Atheism 2.0: blessing 2023 with new faith
A quick way of dividing the world is into those who believe and those who don't – the religious and the atheists. Thanks to some very vocal skeptics, it's clear what being a non-believer means: Religion isn't just wrong; it's ridiculous and believing in God is akin to believing in Santa. Aside from being bad-mannered, I think that's too easy.
What does Christmas mean to you? For me, it means getting merry on mulled wine, fat on turkey and broke on panic buying. But – and it's a big but – these aren't the true treasures of the holiday. I enjoy Christmas traditions. I like carols and reading passages from the New Testament. I love churches and lighting candles. There's something about the festival I can't fathom. I'm not religious, but Christmas is sacred.
I've envied people of faith; the guidance and rules look comforting at a distance. But there's another way that doesn't cast non-believers into a spiritual wasteland between Starbucks and Tabao. One of my favorite thinkers, Alain de Botton, put a name to it: Atheism 2.0. He starts from a basic and pretty blunt principle: No God exists. But with Atheism 2.0, the absence of God isn't the end of the story. It's the very beginning.
We're fast approaching Christmas, an important date on many calendar. It's a popular conviction that if something's important, we'll bump into it. But you only need to look at the self help section in any bookstore to know that's nonsense. All major religions understand this and use calendars to ensure we meet helpful ideas and create rituals around feelings.
Take the moon; we all enjoy looking at it. When we do, we think: "Wow, I'm small. Maybe my problems are small too." It sets things into perspective. We know this, yet most of us don't spend much time appreciating the moon. Why? Because there's nothing telling us to. But if you're a Theravada Buddhists and it's a full moon, you might make offerings at a monastery, listen to readings or join a candlelit procession. All scheduled around a close relationship with nature that routinely reconnects you with your beliefs.
Nature is a natural calendar for many religions, and Taoism is an ancient Chinese faith that emphasizes harmony between us and the natural world. One of the most famous Taoist stories is a fable about a philosopher who dreamed he was a butterfly. The philosopher couldn't distinguish reality when he woke up. Was he a human who'd dreamed of being a butterfly? Or a butterfly that had dreamed of being human? The fable explores a deep-seated doubt about what's ever really known. That's useful.
We live in a world, particularly online, where knowing rather than seeking to understand is God. And it causes a lot of pain. Skepticism is a common theme in "Zhuangzi" – a collection of Taoist writings – that encourages readers to question their understanding of fundamental concepts like right or wrong, good or bad. For me, it reminds us to transcend fixed mentality and be OK with the things we don't know.
When we think about how to make the world better, we think about education. Teachers are tasked with making nicer people of us all. But imagine entering the lecture hall of any major university and announcing you were there to learn about morality. Learning to live isn't the business of our best and grandest institutes. Instead, they're built on the belief we need knowledge, not help. Religions start from a very different place. Most faiths refer to us as children and, like children, think we need guidance.
And while academia talks us through something once and expects us to remember it during a midlife crisis, religions harness repetition. We see it in theological artworks. It's said museums are our new cathedrals, but two bad concepts hover over the art world. The first is that art is for art's sake, with no significant responsibility in life. And second, art shouldn't explain itself. Doing so denies us an epiphany. In religions, art has two jobs: to remind us of what there is to love and what there is to fear or hate. What if museums took a leaf from the book of religions and devoted spaces to compassion, love and generosity? De Botton argues we'd learn more. And who hasn't stood in a museum thinking: "What the hell is this?"
Look at devout artworks as we approach Christmas, and you'll be closer to its true meaning. Aside from gold, frankincense and myrrh, the holiday has very little to do with gifting and nothing to do with Coca-Cola. In many ways, Christmas is the best example of commercialism.
Much stuff gets "Made in China." Like everywhere else, consumerism has developed rapidly here. In many ways, it's also a compelling place to practice Atheism 2.0. The country has been influenced by lots of religions and beliefs, some homegrown while others imported. Understanding this kaleidoscope is guaranteed to give new perspectives on anything from Chinese characters to ancient proverbs and modern family relationships. In a city like Shanghai, a world of ideas is squeezed into small square footage and embodied by our international community.
I don't wholly subscribe to Atheism 2.0. I think I'm more agnostic than I am atheist. But there are bits about its philosophy I really like. This week I'm at Mount Lingshan in Wuxi, home of the Grand Buddha which proudly stands 88 meters overlooking the city in Jiangsu Province. It's one of the largest Buddha statues in the world. I'm not here as a Buddhist, I'm here as a human in need of guidance. And what human isn't in need of guidance? Not because we're bad or broken, but because life is complicated.
It's a cold choice that one must bow down before a doctrine or live in a spiritual desert, and it's a choice we don't have to make. There's something to learn even if we don't believe. Whatever our take, we can respectfully look at religions and ask: "What's helpful?" Now's a good time. If inspired by anything communal, look at religion. If you love to travel, explore pilgrimage. If you're in the art world, see how religions curate. And if you're an educator, see how they spread ideas. We might disagree with theology, but we can harness its complexities. Faith is too subtle and diverse to save the religious alone. Faith is for the masses, and we could all use some.
See you next week.
Wuxi sits on the southern border of Jiangsu Province, about 130 kilometers northwest of Shanghai. It's easy to fall for this city, teeming with its historical sites, beautiful lakes, lush mountains and ancient towns. Located at the southwest tip and on the Majishan Peninsula stretching from the northern bank of Taihu Lake, the Mount Lingshan Scenic Area is a Buddhist wonderland. The 88-meter-tall Grand Buddha is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world. There are other attractions nearby, including the Brahma Palace and Xiangfu Temple.
Getting there (from Shanghai)
Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station – Wuxi
Approximately one hour
Where I stayed