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Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Replacing religion

Out running the other morning, I recalled the time I first realized that belief in god is an example of wishful thinking. I was 18 or so, a sophomore at Stanford. I was walking back to the house from my job doing pots and pans following dinner at Branner Hall. The time was twilight, that moment before nightfall I still experience as beatitude. In that moment I recognized how we are inclined to wish that sense of completion or connection to be reciprocated. That is, people wish to imagine the world answering our sense of connection, or actually causing it. Religio, the Latin root of "religion," means "being bound"--from religare, to bind or tie--in the sense that we are bound within or tied into the world. So the word religion accurately renders that sense of belonging within the world I experience at twilight . Of course, religion now names numerous elaborately codified systems of belief in things "supernatural." Why? Because people have, apparently forever, wished it so. Yet it isn't so. Nothing in the world--or out of it--answers to human need. It's easy find evidence for this fact. Just this past spring a tornado in Tennesee did not destroy a parochial college, but did strike a nearby elementary school as well as other structures. A pious student was reported to have said his college survived owing to "god's will." Nonsense. Vicious nonsense, in this case, inasmuch as the student's pronouncement entails that god prefers Baptist colleges to elementary schools. But it goes to show that our desire for absolute answers to our needs is strong enough to overcome all logic. Might this need, this longing for certainty or support from the world, ever wane? I don't think so. In the course of a lifetime of study I've learned all there is to know about world religions and taught courses on their historical systems of belief and practice. (As an atheist, I'm ideally suited to such teaching, for I've no personal need that any of them be true.) Religious literature is filled with artful and ingenious interpretation, but it is all transparently in the service of human desire. This was Buddha's insight: there is neither "self" nor "god" and all our problems arise from desire. Thus did Buddha's teaching do away with wishful thinking. But after his death, people instead did away with the Buddha's teaching; they turned it into a religion...