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.

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