Watts: “It has been possible to make the insecurity of human life supportable by belief in unchanging things beyond the reach of calamity – in God, in [the] immortal soul, and in the government of the universe by eternal laws of right. Today such convictions are rare, even in religious circles.”
If we lived forever – without aging, entirely immune to the slow drag of mortality, never facing our own death or having to survive the loss of those we love – would a doctrine of the soul’s immortality have been formulated into such a widely and passionately held conviction as it has? We don’t need to “believe” in things that are immediately evident (gravity, for instance) or irrelevant to our needs and concerns as humans. You sense them and know them, or else you don’t care.
By running the doctrine of immortality in reverse, we come to what is likely its real inspiration: not that we do live forever, but that we don’t. Our purchase on this frail strand of life is precarious, indeed. Any number of environmental events might do us in any moment; and many more biological dysfunctions or diseases inside might pull the life-rug out from under us, in a heart-beat or over many painful years. Excluding suicide, the exact where and when of it just can’t be predicted; insurance companies make a profit due to this unpredictability. But they get rich because of something else. Our insecurity. We don’t want to die. The drive to stay alive is perhaps our deepest genetic code as living organisms.
So what do we do? As Watts suggests, we believe in God; we believe in our own undying souls; and we believe that everything is working out according to a higher moral purpose. Belief in such things calms our anxiety over the fact that nothing really is secure. I am aware that Watts doesn’t say outright that we invent these things, but that our insecurity compels a belief in them. A transcendent God, an immortal soul, a moral universe – maybe these are metaphysical facts regardless of whether or not we believe. Or maybe they aren’t; maybe we make them up as a prophylactic against the fear of death. My dog will die one day, too, but there’s no evidence that he ponders his fate or worries himself sick over it. I have something he doesn’t: not an immortal soul but a mental capacity to think about things that aren’t there and worry about things that might happen.
The Buddhism that so fascinated Watts actually holds the soul’s nonexistence as a doctrine (the doctrine of anatta), and it doesn’t support belief in a God (up there, out there) either. There is an order (dhamma), but it’s inherent to the nature of things, not divinely imposed or managed from without. While some forms of Buddhism do contemplate the existence and beatitude of fully realized Bodhisatvas on their own tranquil island-worlds, the Zen Buddhism of Watts dismisses metaphysics completely. Learn to embrace-and-release the life that flows through you. Don’t cling to anything in hopes that it will give you permanence or happiness; everything is impermanent, so attachment is just a set-up for more suffering later on.
What if there really isn’t a God? What if I won’t live forever? What if the universe doesn’t turn in favor of the righteous and well-intentioned? If I can release my belief from these things, and then come to terms with the insecurity that may be driving my need to believe in them, how would my life be different? Would I live it differently from the way I do now?
Last question for now: Is atheism in the straightforward sense the only responsible and respectable stance for a person living in a post-mythological age?