Nichiren Buddhist Association of America

Nichiren Buddhist Association of America
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Choosing a Religion

by Shannon Heimburg

 

Before I can move on, I have to address a couple of the things preventing people from applying a strategy to the choice of religion.

Religious moderation is probably the most prevalent religion in the world today. This belief holds that religion in moderation is safe, while strong religious belief is harmful. The irony is that such people believe very strongly about it and are disturbed by religious "extremism," "fanaticism," or "fundamentalism." They don't believe that any particular religion is harmful in itself, but they do believe that closely following the tenants of any one religion is harmful. They believe that there is a god, or with agnostics, may be a god, but that god himself would rather you didn't pay too close of attention to the Bible or the Qur'an, but rather that you cherry-pick from religion for the parts that you personally like. They believe that all religions only teach love and compassion, but that adhering too closely to these principles, or becoming too attached to them is the cause of war, hatred and violence. In other words, it's a dishonest philosophy, and it doesn't make sense theoretically.

But how can we teach compassion while teaching religious intolerance? It's very simple really. You love a person. Do we ever love a person because of the religion they practice? Love is something inside of us that can be honed. It sounds egotistical, but the truth is that unconditional love has nothing to do with the other person. It's all about us. It's about our ability to give love, to have the courage to care about another person even if they reject us and don't love us back. Our ability to truly love says more about who we are than who the other person is. When we can muster love for another person, we want them to become happy in spite of themselves. Think of caring about a person who is a beggar by choice, or who is an alcoholic. You may not like what they do, but you don't have to love them any less. If you truly care about them, you wouldn't try to get them to change because of some moral code you insist that they abide by, like you believe people should work for a living. That's about you, not about them. But if they're suffering due to their choices, you will want them to change for the sake of their own happiness. The fact that you care about them makes you want to help them overcome their difficulties and make better choices all the more.

It's our job to figure out how to convince people to honestly seek out ways to become happy, wise and compassionate people. It's our job to listen to them to find out where they're coming from and learn from them as well. This is our job, and it rests entirely with us. If we cannot convince a person, it's not the fault of the person not being convinced. There are religions that encourage violence and killing. (Sorry moderates, but what's true is true.) People don't kill over merely disagreeing with each other. They kill because they are told to kill by the religious texts they adhere to.

The power of religion over our lives and it's potential to cause us to do harm is the reason we need a compass to navigate the treacherous and stormy waters of religion.

What about atheism? What if we simply do away with all religion? One problem with that idea is that once you remove god from a person's beliefs, it leaves them feeling empty, like they have a hole inside that can never be filled. There's a better reason than that, though. A good religion is a tool that can be used to help us in our day-to-day lives. We can use it to help us develop our sense of self, our sense of others, our compassion, our emotional well-being. We can use it to lower our stress levels, change our attitudes about life, refocus ourselves, and channel our energy in positive ways. There are a number of ways that religion can be used for the betterment of the individual and of society. We need not discard religion as a concept but discard religions that cause us harm. It's the same with medicine. When we find out that one medicine has needlessly killed people, do we discard all medicines? Some medicines save lives. Let's keep the good medicines and eliminate the bad medicines.

Now to the real question. How do we decide which religions are the good religions and which are the bad religions? We need to begin with the realization that human beings create religions. When we find the perfect human being, maybe then we will find the perfect religion. Until then, we are left to continually seek out and even help develop better and better religions. We must understand that religions can be compared and held up against each other. As we compare religions to each other, we keep the best religion and discard the others. This is how we should approach the seeking out of a religion.

Religions should be compared to each other on two levels: 1. the philosophy and 2. the Practice. The practice of a religion always enhances the ideas of the philosophy. For instance, praying to a god (the practice), strengthens a belief in god, because that is the philosophy upon which it is based. A similar kind of meditation, wherein you sit and think quietly for a moment, would not strengthen an atheist's belief in god. On the other hand, a religion with a lot of great ideas doesn't really help at all unless it gives the practitioner a means by which to carry out its ideas. For instance, the desire to eliminate the suffering of another person, no matter how noble, doesn't really help unless one has a means by which to do so.

The priest Nichiren, who founded this sect of Buddhism, used something we call the Three Proofs to compare and contrast various religions. The three proofs are theoretical proof, documentary proof, and actual proof.

Theoretical proof is simply asking oneself if the theory makes sense. Is it cohesive? Does it have holes? Does it make sense considering other things we know to be true about life? Can it withstand the test of reason?

Documentary proof means that the theory follows the documented ideology of the religion. For instance, how can you call yourself a "Christian" without following the documented teachings of Christ? The reason this proof is important has a lot to do with experimentation. Say that you are one of the people who calls themselves a Christian but doesn't follow the documented teachings. If your religion has benefit to you, it doesn't mean that Christianity works. But it could mean that your own religion works. If you find a religion on your own that is more beneficial than any other religion, then you should write it down and make it available to others. If something works for you but doesn't work for others, then it doesn't truly work. All experiments should have reproducible effects. Otherwise, it could be something else, not your religion, that is working for you. With documentary proof, we can reproduce the experiments and attempt to repeat results. It also allows us to critique the theoretical proof of a religion, and spread the best, most valuable, religions for the sake of others.

Then there is actual proof. How well does the religion work and on how many levels?

Buddhism works in many ways. It works to lower stress, make people more aware of the feelings of others, and so on. This is what we mean by the actual proof of a religion.

When looking outside of Buddhism, in the general world of religion, what does "work" mean? It could mean almost anything. Remember that this is not a true/false question. We're not looking for one religion that works whereas all other religions don't. To begin with, different religions are sometimes trying to accomplish different ends, at least in a superficial sense. For instance a goal of some religions is to get people into Heaven, whereas other religions don't believe in Heaven.

Even harmful religions "work." Some of the ways in which they work may be in the sense that people kill on behalf of the religion, or in the sense that they cause people to feel personally powerless.

The other thing to consider is that the meaning of effectiveness, of something considered to work, is comparative rather than right or wrong. Do people use ball-point pens today because quills don't work? No. Quills work. They aren't wrong. It's just that ball-point pens work better. Where the goals of different religions overlap, we're looking for the religion that works the best or is in some way better than others. For instance, if we're comparing two religions, both of which teach loving kindness and encourage the adherents to open soup kitchens, but one also teaches adherents to kill unbelievers, the more violent of the two can be summarily discarded. Should there be any question about this?

The positive effects of some religions can be compared directly to the same positive effects of other religions. For instance, if two religions both lead people to behave more compassionately toward others, the one that has the most powerful impact on compassionate behavior, if there is one, is superior in this instance.

Like I said, there are two aspects of a religion that need to be judged: the philosophy and the practice. We can and should apply all of the proofs to both of them. Does the philosophy make sense, and does the practice make sense in light of the philosophy? Does any of it defy logic? Are both the philosophy and the practice documented and made available for reproduction and outside criticism? Do the philosophy and the practice both lead to the most positive ends when comparing them to other religions? The practice of Buddhism is an ever-evolving use of these proofs to continue to develop a religion that works better and better to help people develop themselves and eliminate their suffering.


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