The God Question: What should we believe about God, science, religion, and morality?
The God Question is an upcoming book on the big questions related to the age-old question of whether or not god exists.
- Are there good arguments for teh existence of God?
- What about the arguments against the existence of God?
- Is there a conflict between science and religion?
- Is morality or goodness possible without the existence of God?
- Is Religion responsible for violent extremism?
It is based his personal journey as monk and his studies of Indian religion, Eastern and Western philosophy and psychology.
The style of writing is easily understanding for anyone without a philosophy background yet the topics are addressed in a philosophically sophisticated way.
The questions at issue addressed in a fair and balanced way, with the goal being to discover the truth, rather than simply insults aimed at one’s ideological foes.
The books concludes with a discussion of what the future of secular progressivism ought to be and how we can best make that vision a reality
The God Question will be released fall 2017. Stay tuned for the exact dates!
In recent years the most popular books on atheism have argued for a version of atheism that is philosophically unsophisticated, naive in its understanding of religion, militaristic in its foreign policy, and fundamentalist in its worldview. The God Question argues for a politically progressive, philosophically informed, progressive and positive atheism.
The book begins with the author’s story of how he went from being born into a cult, the Hare Krishna’s, to joining the cult and spending nearly a decade as a monk in the religious tradition, and ultimately finding Atheism.
The first chapter of the book is focused on moral psychology. The main argument of this part of the book is that despite vicious rhetoric from both sides over the millennia both religious and atheists are good people and that we need to understand the basic of moral psychology if we are to have any hope of thinking objectively about topics of religion.
The second part of the book is focused on philosophical arguments, including of course arguments for and against the existence of God. But more importantly it includes a discussion of epistemology, which is really at the heart of the atheism-religion debate. Before we can begin to think about what is true we need to know how what the best method for adjudicating truth is. The best method is of course science, but it is also crucially important to understand the limits of human knowledge. Science is the final arbiter of truth but that is because truth, for us, is limited to what we can know rationally and scientifically.
The third part of the book focuses on questions in moral and political philosophy. It begins with a discussion of the nature of morality and how it is that atheism can provide the rational justification for an objective morality. It looks at the question of the meaning of life and whether it makes sense to think that an atheist’s life can have a meaning or a purpose. It attempts to answer the question of whether religion is evil, or the source of various evils in the world including terrorism. And lastly it outlines a version of atheism that is politically progressive focused on making world a better place and also spiritual, focused on making oneself a better person.
My encounter with religion begins in 1981 at a small medical clinic in rural Moundsville, West Virginia near the infamous Hare Krishna community of New Vrindavan where I was born. The Hare Krishna religion is a sect within a sect of Hinduism. It was brought to the United States in 1965 by an elderly Indian religious teacher, or swami, named Bhaktivedanta Swami, or as his followers call him A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The Hare Krishna tradition is part of the broader tradition of Vaishnavism, or Visnu and Krishna worshippers. Vaishnavism is one of the three main sects of Hinduism along with Shaivism, worshippers of Shiva, and Shaktism, worshipers of the goddess, although that is quite an oversimplification. Beyond the divisions in terms of which god or goddess one worships there are divisions in terms of type of practice. Some Indian religious traditions are meditation based, some are philosophically based, and others are devotion based. The ancient Indian religion based on the original Vedas was based on animal sacrifice as the primary form of worshipping the divine. Vaishnavism is very strongly devotion based. In many ways it is very similar to Christianity, with its emphasis on “loving God with all one’s heart and soul.” There’s actually quite an interesting analogy when comparing the sacrificially based religion of the Judaism and the devotion based form of religion found in the new testament and the ancient Vedic religion and the devotional tradition of Vaishnavism.
The version of Vaishnavism that Bhaktivedanta Swami brought with him to America in 1965 was called “Gaudiya Vaishnavism,” being from Bengal or Gauda Desha. It was founded by Shri Krishna Chaitanya, a religious teacher and saint who came to be revered as an incarnation of Krishna who had come to teach the religion that would be practiced on earth for the next 10,000 years. It was predicted that this religion would spread around the world and when Swami Bhaktivedanta arrived in the US with no money and no friends, and only a trunk of books he had translated and printed into English he was absolutely convinced that he was blessed by Krishna to accomplish the task of spreading this religion around the entire globe. His followers of course see his success in this regard as self-evident proof that everything the religion says is true.
The religion itself is in many ways very beautiful. It is centered around the worship of Krishna and his girlfriend Radha, who are described to be the embodiment of pure beautry. The aspiration of the practitioner of the religion is to go back to the “kingdom of God” or as it is called in the tradition, Goloka Vrindavana, and participate in the eternal loving pastimes or, nitya lila, of Radha and Krishna. The idea is that in the kingdom of God Radha and Krishna engage in an eternal playful exchange of romantic love and the devotee can be a part of this exchange by being a character in the eternally reoccurring divine drama. And doing so is supposed to bring about the highest spiritual ecstasy and fulfillment of the soul. The idea is very similar to that of the Christian tradition however what happens in heaven or the Kingdom of God is very elaborately described in very vivid imagery down to the very last detail. This description of the kingdom of god is quite enticing and mesmerizing in many ways. And many of the religion practices centered around this imagery are also exquisitely beautiful.
It is not entirely difficult to imagine a religious tradition that uses the Radha Krishna mythology and teaches a true religion of love. However instead the Hare Krishna religion is brutally repressive, authoritarian, and disdaining of all attempts to find love in this world. The price one must pay for eternal divine love is giving up the love of this world, and every other pleasure. Radha and Krishna’s love for each other is said to be entirely selfless and to participate in their love we must also become entirely selfless. This means leading a life of total abnegation of all love, pleasure, and comfort, and life of complete and utter dedication to chanting the name of God, preaching about God, and avoiding anything that brings pleasure to oneself. Oh yeah, and you must surrender your mind, body, and intellect to a guru whose feet you must adore throughout every second of everyday, whose instructions you must accept, and whom you must bow down to every time you see him. By doing this one can become a pure devotee of Krishna and go back to the kingdom of God to live there eternally.
New Vrindavan, where I was born, was definitely the most cultish of all the Hare Krishna temples. In the 70s and 80s, there was rampant criminal activity there including drug trafficking, tax evasion, money laundering, polygamy child-abuse (sexual and physical) and even murder, several members of the community were murdered for criticizing the cult leader[i]. Luckily, my family left the community before people started getting killed, and I was young enough to avoid the child abuse. We left New Vrindavan when I was five years old and relocated to a Hare Krishna temple in South Miami Beach, Florida.
Shortly after we moved to Miami it was time for me to attend a Hare Krishna school. The school my parents chose was in southern Mississippi, just a couple of hours east of New Orleans on the gulf coast. An important belief of the tradition is educating the children to be “pure devotees of Krishna.” To accomplish this, it was necessary that the children be protected from materialistic society, i.e. anyone outside of ISKCON. And this meant boarding school. My parents understood this to be an orthodox Hindu practice, but in reality, it was quite different from anything ever done in India. Luckily for me the schools in the cult were starting to get a little better by the time I was sent to boarding school in the mid 1980s. Unlike the experiences of those who grew up in the cult in the 70s, no one ever hit me and I was never sexually abused.
For the most part I didn’t mind going to a school that was in a different state than my parents. At five, I thought the plane rides from Florida to Mississippi by myself were pretty cool, although in retrospect that clearly wasn’t healthy for me or my family. Indeed, the argument could certainly be made that the entire system was a form abuse. We were forced to wake up at 3:30 a.m. every day and we walked a mile or so to the temple for early morning service, which lasted five hours. Education was oriented around the traditions religious books like the Bhagavad-gita. I still have vivid memories of memorizing key passages from the Bhagavad-gita. We had to memorize one verse every week and I enjoyed doing so. I’ve always had a pretty good memory and apparently was always interested in religion and philosophy, so it was fun for me. Eventually my parents moved to New Orleans, which was only a couple of hours away, and I saw them on the weekends, though not every weekend. I guess growing up in a cult will do this to you, but I never really thought about my childhood as abusive. It wasn’t until I had a child of my own that I began to realize that the entirety of my early childhood was an extreme form of deprivation. Thinking about my life compared to my daughter’s life, it became so obvious that I was abused as a child. Depriving a child of their parents, making them live communally with other children, and with little personal possessions, depriving them of educational opportunities and indoctrinating them into a medieval worldview while teaching them that science is wrong is so obviously abusive. Of course many people who are abused and have been abused for many years fail to see their abuser as abusive, so it is not entirely surprising.
In the early 1990s, much of the North American Hare Krishna population relocated to a small town outside of Gainesville, Florida. This sleepy little town had a Hare Krishna school, (though it wasn’t a boarding school as those were beginning to be phased out by the ’90s), cheap land (by this time pretty much all the first generation of converts were looking to move out of the temples and be fully independent homeowners), and a reasonable amount of job opportunities (unlike a number of Hare Krishna communities that were so remote that there was little option but for people to be financially dependent on the temple). Fortuitously, there was also a decent university and a community college nearby, which made it easy for my generation of children who grew up in Hare Krishna religion to go to college.
My parents rented for a couple of years and then purchased some land and bought a home. The back of our property connected with the back of the temple’s property and I could walk to the Hare Krishna school that was on the temple property through the woods, which were really more of a swamp. My life was fairly normal in many ways. All my friends at this point live in homes they owned or rented apartments, we went trick or treating on Halloween, watched movies and television, played sports and video games, and had sleepovers. There was a Hare Krishna community Thanksgiving party complete with an annual community football game. I still miss those games! Most of my friends celebrated Christmas, though my family never did. However that was more about the dysfunction of our family than our religion. We played soccer in the local rec league, which ended up being one of the biggest factors speeding up our integration into the local community. Eventually, the majority of the local high school soccer team was Hare Krishnas, and all the best players were Hare Krishnas. A couple went on to play in college. And one of the soccer stars was also the valedictorian.
Looking back at my Hare Krishna schooling and the way I was raised life wasn’t bad. It was much better than many people’s in America who grow up in extreme poverty and obviously much more privileged than the lives of those in extreme poverty in undeveloped countries. And when I was a part of the organization I always defended the way we were raised. In some ways I had a much culturally richer upbringing than your average middle class American. I got to do a lot travelling and meet people from all over the world. And I was brought up to think about important and meaningful questions rather than simply be a mindless consumer. But despite all that I now realize that we were significantly under privileged in terms of education and how we were being prepared for our future. In a weird sense we were worse off than someone who was poorer in that we had no one to give us any advice about how to approach college or even why we should go to college. Our parents either didn’t have any idea how important an education is and were completely unaware of the possibilities that education opens up or they just didn’t value those possibilities, or maybe some combination of those.
Our education was fairly one-dimensional. We didn’t learn anything literature, history, or science, but we did do a lot of scripture and philosophy and even some critical thinking. Towards the end of my time in the Hare Krishna school, we got a new teacher and in his English class we read 1984 and Animal Farm which were the only books we read in school outside of our religious scriptures. I was probably around 14 at the time. At this point the plan for all of us was that we would transfer to the local community college as dual enrollment students to complete our last two years of high school there and earn college credit at the same time. So, by this point most of our schoolwork was studying for the college placement test we needed to pass to take college classes once we transferred.
At 15, shortly before I turned 16 as my birthday is in November, I started attending Santa Fe College as a dual enrollment student taking all college classes. For me it was easier than high school, which I’m not sure I would have made it through. The tedium of all day school work and massive amounts of homework wouldn’t have been a good thing for me. I enjoyed the self-directed nature of my college classes. I did well despite my self imposed no homework rule i.e. don’t do any homework accept the night before an exam. However this rule didn’t apply to my English classes which I really enjoyed. When I started I didn’t have any idea how to write an essay, (although maybe that’s not unusual given my experience teaching college freshman), but I picked it up quickly. When I started I was on track to be a business major. My parents ran a health food store and my father was a salesman and entrepreneur, so I thought that that was what I was going to grow up to be. According to Hinduism, you take the caste of your parents. I don’t know if it is hilarious or sad that I literally thought I was going to run my parents health food store for the rest of my life. However I quickly realized I hated my business classes and loved writing, so business was out, although I didn’t know what was in.
As high school, and community college, graduation approached, I decided I should probably figure out a major so I could transfer to the University of Florida. The thought never crossed my mind to apply to any other colleges. I figured that I had always liked philosophy so maybe that was a good choice. I headed over to the campus bookstore and picked up a collection of Plato’s dialogues. I loved them. If you have an affinity for Hinduism, or Christianity for that matter, you will naturally have an affinity for Plato, at least the early dialogues. The similarities with Hinduism are even more apparent than they are with Christianity. Plato’s passionate exhortations in the Apology to not pursue material things but instead to pursue knowledge and truth resonated deeply with me as they were very similar to the religious teachings I had grown up with. Socrates’ defiance in the face of death was inspiring. I wanted to serve God the way Socrates did, fearlessly and passionately. Coming from a Hindu tradition, Socrates struck me as an enlightened sage no different from the sages I’d read about in the Hindu scriptures.
Excited to discovered this new and inspiring source of knowledge, I bought another textbook: Classical Modern Philosophers. If you know anything about philosophy you know this book was very, very different from Plato’s Apology, which is more religious than philosophical. There seemed to be very little passion to know the truth. They talked about what was true, but they didn’t put their lives on the line in pursuit of truth like Socrates did. And in my young mind I thought they weren’t truly religious or spiritual. Now I know that is not fair as many of the classical modern philosophers like Descarte, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley, and Kant were deeply religious. However by the time I got to monads, Liebniz’s explanation of the ultimate nature of reality, I was done with Western philosophy, at least for the time being.
But Plato had sparked something in me and I decided to go back and read the spiritual books of the tradition I grew up in. I found reading Plato to be a confirmation of the truth the religious teachings I had grown up with. Although I didn’t quite realize it at the time I was entering a period of my life that was a sort of identity crises. I was getting ready to move out. And up until that point I had postponed any sort of critical evaluation of my religious beliefs. I was definitely inclined to believe they were true. I liked religion. I always imagined that someday I would dedicate myself fully to god. Augustine’s prayer of “Dear Lord, grant me chastity and continence but just not yet” was how I always felt. I started with a collection of lectures by Bhaktivedanta Swami and in doing so I felt what I would have described at the time as “the calling to surrender to God” getting stronger and stronger.
This period of reading the religious teachings that I grew up with and wanting to surrender to God but feeling like I wasn’t ready to make that commitment probably went on for a few months. And in the mean time I was still going out and partying. One night I went to a party at a friend’s house who was in high school. I sort of knew the people there, but not well having done dual enrollment at the community college instead of high school. I felt alone, isolated, and on the wrong path. I wanted to stop drinking and commit to practicing my religion. I should probably note that being a Hare Krishna is not like being a Protestant, Catholic, or Jew. Taking the religion seriously involves a one hundred percent commitment to loving God every second of every day. Alcohol is out of the question, as is television, sports and anything that isn’t chanting, praying, or reading scripture. And all members are supposed to get up at 3:30 every morning to attend services at the temple and meditation on beads for at least two hours a day. Of course, there are plenty of Hare Krishna’s who don’t practice quite that strictly, or who no longer practice that strictly. But there are some that do and if I was going to be a Hare Krishna I was going to be serious about it. So, I was at this party, feeling like I shouldn’t be there and should instead be devoting every second of my life to thinking about Krishna and chanting Hare Krishna. In this weird state of mind I went to use the bathroom and I saw a page-a-day calendar on the counter. On that date’s page, I saw two questions:
- If you were stuck on a desert island what book would you want to read?
- Who would you want to rescue you?
I felt like God was speaking to me. The answers to the questions were obvious. I would want the Bhagavad Gita as my book and I would want Radhanath Swami to rescue me.
Radhanath Swami is a big part of this story, as you might guess. He is the person who I would later become the disciple of and dedicate every action to pleasing Him. I first met him when I was 13 or so. He was friend with my parents when they both lived in New Vrindavan (the crazy cult temple in West Virginia). After they left New Vrindavan Radhanath Swami moved to India and started a very successful temple and community there. He was also a rising start in the Hare Krishna movement. And he was now starting to travel around the world more extensively, as is fairly customary for swamis, to preach. When swamis travel, they are hosted by someone in the community. This is a special blessing for the host as their home is blessed and purified by association with saintly people. I was quite taken by Radhanath Swami and considered him to be a truly enlightened spiritual teacher. So, from an early age my desire to surrender to God became intertwined with my desire to surrender to Radhanath Swami. The scriptures are clear that without surrendering to a guru, one cannot surrender to God. Radhanath Swami was extremely charismatic. And he was really good at wielding his charisma to influence those around him to believe that he was indeed an enlightened guru. I’m not quite cynical enough to say he did this consciously, but I think there is a phenomena where a guru realizes that if they can influence someone to think of them as being enlightened, then they can leverage that to make a person practice the religion. So the motive is ultimately to make people practice the religion, which is a good motive within the framework of the tradition, but oftentimes that means getting someone to admire and then surrender to you. As you can imagine, this process is fraught with complications in that it leads people to misrepresent themselves in the name of doing this very important work for God. I so looked forward to his yearly visits. I would go everywhere with him. Eventually, I became his driver and would drive him around to his meetings and speaking engagements. He was so charismatic that it was addicting being around him. I interpreted as spiritual ecstasy due to being in the presence of a “pure devotee of Krishna.”
After this party and God speaking to me in the bathroom through a page-a-day calendar, I awoke to a large number of cars on the neighbor’s property. It seemed like something serious had happened, but I wasn’t sure. Soon I found out my neighbor had died in the middle of the night of a heart failure. He was a member of the Hare Krishna community and a friend. I had to go to work, so I got dressed and headed out the door. But on my way to work I realized I had to call off because I needed some time to process what had just happened, so I did and headed to my favorite coffee shop to journal. I could feel something bubbling up inside, but I wasn’t sure what and I figured journaling would help. As I started to write, I started bawling. In that moment I knew that I was wasting my life pursuing material happiness, and that I needed to surrender to God, and to Radhanath Swami. With the knowledge that everything we pursue and achieve in life is ultimately meaningless due to death, I made the decision to surrender to God. I remember writing “I wish Radhanath Swami was here, I would just fall at his feet and surrender right now.”
My transformation wasn’t immediate, but I started reading more and chanting a little on the traditional prayer beads, though, I still wasn’t meditating for the full two hours every day and wasn’t getting up and 3:30. Later that summer I did meet up with Radhanath Swami. I told him of my plan to wander around Vrindavan, India, the sacred city where Krishna was born, and chant on my beads all day. He instead invited me to come to his temple in Mumbhai. We made a plan for me to meet up with him in Italy and then go to India with him. His temple in India was amazing. The entire community of thousands of people embraced me wholeheartedly and made me feel more special than I had ever felt. Looking back it was clear I was in many ways a normal 18-year-old who was struggling to find his place in the world and when I arrived at Radhanath Swami’s temple it felt like I had found it. I lived in the monastery for a year with the monks and decided I wanted to try being a monk as well.
But I had my reservations. I had seen my parents pursue spiritual enlightenment only to find themselves struggling to make ends meet later in life. I was young and idealistic but I still recognized this to be a serious concern. I expressed this concern to Radhanath Swami, but he told me not worry about it and to try to be monk for now, though he did tell me to go back to the United States and finish my college degree. So I returned to Florida, transferred to the University of Florida and earned my bachelor’s degree in psychology. By the time I graduated, I was 22 and more determined than ever to be a lifelong monk. Over the next six years, I made several more trips to India and eventually moved to New Vrindavan, the Hare Krishna community in West Virginia where I was born. I felt it was part of God’s plan, given that I was born there, to play an important role in rehabilitating the still struggling community.
But not all was well. Trying to become an adult while being constrained in my role as a monk and my participation in an incredibly dysfunctional authoritarian high demand institution was a challenge to say the least, but I was absolutely committed to my spiritual ideals. The religious tradition I practiced was committed to the ideal of constant awareness of God and of constant service to God, or as we called it “pure devotional service.” The idea is that one’s actions are pure to the extent that they are done purely for the pleasure of God, whereas one’s actions are impure to the degree one acts out of pride, anger, greed, lust or any other form of selfishness. I strove with every ounce of my being to rid myself of any impure thoughts, of any thoughts tinged with even the subtlest form of selfishness. For me, this largely meant attempting to treat every person with unconditional love, or to be instrument of the divine love of God, along with repressing every desire for the physical and emotional intimacy of a sexual relationship. I combined elements of my tradition that emphasized compassion and kindness to all beings with a tinge of humanistic psychology to create a theology and practice of loving kindness. I considered my main spiritual practice to be how I related to other living creatures. And of course I also spent many hours per day meditating on beads, reciting esoteric Sanskrit prayers, worshiping sacred idols, and reading sacred scriptures. In addition to my duties at the temple and my spiritual practices, a small group of young monks and I attempted to spread our message and lifestyle of divine love. In order to convert unsuspecting members of the public we taught vegan cooking classes at colleges located within a two hour radius of our temple, and also conducted classes on the Bhagavad Gita to those whose trust we had gained through the cooking classes.
After a living at New Vrindavan for a few years , I decided I wanted to focus more on my internal spiritual practice rather than on converting new members. Although much of my motivation to do so came from that fact that by this time I was finding being celibate to be extremely difficult. Since the time I had decided to become religious and then become a monk there had always been women who were interested in but it seemed like there were more than at this point in my life. I thought the solution would be to retreat to a small isolated temple in India and study Sanskrit for the next five years. The simple truth is that being celibate starts to get more and more difficult the older you get. And many people transition out of this phase of their life sometime in the their mid to late twenties. I was in my mid twenties at the time. It’s not the desire to have sex, although that’s certainly a part of it, but it is the desire for emotional intimacy and the desire for stability. Being a monk, especially in the Hare Krishna religion involves a lot of moving around, not owning more than you can carry around with you, and just general lack security and basic comfort. All of which is much more tolerable when you are 18 or 21. As a person gets closer to 30 they tend to want to settle down, which is true whether you are a monk or a just a world traveller, or even just in terms of dating vs. a serious relationship.
Being in denial of this simple reality, and feeling like the entirety of my value as a human being was on the line, I decided that I just wanted to go to India and live there for some time to study Sanskrit and immerse myself in my meditative spiritual practices. Right around the time I was having these thoughts, I got word of a new Sanskrit school that would be opening in the most sacred part of the most sacred city in India. I thought, “This is it! This is what God wants me to do. Everything is going to work out.” Things were great for a couple of months, but eventually I decided students at the school weren’t serious enough about their spiritual practices. They didn’t all want to be monks. Many seemed like they were there because things didn’t work for them at other temples. So I tried to move into another temple up the road. There was an empty closet in that temple that I took up residence in. But the manager of that temple didn’t like me. I suppose that’s not entirely surprising because I didn’t particularly like him. I don’t really do well with authoritarian personality types, and the religious institution I was in was incredibly authoritarian and fostered a very authoritarian style of leadership, which proved to be a constant source of frustration. Looking back, the truth is that at this point I wasn’t happy being a monk in the institution. I didn’t have anywhere to go at that point and was worried that this was the end of the road for my career as a monk.
Unsure of what I was going to do next, I went to stay in Mumbai with Radhanath Swami for a few months. This was one of the most difficult periods for me. I truly felt like I had nowhere to go. Like I had exhausted all possibilities. There was the one obvious possibility of moving back to the Hare Krishna community in Florida where I grew up and getting married but I couldn’t stomach that possibility. Since I was 13 or 14 Radhanath Swami had been the most important figure in my life and his acceptance and approval had become firmly entrenched as the central motivating force in my psyche since I was 18. To get married was to risk loosing his approval, and acceptance. It was to be rejected. It was to be removed from the inner circle of monks that were the closest to him. I could not let that happen. I must not let that happen. At all costs, I had to fight on.
After a couple of agonizing months Radhanath Swami had an idea. He suggested I move from India to San Jose, California to start a student organization on the Stanford University campus. A mutual friend of ours ran a small temple near Stanford, and it seemed perfect. This seemed perfect and in my mind I finally understood why everything was happening the way it did. It was all part of God’s plan. As I was leaving I was to go to San Jose I was weeping tears of spiritual ecstasy, which confirmed for me that this was all part of God’s plan.
I remember first walking into my new room at the Hare Krishna temple, which was really more like a finished garage than anything else. My room was about 15 feet by 6 feet, was just big enough for a tiny bed, a small desk and book shelf, but I was so happy to have a room of my own and a modicum of privacy. Although just down the hall lived a family with their small daughter and the bathroom was in an entirely different building but it seemed amazing at the time. I enjoyed my newfound role and life in California. I suddenly had more freedom than I had had in my entire career as a monk, which was the entirety of my adult life. I was given a car and small budget to feed myself with and for my student activities on campus. My role on campus involved a number of weekly outreach events and participating in the campus religious life along other the other chaplains. And in the temple community I was the de facto youth minister for the congregation.
With my newfound freedom and time, I started reading more. Of interest to me at this time were books on atheism, religion, and philosophy. Without realizing it, I had gradually become more interested in philosophy. Up until this time, my reading interests were more focused on my own spiritual journey or practice, which involved psychology and religious books from other traditions. But now I was becoming more interested in philosophical questions about my beliefs.
I’m not quite sure what started the process. Maybe it was just the academic atmosphere of the campus? Maybe it was something internal? Whatever it was, during this time I discovered the books of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Upon reading them I immediately I knew I wanted to write a book showing all the ways they were wrong (and extremely stupid and evil) and why religion is true and good. My interest in writing a book dovetailed with my general desire to go back to school. Being on campus at Stanford and getting a chance to interact with the academic community there opened my eyes to world I was only vaguely aware of: academia. And I wanted to be a part of it.
Ostensibly everything seemed to be going well. It seemed as though I had finally found my role in a temple community. I was well loved by the congregation. I was heading up what was becoming a successful student outreach program at one of the most prestigious universities in the word. The religiously oriented blog I had been keeping for several years was more popular than ever. I had a long term of vision of what I wanted to do: write books on philosophy and atheism. And I was living in the bay area! But all my newfound privacy and freedom led to something else as well. I had gradually become addicted to pornography and masturbation, which is something that I actually hadn’t had a problem with during my many years as a monk, except for one brief period very early on. At first I attempted to ignore it assuming I’d eventually be able to stop. On one of Radhanath Swami’s visit’s to our temple I talked to him about it and his response was also to try and ignore it, although there was the perfunctory “If you can’t stop then you do have to get married.” I couldn’t stop, and was becoming more and more distressed about my problem. Sometime after my first conversation with Radhanath Swami I felt I needed to talk to him about it again.
In my heart I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience continue as a monk but the possibility of doing anything else was devastating. I had committed so much of my life and built my entire identity around the idea that I was going to be a monk for the rest of my life. I understood every event in my life, and past lives, as leading me down this path. And I was absolutely terrified of losing the approval of Radhanath Swami. I had very specifically chosen this path as a way of being close to him. The first time I visited him in India, when I was 18, and saw how close he was to his prominent monk disciples I knew that I wanted to be that close to him. At one point he even went on special retreat with some of the monks who had been monks who had been monks the longest. I wasn’t allowed to go as I wasn’t even officially a monk at that point. It was a big turning point for me. I knew I had to be one of his closest disciples. Everything seemed to be crumbling around me. All I had to do was stop looking at porn but I couldn’t. I decided to fly to where Radhanath Swami was and talk to him.
I’m not sure what I wanted or was hoping. I think at the time I told myself that what I wanted was for him to tell me I should get married. That way at least I wouldn’t be the one making the choice to give up. I couldn’t physically do it. I couldn’t give up. I wouldn’t be the one to quit. In retrospect I probably just wanted him to give me a hug and tell me he still loved me and that everything was going to be okay. It turned out I got the exact opposite. He was Athens Ohio at that moment so I flew there to visit him. We didn’t get a chance to speak about it in the couple days he was there. He is incredibly busy and it is difficult to get even a few words with him. That being said he obviously didn’t make it his top priority to speak with me.
I decided, in a moment of desperation, that I would just get in his van as he was leaving to drive to Chicago. Normally getting in his car without permission would have been out of the question, but I had to have this conversation with him. He was definitely nonplussed to have me in the car. I think he was expecting 8 hours of privacy, which I ruined. We didn’t speak at all for the first 6 hours or so of the trip. He just stayed in the back of the van reading and resting. Eventually he called me back to speak with him. I explained I was still masturbating and looking at pornography. He again didn’t seem to want to acknowledge it or deal with it. Eventually I broke down crying to the point where I couldn’t get any words out. I mainly just remember him getting angry at me for not being able to communicate about it. He didn’t want to be the one to tell me that I had to get married and give up my monkhood and that was what I wanted from him. Somehow it was settled. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went. At the time I didn’t exactly think it was wrong of him to raise his voice and get angry with me, as I was still very much committed to the idea of him being a perfect human being, but at the same time it didn’t quite sit well with me.
We dropped him off at the house he was going to stay at in Chicago and made our way to the temple. I was completely disoriented for the rest of the day and the evening. He called me later to explain why he got angry and raised his voice. He said he felt it was necessary to get me to understand what he was trying to say. I honestly can’t remember exactly what I thought of that explanation in the moment, but now of course it sound like a ridiculous explanation for what in a normal relationship would require a simple apology.
A day later I was on a plane back to California to begin my transition to the next phase of my life: marriage. As prescribed by the religion the next step for me was to get married. There was a girl in the bay area who I had known for several years and who had known me as a monk and who I knew had a crush on me. On our first I asked her if she wanted to marry me and she agreed. The next thing for me to do was to get into graduate school. I met with the chair of the philosophy department at Stanford and talked to her about sitting in on some classes. She kindly allowed me to do so, and for one semester I got to take philosophy classes some of the most famous contemporary philosophers alive. During this time I also began studying for the GRE. The professors who classes I sat in on were extremely generous with their time and even wrote me letters of recommendation for my subsequent grad school applications. I got accepted into the graduate philosophy program at the University of Florida.
Even though I had come to have serious misgivings about the Hare Krishna religious institution I tried to hold on to the idea that there was some role for me still. I had come to believe that the institution, in many ways, functioned like a corporation that sought merely profit and didn’t care for its employees, the environment, or any anything else. Not the least of which was convincing young men that the best thing they could do with their lives is become monks and dedicate all their time and energy to serving the institution. I saw this as a theological issue. Ironically the main scripture of the tradition, the Bhagavad-Gita is actually a polemical against the monastic traditions of its day, although the irony of this is probably lost on most current members of the institution. At this point I was still interested in being a part of the institution but felt that morally I couldn’t be an active member of the institution. I saw my relationship with the institution as being an outsider attempting to reform it. In many ways it seemed to me what the Hare Krishna religion need was something akin to the protestant reformation of the Catholic Church. I saw this as my life’s mission and my new calling from God.
I tried to engage with my guru, Radhanath Swami, on this issue. He didn’t have any interest in talking about it. I tried to talk to him about the role he played in my choice to become a monk, but he insisted that he never forced me to make that choice. Of course, I wasn’t saying that he did, but I wanted to discuss the role that a person’s desire for approval and acceptance can play in such decisions. He didn’t want any part of a real discussion on anything outside the dogma of the tradition. I sent him numerous long and detailed emails only to receive no response or a one sentence response. At first my emails were extremely polite as I still considered him my guru but gradually I began to demand answers. This was of course to no avail.
Gradually, I distanced myself from him more and more. After a couple years of me trying to get him to have a meaningful conversation about my concerns he finally set aside a couple of hours for me on one trip to Florida. By this time I had become thoroughly disgusted with the religion and its stale platitudes. I wasn’t an atheist but I had lost all patience and by this point most of my respect for Radhanath Swami. I began the conversation by explaining to him my view that it was wrong to allow and facilitate young people becoming monks. I argued its was against historical and scriptural precedent in our religious tradition, and the consequences were clearly disastrous. Unsurprisingly he disagreed vehemently. I tried to explain to him the role he played in my life and how his presence in my life influence my choice to become a monk. He refused to accept any responsibility in the decision “I had made.”
Finally I laid down an ultimatum. I said that if he wanted a relationship with me and wanted me to be a part of the institution, he needed to take a serious and vested interest in the current details of my life. He had been very interested in my life when I was doing things for the institution but now that I had outlived my usefulness it seemed he didn’t have any time or energy for me. He only agreed to meet with me after several years of essentially ignoring my emails. His response was that he couldn’t help anyone financially. I explained that I wasn’t asking for money but just that he be involved in my life in some way, the same way he had been since I was 18. For me this was one last opportunity for him to redeem himself and salvage our relationship. I had pretty much given up any interest in a relationship with him but I wanted to give him one last chance. I explained that I needed a cosigner for a house and one thing he could do for me was help me find one. That was something I knew would not be difficult for me to do, yet would be a way for him to do something meaningful for me. Unbeknownst to him, this was purely an opportunity for him to do something for me and not something I needed, as I already had a co-signer for the house I was interested in buying. He said he would think about it. I never heard back from him.
During this period of my life my relationship to the religious institution and Radhanath Swami was really just something that was going on in the background. The vast majority of my mental energy went into my family and career. A little before I started graduate school my wife became pregnant and our daughter was born around finals time of that first semester. Given that we got married without knowing each other, moved to the other side of the country, and had a child very early on in our relationship to just mention of few of the challenges our marriage faced. After several pretty crazy years of graduate school, marriage, and raising our daughter in Florida we decided to move to Athens Ohio where my wife was from. At this point I had completely distanced myself from the religion but was still a theist and was planning to write my book on why I wasn’t an atheist and articulate what I thought to be the ideal form of religious belief, which was again inspired by Kant’s moral religion and also to write a book intended for an audience within the Hare Krishna movement about how to reform the religion.
This went on for a several years until one fateful winter day in Zanesville, Ohio. I was teaching an introduction to philosophy class and was explaining the problem of evil to a room full of undergraduates eagerly absorbing my philosophical wisdom, or rather a group of half-awake kids who wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else). As I was lecturing about the problem of evil in an instant, it became crystal clear to me that I would never again believe in the existence of God. It was such a strange sensation, because in that moment I was entirely sure I would never be able to believe in God again. I knew all the arguments so well that as soon as I saw them from this new perspective I just saw everything in an entirely new light. It was like a chain of dominos falling one after another. Suddenly it all made perfect sense. I paused for just a brief moment to soak it all in, and then continued lecturing. I made a commitment to myself to continue to think about it and not a make any rash decisions. As the days and weeks went by I never once even a sliver of doubt about my newfound faith. At first, my then wife didn’t actually believe that I was serious about my atheism. A couple of months later I had my appendix removed, and she asked me if I prayed before the operation. I thought about it for a second, and said, “No,” to which she replied, “I guess you really are an atheist.”
I don’t hate religion in the way that some atheists seem to. I went through a period of processing a significant amount of resentment towards my guru and the institution I was a part of, but that period didn’t last very long for me because it was obvious that he and everyone in the institution was just as much a victim as I was. As much as his influence in my life was negative, I know that he was doing what he thought was the best thing for me. The truth is that, rather than hating religion, I actually still find it alluring, beautiful, and moving. I find it to be a representation of the deepest yearnings of the heart. Or as Marx said, “the heart of a heartless world. The soul of a soulless condition.” I love religion as much as I love art and literature. I find the writings of Plato, Kant, Dostoyevsky, the Bhagavad-Gita and Bhagavad Purana, and portions of the Bible, Torah, and Koran to be incredible literary, poetic, and philosophical achievements. But religion, I believe, is a lie, despite being a beautiful one. In the movie 500 Days of Summer, there is a scene where the main character says, “The girl of my dreams would probably have a bodacious rack, maybe different hair, but you know, truthfully, Robin is better than the girl of my dreams because Robin is real,” and that is how I feel about the religious life as compared to the non-religious life. The reality of my dreams is one in which God exists and after this life I get to live eternally with God. But reality – that all we have is this life and we need to make the best of it in the short time that we are here –is better than the reality of my dreams because it is real. I wish that it were true that after we die we will live eternally in a state of unending spiritual happiness. I wish it were true that justice is always rewarded and evil always punished. I wish it were true that there was a Supreme Being who I could turn to who would always hear my prayers, always know my heart, always appreciate my devotion, and always love me. But I no longer believe religion to be true. And in this book, I will share with you why.
I hope you will find in this book a fair and balanced approach to the traditional questions of whether we ought to believe in the existence of God. I believe I have accurately represent the main lines of argument that have been offered for and against the existence of God, which I believe when looked at they clearly show there is no good reason to believe in the existence of God. I’ve shared my story with you in hopes that in doing so, I’ve been able to convince you that I’m not evil for being an atheist, that my atheism is motivated by a sincere desire to know the truth. I’ve attempted to be as charitable and respectful as possible towards those that I might disagree with. And I hope that you will find this book a sincere exploration of these important questions.
As a former religious and spiritual person who had read books on atheism, it was easy to dismiss the authors as not being genuinely interested in knowing God or in seeking “the Truth.” They often come across as bitter, motivated by their hatred of religion, and biased, especially when they blame religion for things which have nothing to do with religion directly, like terrorism or violent extremism. And if you are a religious or spiritual person you are probably not interested in reading a book by someone who seems to lack basic human decency. I certainly wasn’t. You’ll have to ask my friends whether I’m a decent person, but what I will say about myself is that I spent many years of my life searching for God. Trying to know God. Trying to become enlightened. Trying to transcend all my mental shackles and realize my true spiritual nature. I took my spiritual calling as seriously as most anyone ever has. I often prayed on my prayer beads for six or more hours a day. I stayed up all night praying and fasting. I studied deeply the religious books of my religious tradition, and other religious traditions as well. I even read books on psychology in my quest for enlightenment. I found spiritual wisdom and inspiration in many different traditions and teachers. I was faithful to my traditional but I was anything but dogmatic. And I never shied away from reading philosophy and science. I searched for spiritual wisdom and knowledge anywhere and everywhere, and strove to put into practice those teachings. A spiritual teacher who went by the name “Peace Pilgrim” said, “Live by the highest light you have, and God will give you more,” which I sincerely strove to accomplish. I wasn’t merely religious — I was truly spiritual by any reasonably objective measure of the word. I think this is important because many books on atheism seem to have been written by people who seem to have never seriously considered religion and certainly not all varieties of religion.
This book is the culmination of not only my intellectual journey, but also my spiritual and religious experience and I hope that it offers you a unique and useful perspective on the god question.
See Monkey on Stick for all the details.