ALAN WATTS : On the taboo against knowing who you are







“Religions are divisive and quarrelsome. They are a form of one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the “saved” from the “damned,” the true believers from the heretics, the in-group from the out-group. Even religious liberals play the game of “we’re-more-tolerant-than-you.”

Furthermore, as systems of doctrine, symbolism, and behavior, religions harden into institutions that must command loyalty, be defended and kept “pure,” and—because all belief is only fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty—religions must make converts. ‘The more people who agree with us, the less nagging insecurity about our position.’

In the end one is committed to being a Christian or a Buddhist or…come what may in the form of new knowledge. New and indigestible ideas have to be wangled into the religious tradition, however inconsistent with its original doctrines, so that the believer can still take his stand and assert, “I am first and foremost a follower of Christ.”

Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive non-faith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, openness—an act of trust completely in the unknown.

An ardent Jehovah’s Witness once tried to convince me that if there were a God of love, he would certainly provide mankind with a reliable and infallible textbook for the guidance of conduct. I replied that no considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the answers.

For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. Therefore, to idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency.

The Book that I would give to my children would itself be slippery. It would slip them into a new domain, not of ideas alone, but of experience and feeling. It would be a temporary medicine, not a diet; a point of departure, not a perpetual point of reference. They would read it and be done with it, for if it were well and clearly written they would not have to go back to it again and again for hidden meanings or for clarification of obscure doctrines.

The Book I would pass to my children would contain no sermons, no ‘shoulds’ and no ‘oughts’. Genuine love comes from knowledge, not from a sense of duty or guilt.

My wish would be to tell, not how things ought to be, but how they are, and how and why we ignore them as they are. You cannot teach an ego to be anything but egotistic, even though egos have the subtlest ways of pretending to be reformed.

The basic thing is to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego. The consequences may not be behavior along the lines of conventional morality. It may well be as the Pharisees said of Jesus, “Look at him! A glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!”

~ Alan Watts
“On the taboo against knowing who you are.”