Much of the turmoil over the last few years, and indeed for much of my life, has been essentially an extended existential crisis. I have come back more strongly to the tentative position I held when much younger (though at that time it was not based on much thinking; it was more of an intuition) — I am agnostic. Not agnostic just with respect to the existence or non-existence of the Christian God as is often meant by the term in the U.S., but agnostic toward anything that I can’t develop a reasonable opinion about based on my own reason, research, and personal experience. This includes not only the existence or non-existence of various deities and other existential questions such as the purpose and meaning of life, but extends to other spheres such as public policy. Through all of my reading the past few years, covering everything I could get hands on from religion, philosophy, sociology, economics, psychology, evolutionary biology, physics, etc. I have seen a small window of the power of the human mind to blindly accept fairly strange claims without evidence, and I have seen the power of reason. I choose reason and personal experience.
This choice, to me, does not feel like I am jettisoning aspects that make me more “human”; I get the best of both worlds in a lot of ways. I can draw from different religious or philosophical traditions, knowing that there is no contradiction because I don’t really “believe” in any of them, yet I think that they all have some valuable thoughts and lessons to offer humanity. A firm agnosticism keeps me from feeling so alienated because I can accept that someone else’s reason and someone else’s life might lead them to different conclusions. I am becoming better about not letting beliefs, metaphysics, and other such things define who I am and who others are. In fact, letting go about the categories of beliefs that we can align ourselves with gets rid of many of the artificial barriers that separate humanity.
And one of the best things is that it maintains a healthy level of wonder and awe about the mysteries of life. If one has it all figured out (or at least convinces themselves that they do), then that seems fairly boring to me. Many religions attempt to offer certainty about the mystery but, in doing so, lose credibility with many, including me. I would rather just accept the uncertainty, face the mystery with a smile, and try live life accordingly.
I can’t sum it up any better than this:
The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.
– Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (1949)
Buddhism remains my favorite religion. I identify more with the image of a calm, smiling, Buddha deep in meditative concentration in the mountain forest than I identify with any other religion that I have come across. Simply reading Buddhist scripture or commentaries puts me in a calm, peaceful state of mind like nothing else I have experienced except for spending time outdoors. So many of the claims the Buddha made about the Universe, and particularly about the workings of human mind, I can verify with my own reasoning and personal experience. It sure seems to me that he’s on to something, but I don’t automatically conclude that he had everything figured out.
For example, I cannot (yet) wrap my mind around the Buddhist idea of rebirth across lifetimes. And the crux of it is…what is it that gets reborn, if the Buddhists do not believe in a soul? The standard answer is that there is a portion of your of consciousness that persists after death and ends up fueling another life. This conclusion stems from a fairly reasoned analysis:
- Consciousness is real yet immaterial; it can bring about affects in the material world yet there is nothing that we can point to as “consciousness” that would be considered material.
- There is no known way that something immaterial can arise spontaneously from the material world.
- Therefore, consciousness must exist outside (and before) the consciousness that is expressed in an individual human.
The key point is the second bullet. At the time this argument was devised, consciousness was a total mystery. Although it still largely is, many of the leading scientific theories think that consciousness may be a process that arises in our brains. If so, this directly contradicts the second bullet and potentially undermines the philosophical argument for rebirth. However, Buddhists point to other information such as direct observation of the truth of consciousness and rebirth that can be experienced by advanced meditation practitioners. However, having not (yet) had those experiences myself, I will simply stick with my agnosticism and say that there might be rebirth, and there might not be.
(The same is true for experiences that people equate with Christian God and Jesus, that they somehow feel the divine presence at some point in their lives and this causes them to believe with every once of their being. I don’t deny that people have these experiences, and I think that it would be silly to do so. There is some chance that these experiences are manifested by the brain, and some chance that they are really attributable to divinity. I’ve never had such an experience, and since I can’t know what someone else’s experience feels like, I don’t think it makes sense to spend too much time developing an opinion on the matter. If I do have such an experience one day, then I will reformulate my tentative view of the world appropriately.)
Much as some people think that a deity is needed to enforce morality, in some ways to scare people into being good, some Buddhists seem to think that without rebirth, there is little incentive to be moral. Perhaps some people do need an external agent or force to be moral; but as far as I can tell there are plenty of atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists out there that lead perfectly moral lives simply because they have applied their own reason and decided that it is the right thing to do. I find this view of humanity more positive.
In the context of Buddhism and rebirth, I can completely buy the Buddhist idea that we are “reborn” from moment to moment. Some modern psychologists estimate that we are “reborn” (in a sense) every three seconds. Our future selves clearly are affected by our current selves. I also think that because we are a combination of nature, nurture (including social conditioning), and our own free will, others’ actions affect us and we affect others. Many of the seemingly insignificant things we do affect the future, whether we are aware of it or not. The future world ends up being, at least somewhat, a reflection of human choices. I have little doubt that we affect an endless sea of future lives; whether or not some portion of our consciousness will be around is still, to me, a mystery. But that really doesn’t matter for my morality — the potential effect of my current actions on my future selves in this life, and the potential affect of my current actions on the future world, is enough incentive for me to try and lead a moral life as best as I can.
My investigation into these existential questions has been an interesting process of discovery, one that for a while I wasn’t sure I would make it through. However, I’m at a point where I feel like I’ve made it out of the darkness. I feel like I will likely always be working along this path, continuing the search, but I think that I’ll be able to do it in a more peaceful manner, without all of the ups and downs that have been so characteristic of my life thus far. Interestingly, deciding that the biggest questions remain a mystery has given me more inspiration rather than less, as I would have expected. There is freedom and responsibility in the mystery. You have the freedom to appreciate the current life (you better, because it may be the only one you get), the inspiration that there just might be something bigger “out there”, and some good reasons to take responsibility for your actions. Perhaps agnosticism is yet another instance of the “Middle Way”, beloved by Buddhists and economists the world over.
I’ll leave with a thought I just had: Buddha encouraged people to constantly evaluate whether or not their thoughts and actions were contributing to good or harmful results for themselves and for others. I just realized that, not only does the agnostic outlook outlined above seem to be working very well for me, it makes me less critical and more accepting of others, so based on the Buddha criteria I’d say I’m on to something!
May we all find peace, happiness, and equanimity!