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Photograph by Peter Tagore Tan

My mother, who recently passed away after a long life, left me a book she used to read to me when I was a baby. Because she was poor and it was the “former” Great Depression, she could not afford children’s books.  Throughout her life she never wavered from her deeply felt “Eastern” beliefs.  I grew up in a convent school and became a baptized, practicing Christian. Recently, the church where I worshipped for almost twenty years was embroiled in a scandal, which has led me to consider my mother’s belief system that, like most Eastern religions speaks of peace of mind as a goal.  I opened the book and read from the chapter, “Why I am a Pagan.”  I now understand her eight-decades- long resistance to Christianity. She left me this well-worn book with her signature, dated 1940.  Thank you, Mom.+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Religion is always an individual, personal thing.  Every person must work out his own views of religion, and if he is sincere, God will not blame him, however it turns out.  Every man’s religious experience is valid for himself, for as I have said it is not something that can be argued about. But the story of an honest soul struggling with religious problems, told in a sincere manner, will always be of benefit to other people  That is why, in speaking about religion, I must get away from generalities and tell my personal story.

I am a pagan. The statement may be taken to imply a revolt against Christianity; and yet revolt seems a harsh word and does not correctly describe the state of mind of a man who has passed through a very gradual evolution, step by step, away from Christianity, during which he clung desperately, with love and piety, to a series of tenets which against his will were slipping away from him.  Because there was never any hatred, therefore, it is impossible to speak of a rebellion.

As I was born in a pastor’s family and at one time prepared for the Christian ministry, my natural emotions were on the side of religion during the entire struggle rather than against it.  In this conflict of emotions and understanding, I gradually arrived at a position where I had, for instance, definitely renounced the doctrine of redemption, a position which could most simply be described as that of a pagan.  It was, and still is, a condition of belief concerning life and the universe in which I feel natural and at ease, without having to be at war with myself.  The process came as naturally as the weaning of a child or the dropping of a ripe apple on the ground and when the time came for the apple to drop, I would not interfere with its dropping.  In Taoistic phraseology, this is but to live in the Tao, and in Western phraseology it is but being sincere with oneself and with the universe, according to one’s lights.  I believe no one can be natural and happy unless he is intellectually sincere with himself, and to be natural is to be in heaven.  To me, being a pagan is just being natural.

“To be a pagan” is no more than a phrase, like “to be a Christian.” It is no more than a negative statement, for to the average reader, to be a pagan means only that one is not a Christian; and since “being a Christian” is a very broad and ambiguous term, the meaning of “not being a Christian “ is equally ill-defined.  It is all the worse when one defines a pagan as one who does not believe in religion or in God, for we have yet to define what is meant by “God” or by the “religious attitude toward life.”  Great pagans have always had a deeply reverent attitude toward nature.  We shall therefore have to take the word in its conventional sense and mean by it simply a man who does not go to church (except for an aesthetic inspiration, of which I am still capable), does not belong to the Christian fold, and does not accept its usual, orthodox tenets…

I think I know the depths of religious experience, for I believe one can have this experience without being a great theologian like Cardinal Newman—otherwise Christianity would not be worth having or must already have been horribly misinterpreted.  As I look at it at present, the difference in spiritual life between a Christian believer and a pagan is simply this: the Christian believer lives in a world governed and watched  over by God, to whom he has a constant personal relationship, and therefore in a world presided over by a kindly father;  his conduct is also often uplifted to a level consonant with his consciousness of being a child of God, no doubt a level which is difficult for a human mortal to maintain consistently at all periods of his life or of the week or even of the day, his actual life varies between living on the human and the truly religious levels.

On the other hand, a pagan lives in this world like an orphan, without the benefit of that consoling feeling that there is always someone in heaven who cares and who will, when that spiritual relationship called prayer is established, attend to his private personal welfare.  It is no doubt a less cheery world, but there is the benefit and dignity of being an orphan who by necessity has learned to be independent, to take care of himself, and to be more mature, as all orphans are.  It was this feeling rather than any intellectual belief- this feeling of dropping into a world without the love of God – that really scared me till the very last moment of my conversion to paganism.  I felt, like many born Christians, that if a personal God did not exist the bottom would be knocked out of this universe.

And yet a pagan can come to the point where he looks on that perhaps warmer and cheerier world as at the same time a more childish, I am tempted to say a more adolescent, world useful and workable, if one keep the illusion unspoiled, but no more and no less justifiable than a truly Buddhist way of life also a more beautifully colored world but consequently less solidly true and therefore of less worth. For me personally, the suspicion that anything is colored or not solidly true is fatal.  There is a price one must be willing to pay for truly; whatever the consequences, let us have it the position is comparable to and psychologically the same as that of a murderer; if one has committed a murder, the best thing he can do next is to confess it.  That is why I say it takes a little courage to become a pagan.  But after one has accepted the worst one is also without fear.  Peace of mind is that mental condition in which you have accepted the worst….

Or I might put the difference between a Christian and a pagan world like this: the pagan in me renounced Christianity out of both pride and humility, emotional pride and intellectual humility, but perhaps on the whole less out of pride than of humility.  Out of emotional pride because I hated the idea that there should be any other reason for our behaving a sincere, nice, decent men and women than the simple fact that we are human beings theoretically and if you want to go in for classifications, classify this a typically humanist thought. But more out of humility of intellectual humility, simple because I can no longer, with our astronomical knowledge, believe that an individual human being is so terribly important in the eyes of the Great Creator, living as the individual does, an infinitesimal speck on this earth, which is an infinitesimal speck of the solar system, which is again an infinitesimal speck of the universe of solar systems.  The audacity of man and his presumptuous arrogance are what stagger me. What right have we to conceive of the character of a supreme being, of whose work we can see only millionth part, and to postulate about his attributes?

The importance of the human individual is undoubtedly one of the basic tenets of Christianity.  But let us see what ridiculous arrogance that leads to in the usual practice of Christian daily life.

Four days before my mother’s funeral, there was a pouring rain, and if it continued, as was usual injury in Changchow, the city would be flooded and there could be no funeral. As most of us came from Shanghai, the delay would have meant some inconvenience.  One of my relatives – rather extreme but not an unusual example of a Christian believer in China-told me that she had faith in God, who would always provide for his children.  She prayed, and the rain stopped, apparently in order that a tiny family of Christians might have their funeral without delay.  But the implied idea that, but for us, God would willingly subject tens of thousands in Changchow inhabitants to a devastating flood, as was often the case, or that He did not stop the rain because of them but because of us who wanted to have conveniently dry funeral, struck me as an unbelievable type of selfishness. I cannot imagine God providing for such selfish children. ” (Much more on the subject follows.)  -Lin Yutang


From The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang. The John Day Company. New York. 1937. (Pages 400-404)

Dr. Lin was an important writer, scientist, inventor, and teacher who was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize. He was introduced to publishing by Pearl Buck and bridged the two worlds of East and West, studying at Harvard and earning his doctorate in linguistics at University of Leipzig. He is buried in Taiwan and his house which he designed is a museum today. Later in his life, Lin Yutang returned to Christianity, the religion of his father who was a Presbyterian minister.

Indonesia by Peter Tagore Tan