The first atheist I met was a deeply religious man.
Yes, he was totally certain he was an atheist. 100% sure. There are no gods; he was anything but wishy-washy on this point.
However he was also a Buddhist. He explained to me how some Buddhists do believe in souls, gods, spirits and the like—but others view them as tricks of the mind. Illusions, which may or may not be useful at any given time.
For a long time I thought this was just his personal view. I was skeptical that other Buddhists shared it.
Then I met Lama Pamela Holtum (“Lama La”). When I visited her monastery—the one where I might live—I bowed to the shrine there as she showed me. I asked her what she did if people refused to bow.
“Nothing,” she said. “Gods are just patterns in people’s minds. They’re useful if you know how to use them. People who don’t approach with respect don’t know how to use them.”
Not All the Same
This type of atheism always fascinates me. Most people—including most atheists—are only familiar with a compartmentalized type of atheism. The type where “God doesn’t exist” means “no point in worshipping God.” This is often a view of former Christians. Christianity treats faith as a pillar of religion. So if you don’t believe, religion has nothing for you. (But then, religions are like apps.)
The Buddhist atheists go a step further. Their question seems to be, “If there are no gods, then what do all these people get out of worshiping their gods? Is there something useful here?”
Practicing Without Faith
There are many reasons why I spend time with my gods, even though I don’t know if they are real.
- It’s peaceful and satisfying. Time spent facing the altar is time that takes me beyond just the stuff in my own head.
- The gods represent what’s best in us. When I contemplate their example and their stories, I think about how I could live up to the same ideals. In many ways that’s the whole point of the Heroic Life.
- They give damn good advice. You can say that the voice of the gods is nothing more than my own unconscious mind—but if that’s true, my unconscious mind is never so insightful and useful as when it’s pretending to be a god.
The fact that my religious practice is incredibly helpful to me is at least partly because of how I view religion.
I don’t pray to the gods to get a promotion or be healed. I don’t expect that prayer will fix all my problems. Instead, it’s the relationship that I value.
My gods are like mentors or old friends. I simply enjoy their presence (real or imagined) and the wisdom they share.
Because I don’t ask them to do things for me, I also don’t shove responsibility off on them. There is no “It’s part of God’s plan.” No “God told me to do it.” I take my destiny in my own hands.