We began our spirituality discussion with an overview from EJ of his Zen beliefs – oddly, as it turned out, since Zen as he explained it is not spiritual at all. Zen does not teach that people have “spirits”, or “souls”, as such. “There is no ‘you’; there is no ‘me’.” Like other belief structures, however, it does encourage certain behaviors – though EJ emphasized that Zen does not impose a set of morals.
This question of good behavior dominated a good portion of the evening’s proceedings. It seemed that most attendees accepted that one of religion’s core tenets was the imposition of rules upon society; but questions remained as to whether moral codes arose out of religious belief structures or out of practical necessity. Did humans originally condemn killing because “God commands it”, or because society functions much better when the default position is to restrain ourselves from hurting one another?
Of course, the “rules” do not always forbid killing. There is war, there is the death penalty; there are honor killings, the murder of Osama Bin Laden, and other “justified” ending of life. While some argued an innate understanding of morality, most were skeptical. “Look at the behavior of children,” one participant said. “They often act like sociopaths.” We need to be taught how to behave toward others. Religion is remarkably consistent in its teachings: it usually boils down to the Golden Rule. So did each religion crib this from a common and ancient human understanding, or is religion necessary to create morality? I’d argue you don’t need God to tell you hurting others is wrong, and too often we’ve seen people justify the hurting of others based on the teachings of some deity.
Maybe higher belief is just a cop-out. If it’s too taxing to contemplate right and wrong in an infinite universe, just avoid it completely and lay it all on God. One doesn’t have to worry about the consequences of his actions if he believes his god holds all responsibility. On the other hand, consider the luxury of religion versus the necessity of religion. It’s easy to decry the fundamentalist who uses religion to deny the rights of others, or ridicule the man for whom “spirituality is just something you use to pick up chicks.” A religious community that provides real support to people who are in dire straits is much harder to attack. I have nothing against anyone who finds solace in their beliefs, even if we disagree – but skip the proselytizing, please.
Ed, an agnostic, posed a question to Trevor, an atheist. Isn’t atheism just as strong a belief system as any religion? An atheist believes that there is no god, as strongly as an evangelical believes there is; it is the expression of doubt on the question which marks the agnostic. I recalled our conversation with Pete from three years ago, when he put forth the case for atheism. The burden of proof, he asserted, rests with those who say god exists. Trevor upheld this, and said that, much like Christopher Hitchens, he reserves the right to change his mind should he see some persuasive evidence. Yet stubborn belief in the face of all reason can be something to admire. “Belief can be a powerful force for good,” said one participant, and he meant the conviction to carry on even when no one else believes in what you’re doing. Revolutions are made thus.