Another in a series of Guest Posts from different spiritual paths (Check others here, here, here, here). This one comes from Brittany, the authoress of the blog Small Dog, Big Stick (don’t ask) and takes an atheist viewpoint of Buddhist practice. Feel free to engage and discuss her views with her. Cheers ~ The Management.
I started my sophomore year in college as an agnostic who was mostly apathetic when it came to religion. During the second semester of that year, my roommate convinced me to take Philosophy 330: Religions of the East with her. I thought that it would be fun. I’ve always liked learning about religions, but when I got to a certain age, I just couldn’t find one with which I could agree.
However, with this class, I thought that maybe I could find a religion that suited me. I read reviews of the professor I would have from a few different “Grade my Professor” websites, and most of the people enjoyed his class, and some even said that they had converted to Buddhism after hearing his lectures on the religion.
While I did enjoy his class, find a religion to convert to I did not. In fact, it seemed to be the opposite. During the course of his class, I found that many religions were just a rehash of a different religion, yet everyone claimed to be the only true one.
While I don’t really remember all of the things talked about in the class, I definitely remember the lesson on Buddhism. My professor would be away at a conference, so a different professor (one who was actually a Buddhist) would be filling in.
Perhaps it was simply the change of teacher, but Buddhism really rubbed me the wrong way. I remember sitting in class thinking about how bad Buddhism seemed to be. I absolutely hated the idea that people must step away from impermanent things in order to reach enlightenment.
In my head, enlightenment was essentially a state devoid of emotion, and with humans being largely emotional beings, it just didn’t seem rational or pleasant. Furthermore, the concept of detaching oneself from impermanence seemed to contradict itself. If one spends so much time detaching oneself from impermanent objects, then wouldn’t a person become attached to detachment?
When I tried to ask the professor about that, he simply told me that Buddhism is like a boat, and the path to enlightenment is like a river. You stand on the banks of what your life currently is, and you use Buddhism to make it across the river to the banks of enlightenment. Once you’re there, you have no use for the boat.
That made sense, but it didn’t address my question. I tried to explain myself again, and he brushed me off. So ended the world of Buddhism for me. If a professor who had not only studied Buddhism for a number of years, but also was a Buddhist couldn’t answer my question, then perhaps there wasn’t an answer, and there was yet another hole in a religion.
I suppose that I could have asked my professor when he returned, but I was just so fed up with religion at the point that I don’t think I really wanted to have discussions on it, and by the end of the course, I was no longer an apathetic wishy-washy agnostic. I was a brand new atheist. Religion ceased to make any sense whatsoever, and if something doesn’t make sense, it must not be rational.
After some time had gone by, I took another philosophy class: Philosophy 206: Philosophy of Religion. It was set up as Naturalism versus Theism. If I had any doubts about my atheism prior to that class, they were blown out of me by that class. It’s not to say that my professor was an atheist and pandered to Naturalist arguments. On the contrary, I found that he was more in favor of theism despite labeling himself as an “evidentialist agnostic” (which is to say that one doesn’t believe or disbelieve in a deity, but that it is irrational to believe that a deity does exist).
But I digress; the point I am trying to make by bringing up this particular class is that there are different levels to atheists. Some atheists are more scientific; others are more philosophical (and some are fairly equal in philosophy and science). I’m more of a philosophical atheist.
Atheism works for me because it is just rational. The more I think about religion, the more I find that it is unlikely that there’s a deity or that one can reach some “enlightened” state of being.
However, as a humanist (which, some may be surprised to know, many atheists are), I try to respect religion, and for the most part, Buddhism doesn’t really bother me anymore. In fact, I actually was able to attend a talk by the Dalai Lama when he visited my college a few years back. Well, to be perfectly honest, I was rather angry because I felt like I was being forced to attend his talk by one of my Education professors. She was a Buddhist herself, and was able to get a grant to buy tickets to the Dalai Lama presentation for all the students. The Dalai Lama was there specifically as a religious speaker, and I didn’t like that I either had to go or I had to write a paper about some random topic.
Eventually, I was coaxed into going by one of the Teacher’s Assistants, and I was glad that I went because I did learn some interesting things (including that the Dalai Lama and I share the same favorite color [green]). While I may not agree with his religious philosophy, I can appreciate his humanist philosophy; namely that it’s more important to teach love and tolerance than to teach what is right and what is wrong in religion.