Some, None or Done: A Zen Atheist

Nov 21, 2016

We've been asking our listeners through a survey: What role do religion and spirituality play in your life? Heather Hernandez responded. She's a Berkeley librarian who calls herself a Zen Atheist.

Hernandez fits into the growing category that demographers call the "Nones". Nones don't have a religious affiliation, rather they are atheists, agnostics and seekers.

Hernandez says she realized she was an atheist first, but then discovered Zen through a book. That also made sense to her. Atheism was how she thought about God, but Zen was a way to slow down and be thoughtful about her life.

HERNANDEZ: I try to always take a moment before engaging in any activity to think about how that activity does or will connect me with the world. When I'm knitting I try to think: where did this yarn come from? Sheep? Fields? In a different country? I'm connected to the people that grew the fibers, that spun it, that sold it. I try to really be present in it, to give it my full attention, to really experience it.

To hear the complete story, click the audio player above.

Editor's Note: In the comments for this story, some of you debated: Is Buddhism theistic or non-theistic? We asked Dr. John Nelson, a scholar of religion who serves on The Spiritual Edge's advisory panel, to help us understand the issue. Here's what he wrote: 

"One of the most common assumptions about 'Buddhism' that persists in places without a long social history of Buddhist institutions is that it is optional for Buddhists to believe in deities.

"Since there is no such thing as 'Buddhism' in a singular, monolithic sense, we can find numerous examples in diverse cultural settings where a dizzying array of deities is valued, venerated, and absolutely central to religious practice.

"The first bona fide Buddhist temple in North America was very much in this tradition. Dedicated to the Buddha of the True Pure Land (Amida Buddha), who was believed to be a deity promising salvation, the Buddhist Church of San Francisco was established in 1898 by Japanese immigrants living in the San Francisco area.

"Both historically and in contemporary times, the key to understanding what deities are emphasized within a certain type of Buddhism depends on how this tradition gets domesticated and practiced locally, as well as what themes are emphasized (or marginalized) in the process of maintaining religious institutions and cultural identities.

"In a similar way, the title of the 'Zen Atheist' podcast juxtaposes two concepts that are simultaneously abstract yet also shaped decisively by social context. Just as there are many kinds of 'Buddhism,' so it is with the varieties of 'Zen.'

"In the podcast, Ms. Hernandez highlights a type of non-religious Zen that was created, packaged, and exported for Western audiences in the post-war period. Thanks (or perhaps “due”) to the interpretative and rhetorical skills of writers like Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, the 'Zen' that helps Ms. Hernandez slow down and appreciate the interdependencies of her life is a fairly modern creation, tailored for literate and well-educated individuals weary of the monotheisms and metanarratives promoting the superiority of Western civilization.

"The term 'atheist' (first used in 1571) embodies a range of attitudes opposing or disbelieving in a powerful and omniscient God characteristic of Christian, Judaic, and Islamic religious traditions in the West. We have seen in recent years through the publications of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris that some atheists may be as extreme and righteous in their beliefs (promoting rationalism supported by hard evidence) as religious fundamentalists are in their godtalk and holy scriptures.

"In this late modern period that privileges not only individualism but also pluralistic approaches to religious truth, we should not be surprised that venerable concepts like 'Zen' and 'atheism' are localized, privatized, and made relevant to specific lifestyle goals."

John Nelson is Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco, and directs the Master’s program in Asia Pacific Studies. Among his other publications, he is the author of Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan (2013). 

What do you think? Send us a note at thespiritualedge@gmail.com.