on stories, rituals, and creating meaning

You know, I am an atheist. Perhaps more properly an agnostic, but I think it’s pretty certain if there IS anything out there, none of the current world’s religions have gotten any of the details right. And frankly, life is full and rich enough all on its own without spending too much time on the unknowable besides perhaps tipping a hat in its direction.

At the same time, I sit zazen. Rinzai tradition, to be exact, which includes the full panoply of sitting, chanting the heart sutra, walking kinhin, eating oryoki and doing samu. I will, in fact, be participating in rohatsu this year. And the legitimate question comes up, as to how I reconcile atheism with obscure shinto and buddhist practices. (In fact one of my co-practitioners is also an atheist and we’ve gone around this issue a couple of times — makes for some pretty interesting conversations.)

I can point out that there is a community, there’s shared experience. I can say that I find the meditation and the breathing exercises help focus my mind and to relax. Not just on the mat floor but also at work and in relationships. I am not engaging in a belief system.

And yet.

Who’s to say that those in religious groups aren’t deriving the same type of benefits from their participation in a religious organization. Dropping for the moment the beliefs in arcane, unprovable, or flat out impossible theology: I’m certain they also have that sense of community, of belonging, of relaxation through repeated ritual. And I’d daresay there’s a fair number who don’t necessarily believe their theology any longer, but still engage in the community.

And frankly, the scientific method has its limits. It is excellent for investigating the world around us. It’s a wonderful tool for asking questions and looking for directions. It’s not necessarily going to be a source of inspiration.

I started reading Star Trek and Star Wars when I was in high school. The stories and ideals expressed in these motivated me in many ways — entering the computer science field, having the confidence to foray into feminism and to embrace diversity. And yet, these stories are no more real than the stories in the Bible, or the Quran. Or in any of a thousand other traditions in a thousand other religions or philosophies. For that matter, I’ve been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount and by the simple quote “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Contemplating the latter statement to its logical conclusion is a tour de force of frightening proportions given the utter lack of constraint it embraces. I usually wind up with the abyss staring back at me.) And yet, the Bible is no more real than Doctor Who.

I tihnk we need our stories, our rituals. We create understanding and meaning from them — not in a scientific method sense, but in an emotional, human way. We use them to teach ourselves and others how to relate to our world, how to place ourselves within it.

Problems appear when people try to make their stories concrete, into reality. Rather than signposts or guidelines, they are shoehorned into a reality they don’t fit because they never were about reality. Those who I often derisively refer to as religionistas and/or homophobes are doing the same thing that I’m doing with communities and rituals. Except they have also ripped their stories of wonder and inspiration out of their proper realms and have chained them to the earth. And then they try to chain the rest of us to their supposed reality. When we resist, they turn on us for being unfaithful to their sad little constructs. The sense of community becomes warped to exclude others from that community. From these ashes rise homophobia, misogyny, narrow mindedness, greed. While I accept that all human traits have their pros and cons (aggression can have its positive aspects; love can certainly have its negative ones) any taken to an extreme has the eventual effect of dividing us up into groups — which are then deemed acceptable or not; with the latter being shunned, persecuted, or even massacred in extreme cases.

I don’t know the best way to address these issues. But I do know that it can’t be done by eliminating our stories. It can’t be done by proclaiming cold dry Reason is all we need. We are not Spock (or most of us are not). Not all atheists are scientists: some of us are artists, politicians, creators — dealing with less tangible but no less real things. We are human; we are fundamentally irrational even when we do understand reasonability and rationality. We need to harness our stories, make productive use of them. What both atheists and theists need to understand is not all stories depend on theism, not all stories are true.

I think this is a fundamental issue about humans & humanity that atheists can miss. It’s certainly no wonder; the absurdities promulgated by religion in general and literal adherence to orthodoxy in particular are so profoundly dissonant once one has rejected the premises of religion/theism that it’s easy to fold all story telling and ritual into the same dustbin. But I think that’s a shortsighted approach.

gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā

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