A Pragmatic View of Religion

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

When we adopt a pragmatic worldview of the problems of society, we generally do so from an intellectual and philosophical mindset, especially in the beginning. This does not have to be different when we come to consider religious experience and thought. From a pragmatic perspective we can use the thoughts on the subject from the pragmatists John Stuart Mill, William James, and Richard Rorty as a guide as we also bring our Buddhist thought and practice into the equation.

Richard Rorty as a 20th century pragmatist considered describing religious thought in terms of:

1 Placing aside talk about Truth and Reason, our only responsibility, philosophically and morally, is to our fellow human beings, not some “sublime dimension of being” or “ the starry heavens.”

2 This responsibility is “to make our beliefs cohere with one another, and to our fellow humans to make them cohere with one another.”

3 We examine our beliefs by how they are “habits of actions,” not on whether they represent the world.

4 What emerges is a utilitarian ethics of belief, which treats a belief as a habit of action.

5 Place into the context of the philosophy of religion, a utilitarian philosophy of religion must “also treat being religious as a habit of action.”  1

Any useful and positive thoughts on what it means to be a “religious individual” does not need to be different from secular or pragmatic understanding of other aspects of human moral and ethical conduct that is essential in cultivating a civilized society. Any religious practice, Buddhist or other, owes its moral obligation and responsibility to all sentient beings, not by strict observance of doctrine, scriptures, or legacy beliefs, but to intentional actions honed by serious practice of core humanist principles as guideposts. For Buddhists, these guides are to be found in the Four Noble Truths and practiced in the Eightfold Path of behavior that promotes human flourishing. Whether you consider this a religious endeavor or not is really not all that important. What counts are the lessons found in the Three Pure Precepts – Do no harm, do only good, do good for others. Which is Buddhism’s equivalent to the “Golden Rule”.

I rarely speak of religion in anything other then general terms, and only as a word useful for establishing relationships or dialogue between various interfaith groups and Buddhism. However, in a more pragmatic spirit religion as a subject might have some useful elements when we leave out the creation overtones that can quickly move the discussion into the weeds of misunderstanding. What is useful for me is to put aside any attempt to connect religion with ultimate truth which has no usefulness in terms of symbolism or metaphorical imaginings, but place it in the spiritual dimension that honors the human drive to find awe in the possibilities beyond common knowing. In other words, “religious action” becomes a practice of mindfulness that with ritual intent becomes a tool for awakening; the word religion becomes a verb.

Any consideration of a religious practice with the metaphysics gone may seem to many to be incoherent. For these people, religion can’t escape being a metaphysical reality that deals with what is beyond the natural realm and belongs to a “grater power”. For them there is no spiritual-life without a “knowing” creator. When we step out of the shadows of metaphysics, however, we can open up to a greater possibility without the shackles that restrain us to a belief that requires faith alone, to a spiritual practice that can open up our mind for experiencing the Universe as it is. Spirituality is nothing less than the thoughtful realization of how we are in each moment when we confront our mindful thoughts in a space without distraction, this expands the wonder we experience in our relationship to all things. Religious practices are but one of the private pursuit after these experiences. Spirituality is a component of Buddhism. Religion has a close historic and intellectual relationship with traditional philosophy when released from it’s metaphysical entanglements. While many atheists want to ban all forms of religious practices, not all agnostics share the same opinion for pragmatic reasons. Pragmatically, religious practice still has some value as a private pursuit for seeking the “spirit within.” Religion is a useful word for now as Buddhism works to achieve cultural authority. But is not necessary either. It becomes a word of choice, nothing more. A Buddhist spiritual practice does not transcend this world but opens up the possibilities of the human flourishing within. A sense of awe and wonder is also compatible with a naturalist, evolutionist view of human kind, and can take us beyond ourselves, no matter what we chose to call it.

1 An Ethics For Today, Richard Rorty Columbia University Press pg.46

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