The Problem With Atheism

When you Google "atheism", you find thousands of memes created by teenagers that do nothing to embrace the nuance of contradiction. I'm not a religious person, but yes, I will pray for you.

I’ve been writing Daily Zen since I was 14. When I was in high school, I found myself intoxicated by various introductions to new ideas. I became acquainted with what I’ve learned to call intellectual obstinacy. It was something I would be thoroughly exposed to through my college education, on both sides of the political and religious spectrum, and in communications with readers of my site. To put it as shortly as I can, it’s an enjoyment of the sort of emotionally-infused artful use of language to elucidate crude concepts. One-dimensional (even violent) ideas expressed in a beautiful way. It’s very alluring.

When I was younger, I went through phases of intellectual obstinacy. I refused to acknowledge any idea that wasn’t scientifically backed. At a certain point, thanks to my meditation practice, I began to question science in the same way that I questioned religion. Zen teaches us to question everything, and then to question our questions. “The reverse side also has a reverse side.”

Science is all about observable phenomena. It is, by definition, materialism. It only makes sense that 21st century capitalism loves science. Science brought us the Internet! Science brought us space travel! Science makes people lots of money! People like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins sell millions of books because they reassure people that their materialistic modes of existence are, in fact, correct. Science is the ultimate dualism. You’re either right, or you’re really wrong. These thinkers provide people with the comfort that yes, they are right, their way of viewing the world is the correct way. Sounds pretty religious to me.

Popular scientists in the Western world often simply serve as one-dimensional preachers for the spiritually bankrupt technology-worshipping modern person. They reflect the world we live in, a world that thrives on unnecessary complexity and constant stimulation, rather than peace or contentment.

I often have to ask myself if staunch atheism is any different from religious fundamentalism. I don’t think it is, really. Both rely on a deep clinging to objective truth. Both cause violence in opposition to dissenters. Both have a carelessly singular view of the world. Anything taken to its extreme becomes its opposite. Extreme anti-religion becomes its own religion.

Zen is both anti-scientific and anti-religious. We don’t meditate because it has neurological benefits, or because it puts us in touch with “God”. We just meditate to meditate, the same way we eat to eat, or pee to pee. We don’t believe in concepts; we believe in day-to-day experience. Personal experience. If you personally experience God, good for you. That’s no more or less valid than the personal experience of gravity or thermodynamics. Who’s to validate or invalidate you?

“Proof” becomes obsolete in the eyes of Zen. It just doesn’t matter.

The lesson? Keep your beliefs to yourself. Question them. Rework them. Popular atheism has become the religion of consumer capitalism. It encourages us to serve a materialistic system with a sense of false egotistical superiority. It’s unquestioning. It’s similar to libertarianism. It reflects the human back as an object, a materialistic entity. It has no concern with the spirit, or with non-materiality. It has no concern with personal experience, practice, or reflection. It discredits any phenomena that cannot be observed, and especially those that can’t be conveyed using symbolic systems. It’s remarkably basic.

I hope that your Zen practice encourages you to remain open-minded and closed-mouthed. I’ve come a long way since I first began meditating, and I hope that your journey doesn’t stop at intellectual obstinacy. I believe there is a world out there that we don’t have to be able to see to experience. We don’t have to create creeds around it. We don’t have to start wars over it. We don’t even have to believe in it. But we can experience it. We can sit. We can observe. Instead of obsessing over materiality, productivity, and methodology, we can simply be mindful and compassionate. We can learn the value of peace, the value of observing nothingness.