An old college friend and I got into a discussion the other day on Facebook about a new progressive wave in the Christian church. I have a hard time not commenting, even when Christians are talking amongst themselves and suffice it to say we ended up having a conversation wherein she stated her belief that people were inherently sinful and that we needed Christ both as savior and example.

This is where I seriously disembark from Christianity’s train of thought. I find this mindset so deeply troubling that it can keep me up at night if I allow myself to think about it too much.

Quite simply, I don’t believe I am sinful. I don’t like the use of the word sin. It is a Christian word and to apply it to humanity with a broad stroke is an attempt to suffuse the world in a Christian light (which is what most Christians do on a regular basis). Apart from the cultural fault here, I also disagree with the fundamental concept.

I don’t believe that humans are born with a sinful nature – no matter the language you use. I also don’t believe they are all born good. They are simply born. We are a mishmash of biological desires, psychological drives and our environment. As a race, we have an astounding capacity for cruelty but we are also remarkably capable of deep compassion and empathy. That these exist together does not surprise me. It also does not make me think that a higher being, a sky god, has anything to do with it.

I thought of trying to tell my friend how my belief system is structured, ultimately to explain my belief in why/how I think people can be good without religion. Because that’s what our disagreeing came down to – she believes we are sinful and need saving. I believe that we can be good on our own. But Facebook is a poor vehicle for these kinds of conversations. So I took my thoughts over here and I still want to try to capture them.

How can we be good without religion?

I would say that I am informed by the Buddhist view of looking at our interconnection with life around us. If we are deeply connected to everything that is living, if we can understand the truth of this, then that is a strong guide for our actions. What I do impacts other people, animals, the earth and it comes back to me in kind. This drives me to be honest in my dealings with others, to aim for kindness and compassion, and to hold an intentionality in my actions that looks beyond my own needs. This is powerful stuff – to realize that our actions have an impact. And negative consequences as the result of a selfish action? Even far removed, reaping what we sow can be a decidedly effective way to curb wrong action.

Some folks take this view further, into the realm of karma. Personally, I don’t want to go too far down that road but I have found insight in the concept. It is not necessarily some ethereal and magical force at work in the universe and my nerves are set on edge when folks start getting all mystical in discussions about it. In its simplest translation, the word karma means action. The world is governed and guided by our actions. And that old adage about there being a reaction for every action? There’s truth there as well. Simply walking about in the world has an impact. Dealing with others, eating food, living day to day impacts the world around us. Recognizing the impact we have on others and they on us, as well as recognizing the deep symbiotic relationship we have with the natural world is, in my mind, what can drive humans to be a force for good in the world. Sure, we get it wrong a lot of the time, but we get it right sometimes too. Without god.

Another Buddhist concept that has informed me is viewing the nature of reality. Learning to live with, sit with the way things are is an incredibly powerful practice, one that can ultimately transform us. We live so much of our lives looking ahead – planning and calculating and daydreaming – that we miss what’s right here in front of us, the good and the bad. We are avoidant by nature (don’t think about death!) and terribly self-involved (survival run amok). But I have had brief glimpses into letting go of my ego in a moment, of taking off my perspective (and all its myopic distortion) and facing the truth of what’s in front of me. It’s not easy but it’s doable. And it gets easier with practice. Our ability to step away from our “self” allows us to connect with a deeper sense of understanding and to gain a wider perspective on what is transpiring around us. “Giving it up to god” or convincing yourself that “god has a plan” in no way compares to what I’m talking about. I’m talking about periodically unpacking that carefully constructed self we work so hard to create and taking note that we are a collection of human processes, a buzzing of energy in space and time. The ability to shuck off our very self importance can help us center and regroup in the moment. We are in turn sadness and joy, together and alone, living and dying. Doing this on a regular basis helps us a) not get so caught up in our perceptions and b) frees us to experience each moment as it happens.

When I suffered a miscarriage in 2005, this hit home in a big way. There is a natural human response to find reasoning, as well as to deflect grieving. But for once, I was able to face the experience head on. I knew deep down that if I spent too much time trying to find a meaning for what happened and if I did not allow myself to truly grieve, that I would miss something big. So I did nothing apart from feeling my emotions. There is no inherent meaning in such an event. I let that go. I grieved and I opened myself up to sadness and the powerful feeling of loss. Stepping away from all the scaffolding I could have put in place around the experience, stripping myself bare in a way and remaining open-hearted and open-minded allowed the loss to ultimately have greater meaning. It remains to this day a foundation of my perspective around death and loss.

And this is the ultimate tool we have at our disposal, an ability to transcend suffering. Not by spiritual salvation but simply in living moment by moment with care and grace. Noticing how we are connected to others, noticing how we bring so much suffering on ourselves, noticing how we can step away from our perspective – this is true transcendence, the kind that gives us a window on a much larger perspective outside of ourselves, one that does not rely on god but on the very essence of what it means to be human. If we can step away from our limited perspectives, we can be good people. And what’s more, we can experience life to the fullest – we can truly know our joy and our sadness, we can make the most of our time here because it is so important to notice how fleeting it is and how some of these big heavy things we might be tempted to carry around with us (such as our sinful nature) really don’t matter in the end.

Personally, I am glad to be rid of the weight of religion and of the concept of my sinful nature. And I firmly believe that this is one of the most damaging lies our culture tells to children. Instead of telling them you can make a difference just by being human, just by opening your eyes to what’s around you and learning to be still and observant about what’s going on inside and outside, this culture tells them they are sinful, that there is something wrong with them, that they are beyond help save the intercession of a mythical being whose ultimate perfection they will never have any hope of achieving.

Bollocks to that.