The Master is content to serve as an example, not impose her will. Sharp but not cutting, pointed but not piercing, straightforward but flexible, brilliant but not blinding. Tao Te Ching 58
In the previous two parts of this series, I’ve tackled two arguments against religion — that it gives a poor return on investment, and that it encourages hypocrisy. In this part I look at another argument: that religion encourages too much reliance on doctrine, rather than experimentation or thinking for yourself.
If you’re depending on clergy, or any Wisdom Handed Down From On High, to save your soul, I have to agree: this is actually a huge, huge problem. Too many people simply believe what they’re told — by people who have a vested interest in controlling them, in maintaining positions of power, in keeping people ignorant of the real facts and subservient. They want mindless obedience; they deliberately sow confusion; they undermine your belief in your ability to think independently. They don’t want you to question the beliefs you grew up with, or the decisions of those in power, the marching orders you’re given.
Wait, are we still just talking about religion?
Imagine if people were automatons who always followed orders. Who would gain from that? The clergy, obviously, but also the military, the government, the corporations, the banks…
Religion, as I said above, is like any other human institution: flawed and corruptible. This is not a reason to mistrust religion in particular, any more than any other institution. But a healthy suspicion is called for in all cases. Governments, corporations, and religious institutions like to set themselves up as “experts” who are in the know and whom you can rely on to make your decisions for you. Be suspicious when one government accuses another of being belligerent. Be suspicious when a corporation spends millions of dollars to fund scientific studies. Be suspicious when a religion says they are the only path to heaven.
But balance is required here. Should you be suspicious when a teacher tells you you have to learn calculus if you’re going to graduate high school? Maybe the teacher is in the pay of the all-powerful calculus corporations…
Teachers, food and arms inspectors, greenhouse gas studies, and spiritual guidance are all necessary — or at least, extremely convenient. We shouldn’t just give it all up and trust only our own instincts. There are people and institutions out there who are doing good work and are reliable guides. But know you are taking a risk when you trust them. Don’t believe them just because your parents did.
The most reliable teachers, I’ve found, are those who are not trying to teach — the ones who teach by example. If you want to eat healthily, don’t necessarily trust scientific studies (especially if you don’t know who funded them); find people who are healthy and eat what they eat. If you’re president, and you want your nation to be at peace, find a nation at peace and act the way it does. If you want spiritual guidance, find someone you respect and learn from them. This is how the greatest teacher, Nature, does her work.
Of course, it’s kind of hard to learn calculus ‘by example’, unless you’re Isaac Newton watching the flight of birds or something. But you know what I mean. Nature is an extremely patient teacher.
And for the record, there are religions who teach in just this way. The Buddha famously exhorted his ‘followers’ to trust no one — not even him — for only they could find their own way to enlightenment. The Zen Masters say little indeed, and what they say is often very cryptic. They tend to spend a lot of time gardening.
The monastery is closed and empty; no monks live there now, and its halls are silent. Only the smell of the peach blossoms in the courtyard comes down the mountain now. Who says the monastery is empty of wisdom? — Zen saying