filed under: buddhism, religion, weaknesses
1332 days ago
My good friend Matt recently started a blog, and has been writing very regularly and often. Much more than I do, in fact :) And it’s been great for me, because he often posts things that make me think, or that I disagree with, and I become motivated to reply. That, in turn, forces me to think through my ideas, and to finally publish them online – which was really the original point of this blog, even though I mostly haven’t done that.
One of his recent posts was about humanity, arguing that “…left to its natural state, [it] will break a little bit each day…” and that “…we need to do something proactive each day to alter that trend.” I agree with the latter idea, but disagree with the former, and Matt and I are currently debating the topic in the comments on that post.
As I was drafting one of my replies, I finished making my point, and then just kept typing, because this topic is the perfect lead-in for another topic that I have always wanted to blog about: my views about the value, and the problem, with organized religion. But that topic doesn’t really have anything to do with Matt’s original topic, so I have chosen to post the second half of my comment here on my blog. My hope is that this post can stand on its own, but it will probably help if you go read through the thread on Matt’s blog first.
As always, I welcome comments, so please feel free to reply.
The actual topic
As mentioned in my first comment to Matt’s post, I often think about whether humanity is naturally positive (or not). Those thoughts arise because I regularly encounter situations where someone or something is implying that humans are inherently bad, and need to be fixed, or saved. I reject, and loathe, that idea.
Yes, we all have feelings that lead us to do things that are bad, or that we have been taught are bad. And those feelings must be controlled. I believe that. We are biological creatures, with a sloppy evolutionary history, and we have vestigial feelings and impulses that can be harmful.
But we aren’t going to change our biological natures (except maybe through physical or chemical or biological means) so we just need to learn the best way to live with them. And when a person is faced with a problem or weakness that can’t be changed, then their only (and best!) option is simply to accept the weakness and learn to mitigate it. And as a society, we have learned to mitigate many of our weaknesses: we teach our children good manners, and we have laws and punishments designed to deter crime, and we try to provide for all people so they don’t end up feeling like they have to do bad things, and so on. If you look at history, I think we have gotten much better at mitigating human weaknesses, both as individuals and as a society.
This idea ties directly to religion. I believe that most religions “get” this, and are actually structured to naturally help people do what I described – mitigate their weaknesses, and move on to better things. And in playing that role, I am in favor of religion. The part I don’t like are all the guilty feelings associated with the process. People shouldn’t feel guilty about the way they are; imagine telling a retarded child that they are bad (and should feel guilty) for not being smarter. And yet that is often what religion teaches us – that we are “bad” and that we have to use religion to “be saved.” I disagree. We have “impulses that can lead us to do bad things” and we have to “mitigate those impulses in order to not actually do bad things” – and we don’t have to have religion to do that. As humans, we just are what we are, and debating whether that is right or wrong is pointless.
It’s a subtle difference, but it is one that drives me crazy. I hate the notion that religion has absolute truths, and that people have to have religion in order to become better. It’s misleading. Religion has good advice about how to behave, and people should follow that advice in order to be the best they can be. But religion is a framework that helps us learn to do that, not an end in itself that we have to participate in if we want to be “good.” I really like the framework, and the lessons – I just hate that they are wrapped in dogma that makes it seem like each particular religion is the only one with the right answers, and that you have to join in if you want to be a good person.
It would be much better if we just learned that we have to accept our weaknesses and move on to do more important things like helping others, teaching, building new things, or raising a child. Again, those are things that religions typically teach us, but still shrouded in the notion that we need to be “fixed” either before, during, or after we do those things, and that just pulls us away from the truly valuable lessons.
And now, having thought through all that, I realize why I am so intrigued by Buddhism: because it doesn’t suggest that there is only one source of truth, or that we are naturally bad; it just says “people should always strive to get better, and here are some ways to do so.” That’s exactly what I think a religion should be.
On a related note: my notions of God also tie in fairly well with the Buddhist understanding of Karma, so maybe I really should take Matt’s advice and get up off my butt and learn more about Buddhism :)
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