When I was a boy churches were full. Now they’re empty. For
millennia, religious authorities were the arbiters of moral value and atheists
kept a low profile. Today, everything’s changed. Churches are renovated into
condominiums. The day of rest is no more. Even the word ‘religion’ sounds
This is modernity. Science rules, and religious belief is unscientific. Hard scientists seem compelled to attack religion, even though social scientists find it sublime.
To preserve their faith, believers must either deny science or juggle two realities.
What everyone seems to have forgotten is that there’s more
to religion than belief. It’s about experience, and the natural human longing to
be awed. I call it a religious instinct. We can all imagine our ancestors staring
into the night sky asking irresistible, unanswerable questions. Then—humans
being what we are—someone invented answers.
Mindfulness bridges religion and science. Its focus is an objective, non-judgmental perspective. Its goal is to let go of reactivity, which means changing your behavior in ways that you choose. Mindful thinking trains you to choose well, so it’s also a moral practice.
“I like to believe,” says a character from the TV show The
Village. If you google that phrase you’ll find all sorts of things that people
like to believe. I once liked to believe in reincarnation, and then— even
though I still would have liked to—I stopped. Reason got in the way.
Questioning beliefs is hard. The possibility that they’re wrong seems to threaten who you are. That’s why people sometimes defend incredible ideas. Flat-Earthers are still with us; anti-vaxers are ushering in a new age of childhood diseases. We integrate our beliefs into who we are, so that we don’t just vote for conservatives or progressives; we are conservative or progressive—even when we don’t even care enough to join the party!
This is reactive believing, and it’s all about defending our choices. There is another way to use the mental factor of belief—by applying mindful thinking. First, you temporarily suspend your decision about whether something’s true or not, so you can check it out. Then you decide whether it’s credible—and worth holding onto even if it’s true.
This is easier said than done, but not because evidence is hard to evaluate—that’s the easy part. The difficulty lies before that—simply allowing for the possibility you’re wrong. This is is not a rational decision; it’s deeply emotional. To question your beliefs is to question who you are. Once you open that door, who knows what’ll happen?
Although testing beliefs is central to the Buddha’s teaching, it’s one of the hardest principles for Buddhist communities to implement. Preserving the founder’s legacy is their mission, and to do that they insist that all he taught is beyond question. There is no place for the possibility that the man might have been ordinarily flawed, and sometimes wrong. As happens usually with religion, often with politics and not infrequently even in scientific communities, advocates feel compelled to establish ‘truth’ beyond question, and end up trapped in dogma.
You however, have no such monumental beliefs to defend. Your job is entirely different, and thankfully much simpler—simply to know what you believe and why. That’s what mindful thinking is for, and that’s what we’ll be discussing in our upcoming workshop.