Forget about whether your religion is true or not — is it useful?
Arguing over belief systems is a dangerous, childish game. Some might say that it misses the entire point of the religious path. Instead, perhaps you could consider what your belief system is actually doing for you?
Social media has opened endless debates about whose belief system is more ‘real’. It is easy to become inspired by something and then take it on as truth because it resonates with you. Some Christians believe in the bible so much that they go around preaching door-to-door. Buddhists can look down on others who question the concepts of karma and rebirth. Muslim men often dedicate their lives to the idea that they will be born in heaven surrounded by virgins. Some atheists assume that anyone believing in God is intellectually below them.
Everybody wants to prove that their faith is the correct one
Yet, whether any of these things are true or not is irrelevant. Even if you could verify that your God exists, or that science is the ultimate resource, you are still in pain and you are still going to die. Shit still happens.
You can question the reality of anything. As soon as something has happened, it becomes a memory. Since it only exists as a memory, all we have is a common consensus about what happened. There is always the chance that we are hallucinating.
There is currently no way to distinguish, in the absence of independent evidence, whether a particular memory is true or false. Even memories which are detailed and vivid and held with 100 percent conviction can be completely false.” (Source)
As a culture, our thirst for knowledge and truth has its value. Yet, it is so constant that it is easy to miss the true meaning — how that knowledge is benefiting us.
Whether you are atheist, religious, agnostic or whatever — they are all methods.
We have to think this way because cause and effect are all we have.
You might wonder if cause and effect is a Buddhist notion, but it isn’t. You mix flour and water then put them in the oven and it becomes bread. That is cause and effect. You could question whether the flour was real since now it is bread. You could ask whether the bread is real since it used to be flour. We can prove neither. The only thing we know to be true is the process.
So, what if we stopped debating whose truth is more authentic? What if we were to, instead, consider the effects of such belief systems? As humans, could we find great value in being utterly pragmatic? What if we were to consider all belief systems to be methods?
Religion is often categorised as a whole. It is common practice to dump the vast beliefs of billions of people into the category ‘religion’. But, religions are not all the same — they are incredibly diverse. Not only are they diverse, but the ways of practising them are also diverse. The intention of religion, if you insist on categorising it as a whole, is to bring benefit. If it weren’t, then nobody would have written it down.
Many people are terrible at practising religion. They take the words, make up their own agenda, and practice like a bull in a china shop. Inter-language translation does not help with this. It is challenging to express the original meaning of things when translating. It is no surprise that people are bad at practising their religions. There are precise instructions out there on how to become good at golf. The majority of golfers I have met are terrible at the game. Still, I don’t judge the entire sport to be at fault because of their lack of skill.
If someone believes in a God that rules over everything, whether that God is ‘true’ or not is irrelevant.
What matters is how the belief in that God affects the life and mind of the believer. This faith in a higher God can create a focus beyond the individual ego. It can help a person transcend selfish desire. A practitioner can see everyone as a child of that God. They can learn to revere each person or creature they meet as a reflection of their God. At the time of death, their belief can provide comfort and solace. Truw or not, this comfort can help maintain a peaceful state of mind as one leaves the body. Who would doubt that such a view, can have such positive potential?
The Buddhist beliefs of karma and rebirth can have noticeable effects on the mind. These beliefs teach the individual to become aware of their actions in their day to day life. Practitioners become acutely mindful of the impact of their actions on others. It is easy for a Buddhist to take these truths as a reality and become fundamental about them. But, considered, instead, as a powerful method, who can deny the benefit on the mind of the individual?
Even Harvard University says there is something to it -
Religious or spiritual beliefs may also help by lending a larger meaning to a loved one’s life and death. For some, the belief that a loved one is enjoying the spiritual riches of heaven or preparing for the next turn of the wheel through reincarnation can be comforting. Believing your loved one helps guide you in this world or that you will be reunited in another place after your own death can help you continue to feel connected with the person.
When religion teaches that it is the only truth, practitioners are doomed from the start. That is when religion can be dangerous for the mind. Isn’t the point of religion to free us from the tiny prison of the mind? Isn’t it to reverse the process of withdrawal from the world around us? Religion, successful or not, intends to expand the mind but can also go the other way. We don't need to talk about the examples of religion going wrong since it happens so often. Still, water kills every day but in the right hands can also save a life.
Any tradition is ultimately a vehicle for both benefit and harm depending on how it is practised.
An atheist also has to consider the impact that atheism is having on his or her mind. Every cause has an effect. It comes down to how the belief system is being practised rather than the belief itself. An atheist can think that their truth is the only truth. The result is to build up a wall between them and other beings who may not agree with their theory. But, an atheist can reject all individual religious truths. Instead, they can experience basic connectivity between all beings — a unity that has nothing to do with a separate dualistic God. Such an approach can surely be beneficial.
The Buddha said that a human cannot become a Buddha until they have ditched the method. They weren’t exactly his words I am sure. In Buddhism, this means you cannot achieve the goal of Buddhism until you throw Buddhism out. The method takes you there, but ultimately, you have to transcend it.
Taking religion as an end in itself rather than a technique can have other issues too.
In Buddhism, people often read the teachings of the Buddha and see a lot of contradictions in what he is saying. Without understanding, it is easy to see it as a flaw in his teaching. People seek out some underlying message that the Buddha is preaching. Yet, the Buddha did not have such a message. He did not have a belief system that he was trying to push onto people.
Everything the Buddha said was for a specific audience at a particular time. What he said to one person was like a medicine for their condition at that time. It was only later, after his death, that his students compiled his teachings. The Buddha was literate but never wrote anything down. Was this because he knew that one person’s medicine is another’s poison? All our conditions are so different. Doesn’t that mean that we all need different solutions?
Another example of this is in modern-day yoga. Iyengar and Ashtanga are very different styles of yoga. Yet, BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois both shared the same teacher — Krishnamacharya. Their teacher Krishnamacharya felt that his students needed very different teachings. He taught Pattabi Jois a vigorous, physical form of yoga while he taught Iyenga a method that relied on precise alignment.
Pattabhi Jois went on to found the Ashtanga yoga tradition. BKS Iyengar started his school. Both styles became popular with a broad audience. Followers of each school, to this day, argue over which method is more genuine. Modern yoga misses the honest and intimate nature of the teacher-student relationship. Both styles were solutions aimed at individuals. Both are genuine practices in their own right, assuming that the method fits the student.
We can often become so focused on what is real that we miss the only thing has any actual meaning — cause and effect.
The question of whether God exists or not has no meaning until we start to think about how that belief is affecting us. To where is it leading us? What effect is it having on our minds and the minds of others? We must put down our obsession with truth. Instead, what will happen if we embrace the puzzle of cause and effect? Might we realise that any religion or belief system has no meaning in itself? Might we realise that nothing is true in itself but only part of an ongoing process? Might we realise that the value of any practice is not in whether it is real, but in what the outcome of that practice is in our very lives, right here and now?