I’ve been an atheist since I was 15 years old.
Before that I was a very devout religious kid. So much so that the first and third things I wanted to be when I grew up were a Catholic monk (because I knew and liked one) and a Methodist minister (because I knew and liked two). The second thing was a paleontologist.
Then one day I realized that I didn’t believe in God. I tried for a while to make a go of the fellowship aspect of church without the God bit, but it didn’t really work and most folks who knew about my change in thinking weren’t all that happy about it. There were some major exceptions, including the person I credit with first opening my eyes to the idea of atheism as a viable alternative to belief — my friend Kevin Baird. To this day that remains one of the best gifts a friend has ever given me.
I’m now 37, so that means I’ve been an atheist for 22 years, longer than I wasn’t one. In the intervening years, the only times I’ve tried on the trappings of religion have been during a couple flirtations with Buddhism. My first interest in Buddhism came during my second stint in Japan from ’96-’98, then during my first time in Brooklyn in 2000. Then I became more intensely interested later while living in Rochester, home to a large and active Zen center founded by famed Zen popularizer Philip Kapleau.
[Funny aside: As I’m typing this, I’m listening to Talking Heads sing “Once In A Lifetime,” which seems almost comically appropriate to what is fueling this essay.]
While living in Rochester, I regularly attended the Zen center for a while and practiced meditation at home in a room where I’d set up a small Buddhist altar. I found the practice of meditation extremely beneficial, but it seemed so wrapped up in religious trappings, such as monastic hierarchy and ritual, that my dislike of religion eventually outweighed my appreciation for meditation. I stepped away again and didn’t return for nearly a decade.
Now I’m back in Brooklyn. As you may have read in earlier posts (1) (2), my life has changed a lot in recent years. As have I, thanks to a combination of maturity and therapy. And once again I find myself very attracted to Buddhism. This time, though, it’s Buddhism with a very different context.
I was browsing in a bookstore a while back and stumbled across the work of Stephen Batchelor, particularly his books Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confession Of A Buddhist Atheist. You can imagine the appeal of a philosophy that incorporates the best parts of Buddhism and simultaneously strips away the need for a belief in reincarnation or anything else not supported by testing and experience.
Batchelor’s argument — and I hope he’ll forgive me for this gross simplification — is that the Buddha’s point was about dealing with the cessation of suffering in this world, irrespective of whatever might come after and independent of any need for a belief in an eternal “self.” That’s right up my alley, because the core ideas of Buddhism were extremely helpful to me when I last tried to employ them in my life, but the idea of special or mystical knowledge held only by a priestly caste always seemed exclusionary. And to the inevitable criticism that I’m choosing just the bits of Buddhism I like and ignoring the bits I don’t, I’ll rely on Batchelor’s answer to this same critique: “It has always been thus.”
So in recent months I’ve gone back to my meditation practice and back to a fairly intense reading of Buddhist literature. A friend commented recently, “Are you becoming a Buddhist? I thought you were an atheist.” I don’t know the answer to the first question, but the answer to the second part hasn’t changed since I was 15. I have no belief in the supernatural, be that God or eternal life or reincarnation or magic or whatever. Buddhism as I am choosing to understand it these days doesn’t require that. And it provides a set of tools — or, more appropriately, a path — that helps me navigate my world in a healthier, more present, more compassionate way.
I’m certainly at the beginning of this phase of my life, and you may come back here in a few months or a few years and I’ll be posting my “What was I thinking?” essay. But at the moment I feel like I’ve hit on the right combination for where I am and what I need right now. And I’m okay with that.