Thursday, April 1, 2010

Exploring Natural Buddhism - Part Five: The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths. Where do I begin? The more I learn about the Buddha, the more I see that the Four Noble Truths were at the center of what he taught. There was a cyclical nature to his message--the Four Noble Truths could be seen as the philosophy, or perhaps viewpoint, of Buddhism, which leads into the Noble Eightfold Path, which you could call the practice of Buddhism, which in turn leads back into the Four Noble Truths. (This is contrary to what a lot of modern Buddhist religions teach, which is that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path lead one into enlightenment. According to the Buddha, being enlightened meant realizing the Four Noble Truths and the necessity of the Eightfold Path)

The Four Noble Truths are, as I said, kind of the "philosophy" of Buddhism, so much of this post may sound like repetition of things I've already written. Indeed, observant readers will notice a similarity between this post and the last one. The story of the Buddha was crafted intentionally to illustrate the Four Noble Truths.

First, we have young Siddartha cloistered away from reality. His father, the rajah, had constructed a carefully crafted illusion around Siddartha to keep him deceived. This is the state of all unawakened beings, lost in what Buddhism calls "Mara."

Siddartha's awakening began when he witnessed aging, sickness, and death. Reality struck him hard in his face and knocked the rose-tinted glasses from his eyes. This is when he realized that all life suffers, all life knows hardship and pain. From the discomfort he felt at having his illusion pulled away, to the agonizing mourning of the widow accompanying the funeral, all life has known suffering, is suffering and will know suffering. This is the First Noble Truth.

Next, Siddartha tries to escape suffering. He knows that his banquets and parties will eventually disappoint, so he abandons them. He knows that his friends and family will die, so he abandons them. He realizes, in his heart, that all the sources of suffering come from attachment to states of mind and from clinging to the status quo. This is the Second Noble Truth.

So, he tries to escape them by asceticism, but that doesn't work too well. By fleeing his attachments in an attempt to escape suffering, he actually dove into attachment's equally dangerous opposite: aversion. Aversion is a type of clinging, too, but it's clinging to what one doesn't have but wants. So, this did not work. He instead regained his health, and went to sit under a bodhi tree. While there, he experienced a state of equanimity so profound, he realized that there was a Middle Way. Suffering could be overcome. And that was the Third Noble Truth.

Finally, he arose and walked the awakened path. His awakening led him to see the world in a new way, to see himself in a new way, to see others in a new way. It led him into what he (or his followers) would call the Eightfold Path, and it led him out of suffering. And that was the Fourth Noble Truth.

1) All life experiences unhappiness, unsatisfactoriness, and suffering
2) Such suffering is caused by the type of attachment that leads to clinging or aversion
3) The cycle of suffering can be overcome
4) The path of overcoming is the Eightfold Path: right (or wise, or skillful) view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration

These are the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism--as close to a catechism as this practice has. By meditating on these truths, one naturally begins to see the world and one's actions in a way that is awakened, no longer deceived by the Mara of the paradigms and prejudices our society has carefully built up around us, nor by the Mara of our animal instincts so deeply ingrained.

I hope that this series of blog posts exploring Natural Buddhism has been useful to you, and that, in some small way, they might play a part in your own awakening.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Buddha - on PBS

Set your TiVos, people! On April 7th, PBS has an excellent documentary coming out about the Buddha. And for those reading this after the date, still check out the link at the bottom to watch it online. I've already watched most of it online, and I gotta say, I'm very impressed. They handle very skillfully both the myth and the history of Buddhism, and they spend as much time talking about the teachings and expounding upon what they mean as they do talking about the religion aspect.

Anyone looking for a crash course in Buddhism that is also surprisingly deep should definitely check it out.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Exploring Natural Buddhism - Part Four: Who was the Buddha?

(I'd like to start off by apologizing for my long absence; February was a crazy month for me, and now my computer has been acting up. But now I'm finally back; I hope it was worth the wait!)

I'd like to tell you a story. A scholar once approached a Buddhist monk, and told the monk he'd been studying Buddhism for many years. He'd assembled a great deal of historical data about the time in which the Buddha was supposed to have lived, about the cultures and philosophies and the socio-economic climate in which Siddartha Guatama is written to have grown up. He had analyzed the Pali canon, and the Suttas, and all the discourse on the Buddha that had been written hundreds of years after the Buddha supposedly had taught. His conclusion was that there was no way the Buddha had been a real person, the stories about him were obvious myths and fabrications. The evidence was overwhelming: the Buddha did not exist.
"Well," said the monk, "whoever came up with the Four Noble Truths, that is my Buddha."

Let me ask you a question: is that story true? Let me ask a better question: Does it matter? This story, in my estimation, is the perfect parable for Buddhism. Was the Buddha a real person? I dunno. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. Does it matter? Not a whit. Buddhism is about three things: Impermanence, Interconnectedness, and escaping from the cycle of suffering by Awakening. I've been very differential towards other forms of Buddhism throughout this series of posts, but I say this now with all conviction: anything beyond those three things is just window dressing.

Now, with that said, I'd like to tell you the story of the Buddha. Because, like the (semi-)parable at the top, the story is valuable for what it teaches, not for it's veracity.

Legends say that there was once a ruler in India whose wife became pregnant. A Holy Man prophesied that the rajah's son would either be a great ruler, or a great holy man. Because, in those days, holy men in India were all ascetics who lived in poverty and willfully starved and abased themselves, the rajah was determined that his son would become the former.
So he caused great walls to be built around his palace, and he constructed gardens and baths and great banquet halls. Everything a young prince could desire for a life of pleasure was prepared, and young Siddartha Guatama grew up in the type of lifestyle a god might be envious of.

But, as is wont to happen in these types of stories, our young prince grew restless, and he wanted to see what was beyond his palace's walls. So he got in his chariot and decided to take a ride.

As they were riding, they saw a sick person, coughing and hobbling feebley by. "What is that?" Siddartha asked.
"That is a sick person," the charioteer replied. "It is the nature of all living beings to know sickness and pain."
As they rode on, he saw an old man. "What is that?" he asked his charioteer.
"That is an old person," the charioteer replied. "It is the nature of all living beings to grow old and feeble."
Now they came upon a funeral. The procession moved past them and Siddartha saw the corpse on the bier. "What is THAT?" he wondered aloud.
"That is a corpse, honored prince. It is the nature of all living beings to one day know death."
Siddartha was greatly troubled, and ordered the charioteer to take him back home. As they were travelling, however, Siddartha saw one last thing: a monk, sitting in contented meditation.
"What is that?" he asked.
"That is a monk," the charioteer replied. "He has forsaken the things of this world and lives in quiet repose."
After seeing sickness, age, and death, the pleasures of Siddartha's prison-palace no longer held enjoyment for him. So, fulfilling the holy man's prophecy, he renounced all his wealth and became an ascetic.
"If there is an answer to life's troubles, I will find it," he declared. And he threw himself into the ascetic lifestyle like a man dying of thirst would dive into a river.

Siddartha was the greatest of all the monks. All the others marvelled at how long he sat in meditation, at how fiercely he inflicted punishment on his body. It says, in one description, that Siddartha starved himself so greatly that he could touch his backbone through his stomach, and he did not have even the strength to get up.
A young girl found him and nursed him back to health. He was broken and defeated; a man in the grips of terrible depression. Living the hedonistic lifestyle of a prince had not given him peace, but neither had the way of the ascetics. Asceticism was just another extreme, the other side of the coin from hedonism, and neither offered him the answers he sought.

So he sat down again for meditation, under a bodhi tree. He meditated upon his life, swinging from extreme to extreme. He meditated on the condition of all life, including pleasure and pain, birth and death. While he sat there in contemplation, he remembered back to when he was a child, on a particular summer's day sitting under a tree like this, where he experienced for a little while a sense of true equanimity; where everything was equal, everything was in balance, and he was at peace.

It is said that under that tree, Siddartha Guatama realized the Four Noble Truths, and was enlightened.

Now, was that story true? Better question: does it matter? What we should ask ourselves is, true or not, why is this the story that is told about the Buddha's enlightenment; about the origin of the Four Noble Truths? Here are some important things that I, personally, think this story is trying to teach us.

1) The Buddha acheives his enlightenment not through divine revelation, but through quiet, patient contemplation. This tells us that the teachings of the Buddha are not some esoteric mystery that must be accepted on faith; rather, it is knowledge that is available to all humans who sit and contemplate the nature of things, casting aside all preconceived notions.

2) The Buddha's path is often called "The Middle Way," and this story illustrates the reason perfectly. Buddhism does not encourage an abandonment into hedonism and selfish gratification, but neither does it proscribe a strict doctrine of self denial and religiousity for their own sake. The path of Buddhism is the path of non-extremes. It is the path of balance.

3) The story is, itself, a parable of the Four Noble Truths.

What? I haven't gone over the Four Noble Truths?

Well, I guess you know what my next post will be about!

Friday, February 12, 2010

What does Charles Darwin have to do with Buddhism?

(Cleaned up and reposted from last year's Darwin Day)

Charles Darwin was a very empathic man, who cared a great deal about the suffering of others. And not just "others" as in his peers, but beings all over the globe, from humans in slavery all the way down to birds and insects and even plants.

Charles Darwin was raised in a well-to-do family in Victorian England. This was the time of Jane Austin's works; if you've ever watched a movie adaptation of one of her novels, you know what Darwin's world looked like. And if you've ever read her works, you know how the people of that time thought: everything has it's rightful place, everything is ordained by God and was ordained that way since Creation began; to "rock the boat" of soceity was considered a grave, unspoken cardinal sin.

Yet England, at the time, was in a period of great social upheaval. Famines and disasters pushed more and more people into the city, scrounging for work so their children could eat. The aristocracy of the time had pity on the poor... But not too much pity; that would have been improper. They established a welfare system, but they forced those receiving the welfare into horrible workhouses, where they were seperated by gender and made to work 80 hours or more a week. This was the time of child labor and debtors prisons. It was widely believed, at the time, that such conditions were God's way of encouraging people to not reproduce; a little reminder from on high that God doesn't like sex. (Victorians. Ah, what can ya do with'em?)

The conditions of his fellow man no doubt broke Darwin's heart; this is a man who would berate a perfect stranger for abusing a donkey or a pig, who hated slavery and called it an "abomination" But the attitudes (called Malthusian theory) on how population is kept in check by natural disasters and poverty were to plant the seeds in Darwin's mind for what would become natural selection. He wondered, If things are so bad for we humans, who can choose to excercise self-restraint, how much worse must it be for the lower animals, who always produce more offspring than their natural habitat can sustain?

It was this realization that led Darwin to the conclusion that, in the natural world, where there is only enough food and room to accomodate a fraction of those born, the ones that survived would be the ones who more perfectly fit their niche-- viola, Survival of the Fittest.

Despite this monumental discovery, however, Darwin was hesistant to publish. He knew that the prevailing opinions of his time would be staunchly opposed to his ideas... including the opinions of his beloved wife. He continued collecting evidence and refining his theory for 20 years before he was pushed into publication by the appearance of one Alfred Russel Wallace, who had developed the theory of natural selection himself and was set to publish.

Charles Darwin was a man much concerned with suffering; and not just with the kind caused by clinging, which is what Buddhism mostly concerns itself with, but the general suffering of nature "red in tooth and claw." It led him to question the established ideas of divinely sanctioned order. He could not see how an omniscient and omnipotent creator could devise creatures whose sole means of living was through the painful death of other species (see here, midway down). He had to move his perspective back, zoom out his point of view from the petty English conceits of the time. When he did, he found enlightenment. And through his enlightenment, the world has never been the same.

Happy birthday, Mr. Darwin.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Exploring Natural Buddhism - Part Three: Buddhism Demystified

Ask any average American what they know about Buddhism, and you'll probably hear three keywords over and over: Karma, Reincarnation, and Enlightenment (nirvana). I'll admit, back before I decided to investigate Buddhism myself, my impressions were generally the same: here's an Asian religion where they believe if you meditate a lot and do good works, you'll get reincarnated higher and higher up the ladder of life until, eventually, you reach enlightenment and dissolve into a state of eternal bliss.

Turns out... not exactly.

Now, it is certainly true that there are Buddhists who believe those things--I certainly won't argue that. There are Buddhist sects that number in the tens, and even hundreds, of millions that believe those things, sure.

But I will argue that, not only are those supernatural beliefs not a requisite to call oneself a Buddhist, supernaturalism is not even a requisite for understanding the aspects of karma, rebirth and enlightenment and for gaining something from that understanding.


Most people imagine karma to be a metaphysical tally of our good works and evil deeds, recorded by someone or something, that affects what happens to us in this life or maybe even a future one. Certainly there are many religions, including some sects of Buddhism, that preach that, and the concept has even worked its way into pop culture.
But the Buddhist understanding of karma goes back to the word's roots. In the ancient Sanskrit, "karma" meant, simply, an action or deed, with the implicit understanding that every action would have some type of reaction. Karma, as understood generally by Buddhism but certainly by Natural Buddhism, is simply the reality that actions have consequences. Every word we speak, every action we take, ripples out from us to the rest of the world, and will have many unforeseen consequences.
But karma is not purely about external ripples; actions are understood to affect the person who performed them, as well. I like the phrase, "neurons that fire together, wire together" to explain the principle of how karma does affect one's "fate." The actions we take change our own perception of ourselves. They form habits. A lie, for example, isn't always an unwise action because of how it may hurt other people; it may also be an unwise action because it makes it easier for us to lie the next time. And so, in this way, it may be said that lying generates bad karma, not because some metaphysical force is keeping track and waiting to smite us with punishment, but because we are setting ourselves up for future suffering.


I find the topic of rebirth in Buddhism to be an interesting one, and I freely confess that I am still a bit of an amateur when it comes to understanding the very widespread Buddhist idea of rebirth. If a central Buddhist truth is anatman--the truth that there is no Self--what is it that reincarnates into different bodies? From a metaphysical standpoint, this makes no sense to me. From a naturalistic standpoint, though, I find the idea of rebirth both uplifting and refreshing.

There are two sides of rebirth to a Natural Buddhist: the physical, and the relational.

I first became aware--not just intellectually, but on a deep, emotional level--of the physical nature of rebirth when I watched The Fountain. In fact, I cannot think of a greater teaching on the nature of life, death, and rebirth than The Fountain, so I would highly encourage you to go watch it, if you haven't already.

But, to sum up a beautiful and enlightening movie in a few banal lines, the moment it all clicked for me was when Rachel Weisz's character, Izzy, was explaining to her husband, (Hugh Jackman's) Tommy, how she had come to accept her impending death. She told the story of a man she had met while exploring Mayan ruins in Central America; he related to her how his father had died, yet he was not sad for he knew his father lived on. A tree, he said, had been planted above his father's grave, and his father's spirit lived on in the tree. When a bird ate the fruit from the tree and flew away, he said, his father's spirit flew with that bird.

"Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you," the biologist Richard Dawkins said. When the sun shines, plants convert basic elements from the earth into the catalysts for life. When we eat the plants, we transform those elements into our body, which we then use to gaze at the stars--the descendants of the same supernovas that forged our atoms.
And, when we die, our elements are returned to the earth, to forge new lives and new thoughts.

This is the physical reality of rebirth.

The relational truth of rebirth is one we've all seen, we all acknowledge. But it is one of those truths that it is useful to point out again, from time to time.
How many of us were lucky enough to know our great-grandparents? Probably some, but by no means all. How many of us know even the names of our great-great-grandparents? Probably even fewer.
Yet, I guarantee you, the lives they lived had a very real impact on our lives, today. And I'm not talking about the big, obvious things like their financial choices or relationships, but about their personality quirks, their likes and dislikes, their tics and tendencies. Character attributes like courage, perseverance, honesty--these things get passed down from parent to child just as surely as any material inheritance, and can continue from generation to generation.

In this way, our good actions, our good karma, gets "reborn" in future generations. And, it should go without saying, our bad karma gets reborn, too... by weighing future generations down with things like guilt, insecurity, hatred.

Everything changes; our personalities are affected by causes that have come before. Even as the molecules in our body will one day be the seeds for future life, who we are now in our character plants seeds that will be future personalities.

Enlightenment - Bringing it all together

In English, the word "nirvana" is often translated as "enlightenment," but an equally valid (and far more useful) translation is "awakening." At its most basic, to be Awakened in the Buddhist sense means to become aware of everything I've laid out above and in the previous post. It means to recognize that all things are interconnected, and that all things are constantly changing. It means to become aware that unhappiness is a natural state, but that it, too, is connected to causes and, as an impermanent thing, it may be curtailed. One who has awakened recognizes all these things... and acts.

I hope in my own humble way I've helped you to understand Buddhism a bit better, and why I think it is a valuable practice no matter what your underlying beliefs. I realize I moved pretty quickly on some very broad topics, so if there are any questions or things you'd like to see more on--or if you disagree or feel I've done a topic a disservice--please post a comment!

In my next post, I'm going back to where it all began... The Buddha.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Exploring Natural Buddhism - Part Two: What is Buddhism?

In my introductory post, I addressed the question Why Natural Buddhism?, but I'm embarrassed to say I never really explained what those concepts mean to me. Certainly, I provided links over there on the right; but, seriously, even I don't usually click on links on the blogs I read!
Anyway, it's better if I put things in my own words. After all, as much as I like the sites I link to, that doesn't mean I agree in lockstep with everything they say.

So, last week I asked the question, "Why Naturalism?" But since I already addressed "Why Buddhism?" in my first post, and because people in the West have such a variety of ideas about what Buddhism actually is, I thought it might be better to explore a little bit of what I understand Buddhism to be.

I think the first, most important question to ask is, Is Buddhism a Religion? By this I mean a religion in the Western sense, with supernatural beliefs, rituals, scriptures, dogma and the like. Of course, like most things involving Buddhism, the answer is... complicated. In fact, all the answers I'm going to give in this post are going to be mere glimpses at a much more complicated answer, but there's no way I can give such a broad topic as Buddhism the proper scholarly treatment in a single blog post. So I'm going to answer the best I can, from my perspective; take this post with the proper amount of salt.

So, first off, Is Buddhism a religion? No. But, are there Buddhist religions? Yes. Lots of them.
What I mean is this: there is nothing inherent in Buddhism itself that requires supernatural beliefs or explanations.
What about karma, rebirth, enlightenment? I'll get to those in a bit, but in order to understand Buddhism you first have to understand the context in which it arose. The Buddha--or whoever invented Buddhism--lived in India in the 400's BCE. Hinduism was the primary religion of the day, and Buddhism was not created as a rival religion. It was introduced as both a philosophy and a practice, and was more interested in explaining pragmatic answers to life here and now, rather than postulating where we came from or where we are going. As such, you will find many Hindu beliefs mixed in with the Buddhism of Hindu countries, but those beliefs are easily passed off as allegory or ignored all together without losing anything from Buddhism.

The Core of Buddhism

What is at the core of Buddhism that does not change whether it's imported to a Hindu culture, or a Confucian/Taoist culture, or even a Western non-dualist culture? Two things:

The first is the philosophy, or worldview, of Buddhism: Impermanence and Interconnectedness. A Buddhist understands and accepts that all things arise and all things pass away. There is nothing permanent; not a feeling, not a relationship, not a stone, not a mountain, not the planet and not even the universe. All things change, nothing stays the same.
Furthermore, this arising, changing, and passing away does not happen in a vacuum--all things are connected in relationships of cause and effect. This applies not only in physics, but also in psychology and interpersonal relationships. (For a very quick, rough example of this, think about what happens to your relationships when you're late for work, or you have a headache. Physical, external factors have as much of an impact on our actions as our internal personality)

The second part is the practice, the active part of Buddhism. This is rooted in the understanding of interconnectedness. We realize that even our suffering and our happiness are rooted in causes, and by stilling our minds and examining things from the right perspective we can eradicate conditions that cause suffering and create conditions that cause happiness.
Note that this doesn't mean we try to control our environment to suit our needs. The conditions I'm talking about are conditions of the mind. Buddhism points out that bad things will always happen--that's part of life--but our response to those things determines whether we experience suffering or peace. If we cling to the way things are now, we will suffer when they (inevitably) change. If we cling to the idea that material acquisitions will make us happy, we will never know peace. Obsessions, aversions, irrational attachments; these are conditions that will plague us with suffering. But these mental states are conditions of the mind, they are not permanent. Buddhism is about recognizing them and finding practical ways of dealing with them.

And that, I believe, is the core of Buddhism--eradicating suffering, increasing happiness; not just for the practitioner but for all living beings. A simple, pragmatic approach to the realities of life; an honest approach, examining our intentions and desires in order to find the most skillful means of realizing them.

Soon to follow: karma, rebirth and enlightenment--I'll be explaining these concepts from a naturalistic viewpoint, and why they tie in intimately with the realities of impermanence and interconnectedness.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Exploring Natural Buddhism - Part One: Why Naturalism?

Well, it's a new year (new decade, even), which is as good a time as any for beginnings, so I'm thinking about starting a series of posts to continue the question "Why Natural Buddhism?" Since, as you can see from my list of favorite blogs on your right, my interests range over a broad spectrum, I'm not exactly sure where the majority of my readers come from. So I don't know whether you're acquainted with Buddhism, or naturalism, or both or neither! So I thought maybe I should expand a bit on what those subjects mean to me. (I hesitate to say "what those subjects are," as that would imply that anyone who sees them differently from me is wrong)

So, Part One: Why Naturalism?

In case it wasn't obvious, "Naturalism" means, in this usage, the opposite of "supernaturalism." I prefer the term to "atheist," though one usually implies the other, as I don't like to be labeled simply in opposition to someone else's beliefs. I don't call myself an afairiest because I don't believe in fairies, though I know some people who do (in other words, I'm not being facetious, here). I like the term "skeptic," in some instances, as it means that I don't take things for granted and prefer to withold judgment until I do a little research on my own; but too many people correlate "skeptic" with "humbug," or something similar. I'm not sure why, but there it is.
So I like the term "Naturalist;" it's a positive term, in that it describes what I do believe rather than what I don't, and it's not a common term, so it can act as a bit of a conversation starter. (It also has a vaguely Victorian feel to it, which I don't mind at all)

But why am I a Naturalist, anyway? No matter what I or other people call it, why do I choose to limit my worldview in such a banal way? Do I hate God? Do I have a chip on my shoulder against anything I can't see or touch? Doesn't it make me depressed to think of the universe in such an analytical, cold, scientific way?

Well, first off, I didn't grow up a Naturalist. As I've mentioned previously in this blog, I was raised a very fundamentalist Evangelical Christian. I believed very strongly in a supernatural worldview--indeed, my world was full of "spiritual warfare," where every coincidence or random thought was a sign of a higher conflict. Even after I studied my way out of Christianity where I could no longer force myself to believe in the Bible, I still saw the world in spiritual terms, and looked to everything from ancient pagan beliefs to New Age "woo" in order to explain the mysteries of the world.

I can see very clearly now that my problem was ignorance; I knew very, very little about how the world worked, and so I sought out easy answers--easy because supernatural explanations were what I was used to, but also easy because they did not require much expertise. Does it sound good? Does it kinda make sense? Ok, must be true.
Of course, you know what they say; "Fool me twice" and all that. I wasn't satisfied taking answers on faith anymore, having done so wholeheartedly for 20 years and having been so wrong. I wanted to know how these authorities knew that chakras carried energy through our bodies, or that the myths of the vikings weren't literally true, but those gods and goddesses really do exist in some... existy... way... Really!
And I'm sure you know what I found. None of them had any good, solid reason for believing or proclaiming such things. It felt good, they liked it, maybe there was an anecdotal "friend of a friend" story, and that was it. And that, my friends, is Step #1 for becoming a Naturalist: realize that there are no good, solid reasons for believing in supernatural explanations. Sure, there may be some mysteries that we don't yet understand, but that's no reason to go inventing myths. I always find it amusing how supernaturalists who are so averse to big bad scientists love to point out that men used to believe the earth was flat or that the sun orbited us, and look how wrong they were--what if today's materialists are just as wrong and it turns out [insert particular brand of supernaturalism] is right?
The irony, of course, being that it was science that overturned those erroneous worldviews, not mystics or scriptures. In fact, humans have consistently overturned supernatural explanations for natural ones throughout recorded history. The sun does not orbit the earth, the gods do not live in clouds or rain down lightning, mushroom rings do not grow because of fairies, and humans were not created ex nihilo.

It wasn't until I reawakened my love of science that I realized just how much we do know about the world. Not only that, I also learned that scientists were not simply proclaiming godless dogma because it sounded good to them--as I had been taught and as I'd seen every supernaturalist do--but they actually had repeatable, testable ways of explaining and proving beyond all reasonable doubt those things that we do know. And that is, of course, Step #2: realize that almost every feature of the cosmos is already explained by purely natural means.

And far from being a downer, learning the truth about why things exist and how they work is incredibly uplifting and beautiful. Creationists, for example, love to use phrases like "pondscum" to ridicule the idea that our ancestors arose from simple replicators in a primordial concoction. On the contrary, realizing that I share most of my genes with all life on this planet is at once a humbling yet exhilarating awakening. To understand that the molecules that make up my brain were forged in the hearts of long-dead stars, and now I use them to contemplate those stars' existence is a marvellous truth that connects me with, not only all life on earth, but with the entire universe, as well. Imagine if some of the stardust from a star that helped make me also accumulated into life-sustaining planets elsewhere? A truly awe-inspiring prospect.

And that's what gets me about the supernaturalist worldview--they like to claim that we're missing out on something if we don't think an anthropomorphic deity made us with its own purpose in mind, or that there's some magical soul in our brains that is influenced by constellations or karma. But I've been there, I've believed in those things, and I can honestly tell you that there's no comparison; they are the ones who are missing out, here. You know, when I believed there were monsters in my closet, I found it comforting to pull the sheet over my head and believe it would protect me.

It's a lot better to just realize there are no monsters.