There are two things all religions seem to know for certain:
1. God is Good.
2. We are all a part of God’s masterfully orchestrated plan. Everything that happens is meant to happen.
I’ve always puzzled over the idea of destiny. Everything that we are, or will be – has already been predetermined by a supreme being. God is all-knowing. God is good. God has plans for us.
Even though this is what all religions teach, I didn’t like the sound of it. By this principle, we have no freedom of choice or free will, because our destiny is fixed.
However, I assumed people had different views: some probably believed in destiny, and some believed in free will. It’s the ultimate question. Even my favourite movie, Forrest Gump, begins and ends on this philosophical note. Forrest himself sums it up: “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.”
And yet, when I took an online course about Greek Mythology mainly offered to homeschoolers, and we discussed this question, I found that I was the only one arguing for free will in a class of Christians.
In fact, even a peek at the texts of three of the main religions confirms it. God is good. God planned all of this out.
In the Bible: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1)
In the Quran: “He is the Alpha and the Omega. He is the Outermost and the Innermost. He is fully aware of all things.” (Quran 57:3)
In the Bhagavad-Gita: “Even if a man of the most vile conduct worships me with undistracted devotion, he must be reckoned as righteous for he has rightly resolved.” (Bhagavad-Gita Chapter 9, verses 3—8)
The last one, which I discovered in my religion textbook, was the most astounding and horrific. Even if someone is terribly evil, with disgusting morals, if they pray every day they are righteous. What a thought! By this principle, even ISIS might be deemed as righteous because their actions are in the name of religion and justified through their interpretation of the Quran.
In a book I’m currently reading, “A Short History of England”, by G. K. Chesterton, he describes a religious paradox first outlined by Dante, which I paraphrase:
If God is good and all-knowing, his son Jesus Christ was good, but was nailed to the cross by the Romans, without whom the miraculous death and resurrection of Jesus would never have happened, and arguably without whom Christianity might cease to exist. Therefore, Jesus Christ is good as the Romans were good, for both were acting out God’s (good) will, though in different ways.
The idea of destiny appears everywhere. I recently finished Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, a marvelous fiction book that has a brilliantly morally ambiguous anti-hero and anti-villain. In it, Eli (the anti-villain) is a devout Christian, and believes that his newfound self-healing/immortality powers and loss of his former human ability to feel compassion are a sign that God has created him with a purpose – to be spared from compassion as he kills. Thus, though his means of achieving God’s will is violent and dirty, he is good for he is ultimately accomplishing God’s plan. On the other hand, our hero Victor Vale is far from good. He manipulates and kills as well, but he determines that his loss of compassion must be replaced by logic and independently-established morals. He does not kill just because he can.
Vicious is the excellent example of the religious extreme; that is, if you fail to recognize it in today’s terrorist groups.
All religions, in remaining determined to maintain that their Gods are good and have a plan for them, are doomed to fall victim to these very plans of their good Gods. For the dictionary definition of religion is “a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny.”
And thus the religious destiny versus non-religious free will question emerges. Which is better? Can we deny the importance of religion by weighing out its dangers with its benefits?
It is a scary thing if a God exists that can never be wrong. Because then, everything He has planned is right, and even the most terrible people are acting out his eternal plan. Thus, in praying and praying we are hoping for Him to guide us on his path, completely relying on Him to make decisions for us.
On the other hand, if your doings can be judged as right and wrong by a set of moral truths and not by one supreme being, we are free to make mistakes, take responsibility for them, and face the consequences.
Are we to be children or adults? Is it not reasonable to prefer a world of adults rather than a world of children who take no responsibility?
So where does Buddhism fall in this discussion? Is it even a religion by these principles? Buddhism is a fascinating idea, because according to them, we are the masters of our own bodies, minds, and souls. Subject to only the energies of the universe, we have free will to determine our karma – whether it will lead to a better reincarnation or a worse one. In Buddhism, no one but a Buddha, an “enlightened one”, can escape from the cycle of rebirth. Even THE Buddha is not a god but a man – the wisest of all men, indeed, and perhaps the supreme teacher of mankind, but only a man nevertheless.
By this system, would Buddhism be considered a religion? There are two answers, depending on what you believe to be a religion. Should you consider a religion to be a belief in a supernatural power that controls our destiny, perhaps it would not be. According to Buddhism, no gods control our fate. No supreme beings have that authority, for any supreme being would, just the same, be but a reincarnation subject to the chaotic forces of the universe.
If Buddhism denies God, it embraces another kind of God: a power greater than anything we could ever imagine, even if we could never imagine a power that does not watch and plan as we would like to think. For is energy not a power? Is the universe not supernatural? Humans and minuscule though we are, we are made of the same atoms that stardust is made from. The crazy living, breathing energy called Life is an impossible power that exists in each of us. The Earth is a miracle home. And simply imagine all of the million billion little events that had to line up perfectly to create each individual cell in your body, and make you YOU.
Now I’m not going to pretend that everything about everyone is perfect. After all, we are human. We can never be perfect. Buddhism is far from perfect, just as in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, there are two sides to every page in their great texts. Religion is an interpreted belief system, and can be used for good or for bad.
However more comfortable life might be knowing we are part of a great plan and not just drifting aimlessly through the universe, even theists might be wary to not fall slaves to the great authoritarian powers characteristic of theist religions.