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A Pragmatic View Of Religion

David Xi-Ken Shi 曦 肯

When we consider a pragmatic view 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 (or spiritual), Buddhist or other, owes much of 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 first to be found in the Four Noble Truths and practiced using the guides of the Eightfold Path of behavior that promotes human flourishing, and the higher reasoning perspective of the Six Refinements. 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 theistic overtones that can quickly move the discussion into the metaphysical realm of understanding beyond validating real world human experience. What is useful for me is to put aside any attempt to connect religious practices with various ancient definitions of transcendent realities which may have usefulness in terms of symbolism or metaphorical imaginings for modern man, but is better placed in the contemporary human spiritual dimension that honors the human drive to find awe in the possibilities beyond common knowing.   In other words, we move “religious action” toward a practice of mindfulness that with ritual intent becomes a tool for awakening to a broader view of universal realities with the help of 21st century science. In doing this we move the word religion to becoming a verb. Continue reading

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