Why is every secular Westerner flocking to Buddhism?

Dear Philosophical Friend,

In our conversation, we followed an ‘itinerary of the spirit’ through various ‘stations’ of consciousness. A boy growing up in Northern Europe would have likely been a Protestant. He would been introduced to devotional practices, he might have believed in having a ‘personal connection’ to God, and would have felt consolation with the ordered providential design at some time and, at other times, felt burdened by the extra-human demands that seem to come from Elsewhere and Beyond.

As he got older and came to the university (a very secular institution these days), he may come to doubt whether he has ever had a ‘personal connection’ to God and would at the same time have been introduced to friends and colleagues who believed that religion was naive, that the Enlightenment had freed us from ‘that hypothesis,’ and that a ‘courageous stance’ toward the world would involve understanding that life is actually inherently meaningless. Some of these atheists would later on become nihilists, believing that there’s no point in bothering about anything really. Some would become scientists, affirming the evidence only that the scientific method secures. And others would become hedonists, holding that (since there is nothing Higher) one might as well satisfy one’s pleasures and avoid pains. You fell into the last camp.

But then, as we have discovered, arrogance–the belief that one is higher in the order of being than others, a belief that could be heightened by the claim that there is no God–alongside hedonism could not sustain themselves. The arrogant man would become very lonely; the hedonist would vacillate between boredom and dissatisfaction.

Thus would arise, again and this moment, the question of religion since religion has posed the question better than any other: What is the Higher? If, you might argue, hedonism has failed and if nihilism can be ruled out, then surely one must go in for some form of religion.

Buddhism comes on the scene because it appeals to those who were once theists but who can no longer believe in theism; who were once hedonic atheists but who can no longer subscribe to the harder-nosed versions. You needn’t, however, go with Buddhism. Or, in any event, not yet.

For philosophy enters the scene most especially when one is puzzled: how can I reject atheistic hedonism but also remove myself from certain aspects of religion? Philosophy–the search for wisdom–seeks to put us ‘north’ of atheism but ‘south’ of traditional theism. It allows for higher experiences beyond the ordinary, yet doesn’t necessarily endorse a transcendent being governing the world. About the latter, it may be silent, or it may turn in some other direction in order to give us a sense of the mystery of existence, the sublimity of human and natural experience.

Whether we turn toward Buddhism, Daoism, Kantianism, mysticism, or in some other direction: this remains to be inquired into. Plainly, we had better take our time. Plainly, we now know the structure of the right answer.

Seeking understanding,

Andrew

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