It's great to dispose of garbage that's been hanging around, whether physical or conceptual. But it isn't easy to do this perfectly purely.
Back in my Systems Science graduate school days, in the late 1970's, I remember a classmate asking a heartfelt question: "I've started to recycle my plastics. But the best place to put the containers is in a plastic bag -- which can't be recycled. What can I do with the bag?"
Similarly, in Rational Mysticism science writer John Horgan speaks about how Zen (and similar disciplines) is viewed "as a kind of rubbish-removal system that cleanses the mind of extraneous beliefs and emotions so that we can see reality as it truly is."
Horgan says that he liked this metaphor at first. It makes skepticism into a virtue, since it clears away cumbersome beliefs on an intellectual level just as meditation ideally clears away beliefs on an experiential level.
However, he goes on...
My handling of real rather than metaphorical garbage gradually gave me a more complicated view of the matter. In my kitchen, we put garbage in bags that come in boxes of twenty. After I yank the last bag from its box, the box becomes trash, which I put in the bag. Sometime after I interviewed Susan Blackmore [who described Zen as garbage removal], every time I pulled the last bag from the box and stuffed the box into the bag, I intuited a paradox lurking within this ritual.
I went through more garbage bags than I care to mention before I solved the riddle: Every garbage-removal system generates garbage. Zen apparently works as an efficient garbage-removal system for Susan Blackmore and James Austin. But as minimalistic as it is, Zen clutters more than it clarifies my mind. Once I started down this line of thinking, it was hard to stop. I began looking askance at skepticism, too.
Maybe skepticism, instead of cleansing our vision, just substitutes one type of trash for another. Instead of belief in reincarnation, angels, ESP, E.T., parallel universes, and the Oedipus complex, the skeptic crams his mind with disbelief in reincarnation, angels, and so on. The problem is that any truth or anti-truth, no matter how initially revelatory and awe-inspiring, sooner or later turns into garbage that occludes our vision of the living world.
Well, that last sentence seems excessively negative to me.
I can see what Horgan is saying -- thinking about life isn't the same as actually living life -- but isn't obsessing over the exactitude of garbage removal also a form of mental garbage generation?
I mean, what if Horgan simply threw the empty box into the last garbage bag and didn't worry about creating a little bit of extra trash?
He's gotten rid of a whole lot of garbage in the twenty bags. What's the big deal with generating a small amount of trash in order to clean up a large amount? (Plus, the trash bags we use come in a cardboard box, which can be recycled.)
I'm more positive about skepticism than Horgan is. Sure, sweeping up a bunch of unnecessary beliefs that have been littering the floor of a psyche can result in a few bristles being dislodged from the skeptical broom.
No big deal. A small price to pay for a good mind-cleaning. Throw away the bits of skeptical residue and enjoy your dogma-free handiwork.
So I don't agree that skepticism is anywhere near as great a garbage-generator as religious belief. Still, Horgan does make this valid point:
Thinking, "I don't believe in unicorns" brings to mind...unicorns. Thinking, "I don't believe in God" brings to mind...God.
In this sense, skepticism needs to be a temporary consciousness-cleaning tool. It's possible to become as obsessed with not believing as in believing, just as some recently-divorced people can't stop talking about what a jerk their ex-spouse was.
Hey, you're divorced! Time to move on.
I suspect that some readers of this blog think that I spend most of the day pondering the evils of religion and what fresh churchless rant I'm going to write next.
Not true. Mostly my life is occupied with living.
Chores. Eating. Walking the dog. Exercising. Volunteering. Practicing Tai Chi. Riding my scooter. Watching TV. Sleeping. Reading the newspaper. Whatever.
I've done a pretty good job of taking out the dogma garbage that used to clutter up my mind. Most of my blog posts are more of a recollection of that cleaning process, than an effort to throw away more blind beliefs.
Alex Szeto of the Unitarian Universalists Hong Kong (UUHK) just emailed me a link to a video that makes a good point: not-believing isn't how people live their lives. It's as valid to say that Christians are people who don't believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster as that atheists are people who don't believe in God.
Skepticism about religion isn't really about generating negative mind-garbage. It's an affirmation of the natural world. Take a look.