Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Religion Without God

"Emphasis is laid by Zen ... upon the small contingent details of ordinary life and the natural world. Buddhism teaches respect and love for all things. This concerned attention implies or effects a removal from the usual egoistic fuzz of self-protective anxiety. One may not be sure that those who observe stones and snails lovingly will also thus observe human beings, but such observation is a way, an act of respect for individuals, which is itself a virtue, and an image of virtue. ... The notion of achieving a pure cognitive state where ... subject and object simply exist as one is here made comprehensible .... A discipline of meditation wherein the mind is alert but emptied of self enables this form of awareness .... This is 'good for us' because it involves respect, because it is an exercise in cleansing the mind of self preoccupation, because it is an experience of what truth is like.

"... A contemplative observation of contingent 'trivial' detail (insects, leaves, shapes of screwed-up paper, looks and shadows of anything, expressions of faces) is a prevalent and usually ... 'unselfing' activity of consciousness. ... It is a place where the moral and aesthetic join. ...

"[A]bout a self-portrait of Cezanne, Rilke speaks of

"'an animal attentiveness which maintains a continuing, objective vigilance in the unwinking eyes. And how great and incorruptible this objectivity of his gaze was, is confirmed in an almost touching manner by the circumstance that, without analysing or in the remotest degree regarding his expression from a superior standpoint, he made a replica of himself with so much humble objectiveness, with the credulity and extrinsic interest and attention of a dog which sees itself in a mirror and thinks: there is another dog.'

"...'I was with his pictures again today; it is extraordinary what an environment they create about themselves. ... [Y]ou notice, better and better each time, how necessary it was to get beyond even love; it comes naturally to you to love each one of these things if you have made them yourself; but if you show it, you make them less well; you judge them instead of saying them. You cease being impartial; and love, the best thing of all, remains outside your work, does not enter into it, is left over unresolved beside it: this is how the sentimentalist school of painting came into being ... They painted "I love this" instead of painting "Here it is" ....'

"The imageless austerity of Zen is impressive and attractive. It represents to us 'the real thing', what it is like to be stripped of the ego, and how difficult this is. ... The question recurs, can such religious practice make people better? Certainly it may make them more calm, more 'collected', less given to egoistic passions, in many ways more 'unselfish'. ... But ... are you able to understand and care for other people? ... What Christians call love may on closer inspection appear to be shot with egoisms and delusions. The figure of Christ means love, but this meaning is regularly degraded by its users. ... Zen may seem cold; yet Zen art lovingly portrays the tiny things of the world, the details, blithely existing without intelligibility; this too is moral training. ...

"What is important is that we now take in conceptions of religion without God, and of meditation as religious exercise. There is, just as there used (with the old God) to be, a place of wisdom and calm to which we can remove ourselves. We can make our own rites and images, we can preserve the concept of holiness. ... We are moving through a continuum within which we are aware of truth and falsehood, illusion and reality, good and evil. We are continuously striving and learning, discovering and discarding images. Here we are not forced to choose between a 'religious life' and a 'secular life', or between being a 'goodie' and being a cheerful egoist! ... Our business is with the continual activity of our own minds and souls and with our own possibilities of being truthful and good."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

1 comment:

  1. A while back I was listening to an NPR broadcast in which a man was being interviewed about his concept of "religion for atheists." He pointed out how religions generally have a positive, uplifting message that encourages followers to be loving, forgiving, etc., and reiterates their message over and over again in a variety of ways (e.g., sermons, prayers). This continual reminder of the wisdom of any particular religion is necessary because of the way human minds (and "hearts") work; we tend to get caught up in the everday business of life--work, home, family--including all its stresses, pressures, and anxieties, so we all too easily forget all the little wisdoms we've learned along the way, the thoughts and perspectives that help us feel inspired, serene, harmonious, loving, forgiving, at one with things, etc.

    Atheists have just as much of a need for "wisdom"--which need not involve any reference to a deity--but we don't have regular exposure to it. We may have learned some great stuff in a college philosophy class we took when we were 19 (or in many other ways at many points throughout our lives), but are we going to remember it for the rest of our lives? Are we going to live by it? What would it be like it atheists had a "church" to go to once a week to hear "sermons" about the collected wisdom of humanity?

    I also read something recently about how some hospitals have begun employing atheist chaplains. Atheist patients (e.g., those who are dying or facing a difficult illness) need comfort and support and just someone to talk to just as much a religious patients do, but most hospitals don't have any kind of support available to them. Based on the article I read, atheist patients love having an atheist chaplain to talk to.



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