‘Buddhist’ is just a nicer way of saying ‘atheist’

My wife really dislikes Facebook; even so, she feels compelled to share at least some information about herself. Last night she was filling in a few new interests on her profile when she came to “religion.” “What should I write?” she asked. “‘I love Jesus? Liberal? Agnostic?'” “Why don’t you just tell the truth?” I said. “Write ‘atheist.'”

“That sounds too harsh,” she replied. “I’ll just put down ‘Buddhist’ instead.”

Why Buddhism?

Many people I know like to define themselves as Buddhists. Apparently, is has become the most chic religion in the west, partly because it is not a religion in the monotheistic sense. As a moniker, it seems highly compatible with a personal quest for spirituality and tolerance for others. “I’m a Buddhist” is shorthand for “Your thing is cool with me, as long as my thing is cool with you.” Somehow, Buddhism is challenging secular humanism as the choice ideology of the non-religious.

Despite the much-heralded rise in traditional religious belief, our monotheisms are going through a tough phase. For one thing, they can no longer accomodate the worship of nonviolence. Read the Bible, read the Koran. Read the Iliad, for that matter. Humanity has, until fairly recently, always flaunted and celebrated its ability to shed blood. It meant power, wealth and posterity. And–for the record–it appears that animals do it, too.

But are we seeing Buddhism as it is, or as we wish it was? Robert D. Kaplan has a recent piece in The Atlantic about his travels in post-bellum Sri Lanka, which sheds some light on our conceptions:

Buddhism holds an exalted place in the half-informed Western mind. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism are each associated, in addition to their thought, with a rich material culture and a defended territory, Buddhism, despite its great monuments and architectural tradition throughout the Far East, is somehow considered purer, more abstract, and almost dematerialized: the most peaceful, austere, and uncorrupted of faiths, even as it appeals to the deeply aesthetic among us. Hollywood stars seeking to find themselves—famously Richard Gere—become Buddhists, not, say, orthodox Jews.

Well, they may not be deciding on orthodox Judaism, but many of them are drawn to things like Kabbalah for its promise of “spirituality.” The less daring go for a new-agey romp in Oprahland with The Secret. Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book out called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and I look forward to thumbing through it. 

Are we just looking for a bright-side which doesn’t exist outside of our own minds? Think Susan Boyle. Don’t think. Think again.

A Few Thoughts on Jewishness (2)

Allow me to repeat what the Bu-Jews I know tell me (there are a startling number of them): “You cannot be a Buddhist.” Apparently, Buddhism is not a faith, but more like a non-faith. (Non-) Buddhists out there, please correct me if I’m wrong on this.

I think it is this “non-faith” factor that accounts for its compatibility with Jewishness in a way that, say, Christianity is incompatible. It’s one or the other.

The Tanakh is explicit about Jews messing with other religious ideas, most likely because Jews in those days were often messing with them. Otherwise the pronouncements against Ba’al and other minor deities lose their sense. Here’s a choice prohibition, (almost) randomly stumbled upon:

Leviticus 19.19 (קדשים): Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourself. I the Lord am your God.

Roger Kamenetz wrote a book called The Jew in the Lotus, about his experiences of cross-pollination. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for some time. Sooner or later I’ll get to it.

My point, if I have one, is that Jewishness is to some extent separable from Judaism. Of course, they are linked in inseparable ways, which it has been the job of modern secular Jewish culture to discover. How far can you stray before you’re no longer Jewish? Without a formal negation, an outright refusal, a trashing of Jewish identity in all its forms (and even then, there is good reason to believe one is still Jewish), it’s a tough call. And yet, we are the ever-dying people–presumably because so many of us get interested in extending our Jewishness to include forbidden territory.

The great debate is: who will win out in the end? The fact that the future of the Jews is seen as a competition between “traditionalist” and “humanistic” should tell us all something about the nature of the problem. If there is a problem. Once it was assumed that, to be Jewish, you needed to believe in the Jewish God. That is no longer the case. Even Jewish atheism is just another galaxy spinning around in the ever-widening universe of Jewishness.

You can be good without God.