Sunday, February 15, 2009


Hello, everybody:

The Atheist’s Way Virtual Book Review Tour begins this week. Please take a look and see what people are saying, pro or con, about their experience with the book. Here are the two tour stops this week:

Donna Druchanas on Wednesday at

Catherine on Thursday at

In The Atheist’s Way I dub certain religions like Buddhism and Taoism “the river religions” and argue that, like the god-based religions, they betray our common humanity by promoting metaphors, fairy tales, and dogma rooted in the same authoritarian energy that drives Islam, Judaism and Christianity. There is no eightfold path, there are no noble truths, and there is no nirvana: there are only personal paths and personal truths and the necessity of personal meaning-making. The river religions, as attractive as they can seem, are detours from the path of personal meaning-making.

I am calling these religions the “river religions” to capture something of their root metaphor, that flavor or “flow” or “way,” and to underscore that they are indeed religions. Many people move from the god religions to the river religions because they want a recognized and non-offensive container to hold their spiritual enthusiasms, not quite realizing that every such container is a human-made device meant to promote fantasy (whether about Heaven or reincarnation) and grab power (whether in the hands of a Pope or a Zen Master).

This week I got a lovely email from a reader of The Atheist’s Way who, perhaps in conjunction with reading the book, had suddenly “seen through” the river religions. Barbara explained:

“I started visiting local Zen centers a few months ago, and have found tremendous improvement in my calmness, rationality and creativity with daily meditation sittings. However, I've been feeling more disappointed as I spend more time with the Zen centers. Yesterday I acknowledged why - it's because I don't believe. Period. I just don't believe in ‘religious stuff,’ not Catholicism like my father's family, not Episcopalianism like my best friend's church, not the radio-show Evangelicism my mother regrettably seems to favor, and thus, not in Buddhism either.

“I don't believe in reincarnation, or karma except as an abstract notion of ‘be a jerk, have a miserable life,’ or the benefits of prostrations, or that lineages of teachers are super special and worthy of prostration, or that the Buddhist ‘miracles’ are any more credible than the Christian ‘miracles.’ I do like the emphasis on mindfulness and compassion, and appreciate the Bodhisattva's Vow where the vow-taker promises to postpone enlightenment until all sentient creatures are free from suffering, but shouldn't mindfulness, compassion and generosity be commonly prized traits that don't need a religion to ground them?

“I think that 1) I'm a little disappointed that I'm an official 100% nonbeliever, since there might be some beautiful practices or comforts out there that I'll miss and 2) I'm disappointed that the tremendous benefits of meditation and the intellectually engaging parts of Zen still come wrapped with miracles, reincarnation and prostrations. But I'm unapologetically a nonbeliever, and that is fine. I'll keep meditating and I think we'll also go back to our local Unitarian church for socializing and networking, where you can be an atheist or deeply agnostic and that is OK. I'm in private law practice, where we are strongly encouraged to get out in the community and know people, and churches and temples are great ways to meet people: if you believe or can pretend to believe. But I see that the bottom line is that I must make my own meaning, with no dogma or snake oil; and that will be fine.”

If you have moved halfway from the god religions to the river religions, come all the way home now. Yes, there will be fewer networking and socializing opportunities—but there will also be fewer scrapes and bows. Leave the river religions behind and, rising from your cushion, stand up for what you believe. Comments welcome!—you can email me your comments at or post them at the blog where this newsletter also appears:

Have an excellent Sunday!




skeptimal said...


I'm glad you're blogging. I'm about half way through the book (I started it a couple of hours ago).

Not being an atheist (depending on your definition), I didn't think I was going to like the book, but I'm enjoying it a great deal.

I look forward to the virtual book tour.

Melanie A. said...

I really admire your courage, and Barbara's, for voicing what many of us think secretly. I have friends and family members who are adherents of the river religions, and use those doctrines to judge us non-believers with the same zealotry a fervent god-religionist might yield. They're highly intolerant of critique or questioning, but eager to point out when the rest of us fall short of their professed ideals. Is this a state of satori, or neurosis?

MJ said...

I like Melanie's point, and agree. I have limited Zen experience, and came to it because some local health-care based, non-religious, stress-reduction workshops advocate trying meditation simply as a way to train yourself to stop ruminating and calm your own anxieties, and for me it works. But I almost immediately found in the Zen meditation world that things can be judgmental and doctrinaire - for example, sitting in full Lotus is "better" and sitting in Burmese position is "acceptable but not as good as full Lotus." You know what makes one position different from the other? The sitter's flexibility and ability to fold up feet onto opposing thighs. That's all.

So, to put so much emphasis on being able to twist and bend the knee and ankle just you only get to enlightenment if you are naturally flexible and pain-tolerant...that just makes no sense. That was my nearly immediate beginning of the end with the possibility of belief in the system.

A friend has joined a local temple's "taking your practice to a higher level" program, and as part of that does Guiding Teacher meetings. The students wait with hands folded in the (Christian) prayer position until called by a bell, and then ascend two flights of stairs to bow to and meet with the teacher, hands steepled all the while. Uh, no thanks.

I'm also more than a little troubled by what seems to be an emphasis on acceptance that becomes passivity. Being actively angry and reactive all of the time is not good, that is true, but accepting too much is no good either - that becomes passive acceptance of injustice, misfortune and less than full work towards a quality life of one's own. Again, no thank you. Apparently even many young Tibetans are frustrated with the passive, accomodating nature of their religion to Chinese violence and oppression, so the only people less-than-satisfied with this mindset are not limited to the world of American converts.

Carole said...

I'm wondering if some of the issues with "River" religions that you mention aren't inherent to all organized religion. I'm an agnostic atheist who has found some insight and clarity from studying Buddhism (particularly Zen). There is a lot in Buddhism that does not presuppose or depend on supernatural beings or events. One needn't attend a temple or dharma center to be a Buddhist. Check out Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs". He writes that the Buddha's teachings were about things to do rather than believe.

Jairo Mejjia said...

Atheists and agnostics are right in most of their thinking

It has been common among religious believers to look with misgiving at atheists and agnostics, and to think that they are mistaken; however, in many instances the opposite is the truth; some religious beliefs are not just baseless, but obsolete and irrelevant. It is unbelievable how myths and a religious fantasy have influenced human minds with more strength than reality!

Most people don’t dare to confront their religious doubts; they are afraid of abandoning the “certainty” of their convictions, and opt for the status quo. The “God” of main line traditions simply does not exist. I accepted the challenge of finding the One who may be recognized even by agnostics and atheists, and came to the conclusion that God isn’t other than the Existence itself; and the Existence is, “I am,” the total existence, “All-That-Is.” There is probably a single issue in which I do not agree with atheists: I believe that “there is no effect without cause.”

There is a book most probably not written for you, but perhaps useful for some of your religious friends who still think that you are wrong and they are right: “Christianity Reformed From ist Roots.” It might help them to be relieved of the illusion, as I did myself. Distinguished philosophers and thinkers might give you an idea of this book—perhaps a generation ahead of time for most believers—(links below); or you might look at excerpts at

Jairo Mejia, M. Psych., Santa Clara University
Episcopal Priest, Retired
Carmel Valley, California