Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Expanding on "drop by and lie"

In a previous post, I mentioned Jennifer Michael Hecht's phrase "drop by and lie" to refer to nonbelievers who participate in religious practices for whatever reason. I also raised the issue of whether I was doing this with the Vedanta Society. Here's my follow-up.

It boils down to how you define your terms. That probably sounds like I'm trying to weasel my way into or out of something, so let me illustrate my point with some examples.

If I were interested in converting to Catholicism and wanted to know what they believed, the Nicene Creed would be a pretty good summary. More importantly, not believing those statements is a deal breaker (this is also true of Orthodox and many Protestant denominations). If I wanted to become a Muslim, I would be expected to pray five times a day in the prescribed manner and regularly recite the Shahada. So if I didn't believe that Muhammad was a divine messenger, that would be a deal breaker between me and Islam.

So what does the Vedanta Society expect of me? Well, there isn't a creed or list of commandments. There are some ethical guidelines, but they are just that--guidelines, not rigid absolutes. Besides, the ideas in those guidelines are hardly extreme. I think most people would agree that honesty and refraining from stealing are good things! Regarding the philosophy, this page provides a starting point. A lot of the terms they use may be familiar, but in many cases those terms are defined differently than in the Abrahamic religions.

For instance, a lot of the Vedantic literature, especially Advaita (nondualistic) Vedanta, talks about unity with Brahman. Some try to equate Brahman with God, but that's not necessarily accurate. As you may have guessed, there are varying schools of thought on just what Brahman is. One way to look at it is as a sort of Uncaused First Cause, but without the personal attributes that Abrahamic religions typically give to such an idea. Another perspective would be in terms of Albert Einstein's description of "the orderly harmony of what exists" or Stephen Hawking's "embodiment of the laws of the universe." (Sources: the Einstein quote is mentioned in The God Delusion, and the Hawking quote is mentioned here.) I won't say that Advaita Vedanta is inherently pantheistic, but it certainly seems to allow for that interpretation.

A related question is how to define theism in the first place. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins defines theism as belief in a supernatural being who created the universe and intervenes in its events. If you define theism in that way, you could end up calling a lot of religiously observant people atheists. In fact, my favorite Pew Forum survey indicates that at least in the US, majorities of Hindus, Buddhists, and even Jews do not believe in a personal God. Some people use the term nontheists to include atheists and people who reject the idea of a personal God but are still religious in some form.

Applying nontheistic ideas to the Abrahamic religions is often considered blasphemy, although some have tried. But in Eastern religions, these ideas are at least considered valid interpretations, if not necessarily universal ones. The Resident Minister at my local Vedanta Society told me, "When you pray, you're having a dialogue with your Higher Self." Of course, even nondualistic Hindus perform rituals involving various deities, but the deities are generally considered to be useful metaphors. So while it may seem slippery to Westerners to conceive of God as Einstein and Hawking described, these ideas are well within the mainstream of Hindu thought. There are certainly Hindus who disagree with nondualism, but in the arguments I've seen, nobody has claimed their opponent is not Hindu for disagreeing with them (for an entertaining study in contrast, type "you're no Buddhist" with the quotes into your search engine of choice).

In summary, at no point in my interactions with the Vedanta Society have I been asked to profess anything I don't believe. In fact, I have discussed specific doubts with the Resident Minister as they've come up, and she always tells me I don't have to believe those things (because I'm slow on the uptake, I keep asking). And there's precedence for her answer in the tradition.

So, if I don't believe in anything supernatural or that there's an immortal soul within us that survives death, why do I bother? So far, I've found that the philosophy and practices I've learned about in the Vedanta Society help me detach from the ego. I'm fully aware that many do not consider detachment from the ego to be desirable, or that religious language is useful in any case. But those are personal preferences, not empirical truths.

I know this arrangement may be untenable in the long term. It's entirely possible that as I learn more, I'll find something that I can't support or cast aside. If that happens, I'll walk. Either way, I'll keep telling you all about it.

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