(Mostly) Harmless Faiths

I just started following Atheist Quote of the Day on Facebook. Today it asked its constituents the question, Most of us will agree that a faith based without evidence is irrational and negative, as most religious faiths are. However, what forms of faith, if any, do you think are good?

Here was my answer:

I like Buddhism, if you strip out the mythology and concepts like reincarnation. Siddhartha is said to have refused to make a definite statement about nebulous concepts such as reincarnation (see the book “Buddhism Without Beliefs”, which I must admit to not having finished).

I like the Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends). Their faith is very simple and non-specific; the more liberal varieties don’t require a god (there are Atheist Quakers, though I don’t know many). They hold that every human has “the divine light”, which is non-specific enough that you could arguably define it to be “the human spirit” (which doesn’t have to be a non-physically-based entity)… Best of all, it does not approve of basing your life on a book. I’ve known of a few Atheists and Agnostics who came from a Quaker background, which honestly seems a fairly natural progression.

Unitarianism seems okay. It’s not for me, being old enough to feel kind of stuffy and liturgical. On the one hand, by acknowledging some basic truth among all faiths, it might be considered to give some undue credibility to them; on the other hand, being forced to treat them all alike, it effectively prevents any specific dogmas or creeds from drawing too much attention and approval.

Don’t know much about it, but from the little I do know Ba’hai seems alright. Probably suffers the same basic problems as Unitarianism. It has the key feature of not getting too caught up in any particular beliefs, because God supposedly is revealing himself through a series of clearer pictures (Christianity, then Islam, then Ba’hai…), and theirs is not the last revelation.

2 thoughts on “(Mostly) Harmless Faiths

  1. joshua

    I suppose the religions you mentioned are fairly harmless… but I always end up asking “why even have religion?” If its loosely based on a book of strict teachings, or closely based on a vague idea- either way, it just seems unnecessary.

    It could be said that it is valuable for its social/cultural place in cociety (ie a network of friends and support, or a cultural experience)- but I still think something of that sort could be sustained without the banner of religion.

  2. Micah Post author

    Well, I’m not sure I understand. Is there something wrong with basing your life on an idea or concept (or a set of them)? Surely you do (even if they’re not exactly the sort of ideas that would make for a good mainstream religion 🙂 )?

    Buddhism is hard to talk about, because it’s really not so much a single religion as a large collection of very different religions (though you could easily argue the same for Christianity or Islam). There are obviously versions of Buddhism that amount to god-worship. Even the best Buddhist traditions seem to be steeped in mysticism, spiritism, and unfalsifiable beliefs such as reincarnation, karma, buddhic emanations (like the Lamas)… all of which of course is unhelpful. But as far as the teachings go… the ones from the variety of Tibetan Buddhism that the Dalai Lama promotes seem useful, and probably worthwhile. They basically amount to promoting the practice of attaining happiness by providing it to others; relieving your own suffering by alleviating the suffering of others around you.

    Likewise, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) teach that all people have the divine light within, and are therefore sacred. So you ought to treat these sacred beings (including yourself) with respect and love, and should never seek to harm such creatures. This of course leads the Quakers to be extreme pacifists as a rule, which isn’t really a philosophy I can fully subscribe to.

    I think religion (the “harmless” ones, anyway) can serve a useful purpose as a medium for making a practice of focusing one’s thoughts on the behaviors you want to nurture in yourself. By default, people tend to revert to a default state, where some of the times we’re nice and helpful, but much of the time we’re self-centered, quick-to-anger, or given to overly emotionally-driven actions or responses… or at least some sorts of behavior which we later regret (i.e., we make avoidable mistakes). If we want to see more of the behaviors we are happy with in ourselves, and less of those we are unhappy with, it takes some amount of effort and discipline to accomplish. To this end, I think there’s great utility in using a set of “creeds”—not religion necessarily, but at least a set of concepts around which you wish to organize your life—to center your mind on, and to compare your life/behavior against.

    One doesn’t need to pick some ready-made batch of creeds, though (as you say, “something of that sort could be sustained without the banner of religion”), but if a ready-made batch just happens to fit your personal ideology anyway, why not? The danger comes when you let the external system _mold_ your own personal ideology more than it ought to: you should fit the creeds to your life, and not the other way around. I guess in a nutshell, I like those religions best which begin to resemble a set of philosophies more than a religion—a minimum of superstitious nonsense and untestable rhetoric, and a maximum of beneficial, practical philosophies, none of which should ever be taken as absolute.

    I’d invite you to find and attend a (liberal) Friends’ meeting at least once. Their Sunday (they don’t call it Sunday, they call it First Day; similarly for the other days of the week – maybe because they have pagan origins?) services consist basically of sitting quietly for an hour, and sharing spontaneously (and briefly) “as the spirit leads”. I don’t honestly expect that it would prove to be your cup of tea… not entirely sure it would be mine either… we’d probably be going if the Friends’ meeting near us weren’t made up almost entirely of older folks – the Palo Alto one has a more diverse makeup, but is a bit too far for us; either way, though, I don’t know if I would have made it a regular habit if I were a bachelor… the networking aspect is kind of nice, though… although I’d probably prefer a secular humanist meeting (but that seems to be in Palo Alto too).

    In the end, of course, I don’t subscribe to any of the religions I mentioned… they all have a little bit of fluff I don’t care for (which I suppose validates your question, “why even have religion?” …obviously, you and I chose to forgo it), and I think all religion carries at least the slight risk that some small seed of wisdom will grow into an absolute dogma. The source of truth, whether you’re religious or not, needs to come from within our own wisdom, and must not be dictated to us by anyone or anything. Not a church, not a pastor, not a book.

    As I said once in another post, though, the end of religion is not my aim (it’s not enough in itself). But I’d dearly love to see an end to superstition, unfalsifiable belief, and flawed systems of reasoning; if we eradicate those, then whatever vestiges of religion might remain (though they probably would cease to truly be “religion”), would probably be useful, or at least not harmful.

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