenical tagalongs Jews and Muslims. Don't recall if Barack mentioned Buddha, but I wonder how many Buddhists, New Agers, or pagans will constitute, along with atheists and agnostics, the next tally?

The anomaly of the U.S. being the most religious of industrially advanced nations has generated much scholarship here and little affection abroad. Will Americans ever elect a non-believer? They're by far the most despised group, according to voter polls. On the other hand, there's a lot of whiny "why do they hate us?" posturing that prominent atheists indulge in that weakens their appeal. The fact they belittle agnostics and humanists disinclined to confidently and utterly deny the possibility of a higher power may also alienate "brights" from a naturally sympathetic, if less dogmatic, audience. I think we have only one in Congress now who's secure enough in his seat to avow his atheism; I suspect our President's far less pious than he lets on, or had to pretend to get elected from the Chicago ghettoes movin' on up to his current bully pulpit.

Still, as Obama's complicated childhood-- father born Muslim who turned atheist, mother Midwest Christian by background but never a churchgoer, quite opposed to religion and anti-American in her sentiments except apparently when she needed an education or welfare in between her hippie sojourns overseas--- such storied identifications that long served our "American Gothic" and log-cabin-to-the-White House-myths keep, as the Pew report attests, crumbling in our "question authority" ethos inherited from his mother's iconoclastic 60s. We may soon in our census encounter "irreligious" (or whatever euphemism includes those opposed to belief too!) categories not even anticipated yet as religion (or its lack, or resistance to such enumerations) complicates Prousts and Batchelors who increasingly dilute the ranks of megachurch neighbors and augment multicultural cousins in our post-modern, intermarried, and increasingly skeptical, increasingly fundamentalist, speckled society in Obama's nation today.

Illustration: "What is your religion?" Not asked in the U.S. thanks to that First Amendment, but apparently in many a Commonwealth census. Here's New Zealand's 2006 example.

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