Atheism, Buddhism -- WTF?

So, what's a nice, middle-aged, midwestern white boy like you doing in a place like this? I kinda wonder that myself sometimes. It's an odd combination, but it works for me.

I've grown up not practicing any particular religion. Church was for rummage sales, Christmas was for family, decorated trees, and presents. My grandmother had given up Catholicism long before I was born, her husband had abandoned Judaism when it wasn't healthy in Hungary to be Jewish. His name used to be Blitzer, changed to Bodroghy. But what really nailed atheism home for me was as a child asking my mom why there are other religions (we professed to be some kind of Christian, but not really specific -- you had to have a religion like you had to have a drivers license). Her answer, steeped in her Catholic childhood, was a confident, "Well, other religions are wrong. What happened in the Bible is true."

You may be laughing, but that's one of the most common attitudes: knowing you're right and the other guy is wrong, based on nothing more than your own belief (which the other guy has, too). And even as an eight-year-old or thereabouts, it made no sense after the barest moment of thought. Who would get up every day, practicing what the whole world knew was the wrong religion? No one. So everyone must be equally convinced that theirs is the one true religion. Which can't be so, since they have conflicting stories and teachings. Which means there's no way to tell, not really. You may have great belief in your Truth, but it's not Truth as in fact -- it's your fervent belief, nothing more.

Mind you, there's nothing wrong with having a fervent belief, as long as it's not harmful to yourself or others. As long as we can all get along, respectfully. I just choose to place my faith (in the Pali sense of the word, saddha, which means "confidence" in something factual) in science. In theories, like evolution, which always made sense to me, even before getting a degree in biology.

Gravity is a theory, too. Stuff still falls, our belief is irrelevant.

Whence Buddhism

Fast forward an ever-increasing number of decades. Still no heartfelt need to find meaning in a religious sense. Practicing karate lead me to practicing Iai-do, Japanese sword drawing, which in turn lead me to investigate meditation, which lead me to check into the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

It's important to note this -- there was no tragedy, no quest for meaning, no failing of the standard coping mechanisms, no crisis of faith. It was simply the critical examination of "this meditation thing," putting it through its intellectual and practical paces. And eventually, as Zen didn't withstand that examination, I came to That Old Style Religion.

A friend, Janice, plugged me into a book based on the old school of Buddhism, Theravada (literally "elder teaching"). This was, in essence, the closest we have to what an historical Buddha would have taught. And I found it to be very rational, very realistic, very balanced, very much able to take what I could dish out with a skeptical spatula. Heck, it even invited critical thought and practice. It was a very well thought out and observable plan for the study of the mind, for the improvement of one's direction of it.

It's important to note, this isn't a dogma. Original Buddhism rejects the adherence to any dogma, even its own, and relies on one's own experience and reason within the natural world. Buddha never claimed to be a deity, descendent of a deity, or influenced/inspired/controlled by any deity -- if he existed at all. That's another thing, it's really not the factual integrity of this practice that's important, but the message that's important.

As the zen folks say, don't confuse the moon with the finger pointing at the moon.

So, I'm a happily practicing Buddhist atheist. There is no deity worship in Buddhism, and all the tenants the secular humanists espouse are found, in some fashion, in Buddhism.

Separation of Church and State

This is something I'm really quite passionate about. I mean, come on, it's a double whammy as a Buddhist and atheist! But much as I disagree with the incorporation of the ten commandments into a government building, I would disagree with using the Dhammapada, Koran, Torah, or secular humanist manifesto. Please, by all means, have your faith -- practice it! Relish in it! And if you insist that my kids' biology books have stickers put in them saying that "evolution is only a theory," I'll insist that stickers be put in your bibles saying "this is only a legend."