Now, about my history with religion.
Growing up as a child in India, my family and I practiced Hinduism. I have vague memories of prayer ceremonies here and there, both to celebrate and to mourn. I can't really say I had a place in it. I never really did anything, I just followed what others told me. And that was pretty much my history with Hinduism.
When I was seven, I moved to Singapore with my mother. At that point in time, my mother picked up Nichiren Buddhism. My mother's practice of this Buddhism was helping her get through a personal crisis. As a seven year old kid I had no idea what this whole thing meant or entailed. My mother never imposed the practice onto me so I just grew up with this Buddhism as a secondary part of my life. All this till I turned 14.
At 14, I began facing some challenges of my own- particularly in school. I had gone beyond all I could do back then and I wanted to find another way to help myself. That's when I spoke to my mother and she introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. I practiced it for a year and it really helped me. I was able to find solutions to all my problems and I was able to move in a positive direction. But that's pretty much all it did. After 14 all the way till I turned 20, I found little use in religion. Along the way, I tried to use religion to help myself but somehow I never found it useful. I found that many of the problems that had to be solved were associated more with myself than with religion itself.
So this sums up my short history with religion. Though it is short, I derived many lessons that I think justify my decision to leave this whole concept of religion behind.
Firstly, I came to observe that religion (other than its philosophy) is largely about rituals and proceedings. These rituals and proceedings ultimately define what a religion is. So for example in Nichiren Buddhism, there were certain rituals that defined the religion. These rituals included praying twice a day, reciting the verse 'Nam Myoho Renge Kyo' over and over again, reciting verses of the Lotus Sutra in an Asian dialect and also for some, praying in a kneeling stance. Other religions have such rituals and proceedings too.
So, I asked myself- why these rituals? Why must I conform to such practices and what do these rituals achieve? Are there some supernatural powers associated with such practices? As with all such metaphysical questions, nobody knows the answer. The most reliable answers are those that can be backed up with evidence.
So I sat down one day and started dissecting the rituals that I observed in Nichiren Buddhism. After questioning myself and the countless experiences I had with the religion, I came to certain verifiable answers. My observation- a standard prayer ceremony in Nichiren Buddhism (as with other religious practices) can be broken down into two discrete parts- one being goal setting and the other being meditation.
Goal setting manifests in the form of prayers- when you remember the prayers you want to accomplish in your life, both in the short and long-term. Meditation manifests in the form of chanting or recitation of verses. This is what I concluded from my study of Nichiren Buddhism. From a purely scientific point of view, when I perform a religious practice essentially all I am doing is setting goals and meditating, simultaneously too.
So then I asked myself- how has goal setting and meditation, in the form of a religious ritual, helped me in life?
Goal setting allowed me to understand exactly what I wanted from life. When I was 14 years old, I did not have the maturity to sit down quietly and think to myself about what I wanted from life. Performing a religious ritual forced me to sit down and to think about what I wanted. Perhaps this oriented me towards achieving what I wanted? Maybe, maybe.
Goal setting also allowed me to think of things in the bigger picture. Say one day I had a fight with my friend. When I remembered my life's goals in the form of prayers, I was reminded that one of my life's goals was to be a proponent of world peace. With this larger goal in mind, I could put things in perspective and make peace with my friend instead of pursuing the petty matter.
Meditation in the form of recitation of Buddhist text helped me at times too. It helped to calm my senses, especially when I was experiencing strong emotions like anger or sadness. Through calming me down, it helped me see things in a bigger picture and allowed to re-orientate myself to carry on with life.
With this in light, I then asked myself- is goal setting and meditation necessary in my life now? Also, must I perform a religious ritual in order to facilitate goal setting and meditation?
I concluded that goal setting is certainly very important in my life now and in the future too. I mentioned two evergreen benefits of goal setting above. However I don't think I need an elaborate prayer ceremony to set and remember my life goals. I can simply make it a habit to remember my life's goals every morning and evening. I don't need to go through such an elaborate process to do such a simple job. This is one reason why I feel no need to adopt a religion. Since the essence of religious practice is to remember your goals, I can do so without all the complicated processes involved.
How about meditation? Is there a need for it in my life? Personally, I would think no. Perhaps when I was younger and had less control over myself, meditation helped to calm me down. But at this age I find it much easier to control my senses and to bring myself to a rational state of mind. Simply sitting down and penning down my worries helps me to calm my senses. I don't need to adopt occult meditative practices to achieve the same result. This is another reason why I feel no need to adopt a religion.
There are other important reasons why I feel I should not adopt a religion.
For one, I feel that religious practices have made me inefficient. When I was practicing Nichiren Buddhism, I used to believe (as I was taught) that I couldn't tackle problems without praying for them. I could only solve them when I prayed for them and also acted towards solving them. Because of this, I always had to rely on prayer to solve my problems. This made me highly inefficient and partly confused too. In fact it would be so much faster if I solved my problems by simply acting on them instead of going through the whole process of praying and acting.
I also feel that religious practices have, at times, impeded with my understanding of cause and effect. Sometimes my religious practices made me think that by praying some 'magic' would occur to make my prayers come true. An example would be me at one point in time when I wanted to find a girlfriend. By my understanding of Buddhism at that point in time, I knew I had to pray for it to happen and that I also had to act upon it. But by praying for it I subconsciously assumed that my prayers had some 'magical' powers and that a girlfriend would come to me rather than me actually looking for one. I was (through my own doing) deluded that some mystic form of cause and effect existed and that it would make all my prayers come true. I actually forgot that the most important thing was for me to find a girlfriend. If I had trusted the most basic form of cause and effect which is basic human action, then I would have just done the most logical thing which is to actually find a girlfriend. This would have yielded a better chance of success rather than simply praying and hoping for things to happen.
When I came to terms with this delusion that religion was imposing on me, I knew I had to leave it. I had to face the harsh reality of life- which is that my actions determine where my life is going. Prayers and all aside, it is my actions that decide my fate. It was hard for me to face this. In fact, all along it was easy for me to hide behind religion and to submit my fate to some higher authority. It was easy to pray and hope that a higher authority will help me. It's a lot harder to accept that I am alone and that my problems are of my own doing. It's a lot harder to accept that only I can help myself.
I do realize that by stating all that I have, I have essentially torn up the concept of religion. But please allow me to say a few words to bring back what I said into perspective.
As with all metaphysical questions and arguments about religion, there are no absolute answers as yet. There are only empirically verifiable answers, but do note these are just logical answers and may not necessarily be absolute. So for all I know, a higher authority may just exist and I may have just committed the biggest sacrilege by defaming this authority's doings. But I can live with that.
As with all I said earlier, please also allow me to put myself down and give religion due credit for it has stood firm in the test of time.
Religion, despite all I said, should be recognized for its numerous ties to culture and its development. Many of the the cultures adopted by races and ethnic groups revolve around the religion they practice. In fact many of our personal values are guided by the religion we practice too. Some of the values propagated- like honesty, integrity and compassion- are admirable and religion should be given due credit for it.
So as this argument comes to a (forced) close, you may ask this- without religion how do we choose our values? Without religion, what basis do we have to decide our personal values? I believe (and observe) that all of us are born with this innate moral compass commonly known as a conscience. I believe that religious values arose because the pioneers of religion listened to their personal conscience and developed religious doctrine through experimentation with their own conscience. Therefore, I believe that if each and every one of us listens to our conscience, we will be able to decide on our personal values and these values should not be too far off from person to person.
Perhaps this brings up another benefit of religion- in that personal values are decided for us by religion and through this our consciences become tuned to roughly the same direction. Without religion this parallelism of conscience would be a lot harder to achieve.
Anyways, I shall let things rest and leave the argument here. Thanks for reading this.
Appreciate the comments!
Picture source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jacktaylorbleasdale/5767043179/