Sunday, 12 August 2012

'Confessions' of a Buddhist Agnostic (or Whatever)

Someone once described me as having a “pick ‘n’ mix faith” – which was both insulting and funny, since I haven’t had a faith in nearly twenty-five years. At first I wondered where he got that idea from. Then I remembered my Facebook profile, in which I described myself as:

“Agnostic, verging on atheist, with ambivalent remnants of a Catholic upbringing and an interest in some aspects of Buddhism.”

I guess that could be easily misunderstood! But at the time I thought I’d made myself clear. Being interested in ‘some aspects’ of Buddhism didn’t make me a Buddhist. I had remnants of a Catholic upbringing, because being brought up with any kind of faith is bound to leave lasting effects (or scars, for some people). And although I thought of myself as an agnostic, this sometimes veered vigorously into near-atheism, usually in proportion to how often I was subjected to Tony Blair in the media.

I was brought up, forty-odd years ago, with a ‘benign’ form of Roman Catholicism (thanks mostly to my mother; my Dad seemed only nominally religious). I put ‘benign’ in quotation marks, because I don’t really think that bringing children up with any kind of faith is totally harmless. However gently it’s done, indoctrination is still indoctrination. How can a child begin to understand that the faith (s)he is brought up in is only one of many faiths and none – an infinite number of ways of trying to understand the universe? Small children instinctively (with good reason) trust that what their parents and elders tell them is true, and if on some level they suspect it isn’t true, psychological confusion and conflict results. By the time they’ve reached the age where (if they’re lucky) they can begin to seriously question what they’ve been ‘encouraged’ to believe, their religious education has had effects which are very difficult to completely shake off. If their experience was ‘benign’ then this may not matter much, but if it wasn’t, they may be damaged and traumatised for life.

My Catholic upbringing left me with lasting effects which I still feel, decades after I consciously rejected it. Some of them I’m glad of, others definitely not – none of them have been totally catastrophic. I feel utterly at home (and often deeply moved) in English country churches and the vast Gothic cathedrals, which I think are some of the wonders of the world – like their Muslim counterparts in the East. I love Christmas carols, and Christmas never feels purely materialistic to me even now. I’m moved by the story of God becoming man and sacrificing himself to expiate the sins of humanity (although I don’t like to think of them as ‘sins’), and my tendency to hero-worship Jesus (the one in the Bible, that is; I don’t know who the real Jesus was) has only gradually lessened. I often have nightmares about the Crucifixion, as well as a certain morbid interest in it whenever a Biblical epic comes on TV (fancy subjecting children to such gruesome imagery; well, it was everywhere!) And, like many Catholics, I have a deep sense of personal guilt and shame, and have really only recently begun to realise that it is quite unnecessary. It will take a lot of working on, though! These latter effects are probably common to most of us in the ‘Western’ world, because even atheists have grown up in a largely Judeo-Christian culture. It permeates so much still, even with the enlivening effect of multiculturalism, that it’s very hard to completely escape it (in politics, for example, religion shouldn’t be but is pervasive). 

In my teens, I questioned the tenets of Catholic faith bit by bit. In church I recited the parts of the Creed I believed in, stayed silent for those I didn’t. This former, devout little altar boy, who’d been to a Catholic primary school mostly run by nuns, believed less and less of what he’d been taught. But I still thought of myself as a Christian – until I started college and began reading more widely.

What stimulated an interest in psychology I’ve no idea, but I suddenly found myself reading Freud. I was astonished by the originality, depth and fascination of his thinking. I am much less sure these days about some of what he said, but from the point of view of religion, Freud made suddenly clear to me what should have been obvious but wasn’t. We can so easily fool ourselves into thinking that what feels true must be true. But it doesn’t always follow. Just because a deep spiritual experience feels like a link to the supernatural (or God), doesn’t mean it is. I began to realise that there were other explanations for experiences that had previously felt self-explanatory. There were other explanations for religious experiences; a whole new world of thought had opened up. No wonder the religious fundamentalists typified by the Christian right in America regard not only Marx and Darwin as an enemy, but Freud too.

I never considered myself an out-and-out atheist, though, and the process of separation from my faith continued for some years. In a state of emotional distress, at the age of 21 I went to confession because I’d done something that felt deeply sinful. It wasn’t at all, but I suppose at least it felt like something actually worth confessing, unlike the occasions in my childhood (“Bless me father, for I have sinned… erm… I told a lie… erm… erm… can’t think of anything else, father”). That was my last experience of that particular Catholic strangeness. And my mother had to come to terms with it as well. I stopped going to Sunday mass, and there was a difficult moment when I told my mother that, for the first time, I wouldn’t be joining the family at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. From my bedroom, I heard her quietly sniffing on the stairs, so I went out and said okay then, I’ll come. But I didn’t the following year, or any year afterwards…

So I remained a rather un-militant agnostic, aware that I’d definitely rejected my religious training but also that part of me still felt an affinity with at least some of it. I couldn’t reject it entirely, and to an extent the attitudes I voiced depended on the company I was in. Then 9/11 happened, and the Bush/Blair axis and a new Crusade (I was amazed when Bush openly called it that) against several Muslim countries, interspersed with broadcast threats from a few bigoted criminals in caves. The President and Prime Minister, in their smart suits, sat down to pray together while stripping habeas corpus from uncharged, untried and frequently innocent men, dressing them in orange jumpsuits, locking them in cages indefinitely and then torturing them. Other worrying things were happening, too. Having long ago discovered the wonders of the natural world and Darwin’s great theory, I was dumbfounded to learn that here in Britain, Tony Blair had given the go-ahead for faith schools run by ‘teachers’ who thought that Noah’s Ark should be part of science classes (perhaps on the orders of Mr Bush, who had them from God). Had I really voted for this idiot, twice? Meanwhile, Christian parents took their children to see Mel Gibson’s big budget video nasty, Tony Blair joined the Roman Catholic faith (in the schmoozy, high profile way that only he can – “quick, wash the blood off, Mr Cardinal!”), and even only last year, the Pope who had conspired to cover up countless cases of child abuse came on a state visit to Britain and had the gall to complain about militant atheists. So I found myself siding with Richard Dawkins (I still admire most of his books) as he found voice for the outrage of secular humanists like myself. I looked down on my mother for the apparent contradiction between her following of a man who preached love and forgiveness with her cheerleading of the Iraq War. It was the closest I’ve ever come to describing myself as an atheist.

I still have moments, usually in reaction to something in the news, when a voice somewhere in my personality suddenly speaks up and threatens to turn into Christopher Hitchens (well, maybe not that bad!) As I write, three members of a Russian punk band may be sent to a labour camp for seven years, in punishment for a protest in a cathedral where they mocked the Russian Orthodox Church and recited a prayer for the removal of Vladimir Putin from office. Three ordinary young women, sitting in court locked in a cage, thanks to the twin bullies of Church and Government. Whenever I think about this, I want to scream at those Pharisees and bellow, “WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?????!!!!!” I still partly hero-worship him, you see, and part of what I love about him is his iconoclasm and low opinion of Authority. How he would have loved storming into the Vatican and ripping those robes and riches off his Representatives on earth!    

In the past few years, though, I’ve mellowed in my stance towards religion. Partly its frustration at Richard Dawkins ranting about it on TV when I always preferred to read him in my bedroom writing with a sense of wonder about the symbiotic relationship of figs and fig wasps. Christopher Hitchens appalled me when he was alive – an intellectual bully who supported the War on Terror and relished the dropping of cluster bombs on people in Iraq, boasting that their Qurans wouldn’t protect them against our weapons. Even the milder tones of the new atheism seem rather smug at times: “Oh, you poor believing idiots making up 99% of the world’s population, you don’t know anything, do you?” Many of my Facebook friends, thanks mostly to my several years involved in peace activism, happen to be Muslims, and quite a few others are Christians. I don’t agree with their faith or indeed their practice (which they share with my parents) of teaching it to their children. But they’re not idiots and they don’t deserve to be patronised or insulted. They have a right to believe what they like. I sometimes think the atheists should be targeting not religion but religious intolerance – although I do agree that teaching children outright lies should be outlawed, not encouraged. Pretending that myth is science is a lie.

The other influence on me here is Buddhism. Which brings me back to the beginning of this post; how can I describe myself as an “agnostic, verging on atheist” and still have a deep interest in Buddhism? A bit pic ‘n’ mix, that, don’t you think? Well, maybe yes, and maybe no. For one thing, not all Buddhists describe their ‘faith’ as a religion.

My interest began through the practice of mindfulness meditation, which I started as a way of coping with chronic pain and, later, with anxiety. Mindfulness, which started as a Buddhist practice but has since spread around the world and is often adopted as a ‘secular’ one, is really the practice of being non-judgementally aware of whatever is happening in the present moment – both internally and externally. This can help people suffering with chronic pain in several ways – one being that it can help us to experience pain non-judgementally (ie: as just another kind of experience), without getting so caught up in the frightening stories that our thoughts spin around it when fear is present.

The founder of Buddhism was brought up as a Hindu, so in his world such beliefs as reincarnation were taken for granted. But although the Buddha spoke about ‘rebirth’ many times, it’s not absolutely certain that he was talking about literal reincarnation; he might have been speaking about the rebirth into each moment that occurs within mindful awareness. In fact, he didn’t really speak about God (or metaphysical matters, in that sense) at all. And although many Buddhists claim that the Buddha was divine, he made no claims for himself in the way that Jesus did, for instance. All he described himself as was ‘enlightened’ – something which he believed it was possible for anyone to become.

Buddhism’s central concerns are mindfulness, and the practice of compassion and kindliness (usually referred to as lovingkindness) towards oneself and all other beings. All of these qualities are developed through the practice of mindfulness meditation, which can be through an extended formal practice or in moments of brief practice throughout the day. My favourite quote said to be from the Buddha is this expression of what the purpose of his work was for: 'This is for the welfare of the many, for the happiness of the many, for the benefit and welfare and the happiness of beings. This is out of sympathy for the world.' 

The growth of a kind of ‘secular’ Buddhism in recent years in the West, has I think resulted from the attraction towards these practices felt by many who are dissatisfied with the punitive aspects of the three Abrahamic religions, and/or unable to believe in the existence of a supernatural. Perhaps also, mindfulness meditation is perceived as an antidote to the kind of stressful living-in-the-future that typifies Western living. In a way, I wonder if Buddhism is the purest kind of religion, because it doesn’t require a belief in the supernatural in order to practice being exactly what the Buddha invited us to be. Those qualities and practices which are preached by other religions as a guide to living purely and morally – love for others, not judging – are the very essence of Buddhism; there isn’t really much else that’s essential. The emphasis on kindliness includes that of tolerance for those of other faiths and none – a quality which is exemplified by the current Dalai Lama but not, appallingly, by the so-called Buddhists apparently intent on wiping out the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. (It’s recently come as quite a shock to me that Buddhists can be just as capable of terrible violence and atrocities as those of other faiths).

This is how I feel able to describe myself as an agnostic with an interest in Buddhism. I might one day go the whole hog and describe myself as an agnostic Buddhist or a Buddhist agnostic; it doesn’t seem to me a contradiction. I once came across a book on the web called ‘Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist’ – which made me smile, both because I could relate to it and because of the very Western (one might almost say ‘Catholic’) use of the word ‘confessions’!

As a recovering Catholic myself, the emphasis on lovingkindness is attractive as an antidote to the preoccupation with guilt that is part of my earlier ‘faith’. I described my religious upbringing as ‘benign’, and in many ways it was; the priests didn’t preach fire and brimstone, the nuns were mostly kind. Other people have had far worse experiences of Catholicism, as the recent child abuse scandals show. But I’ve still been scarred, in more minor ways, by my childhood indoctrination, in ways that both therapy and my interest in Buddhism are helping me to deal with. I was very much brought up to believe that other people’s feelings, needs and welfare were more important than my own, in contrast to the Buddhist emphasis that compassion can only begin with self-compassion. And so I find myself engaged in a sort of late re-parenting, and although it’s difficult, after more than forty years of habit-formed shame, I am indeed discovering that it’s easier to feel compassion for others if I can first of all feel it for myself.

One of the reasons I hesitate to describe myself as Buddhist (apart from a dislike of the limiting effects of ‘ists’ and ‘isms’) is that I don’t feel I’m a very ‘good’ one; I don’t practice regularly enough for that. There’s more than a shade of self-judgement creeping in even there, but allowing for that, I still feel I’ve a long way to go. For example, as readers may have noticed, I have a problem with anger – and I’m not even sure what my attitude is towards that emotion, after a childhood where it was forbidden and an adulthood in which it’s been hard to express it. Not only do I find it difficult to extend lovingkindness towards some people, but with certain politicians I don’t even want or intend to. One of the nice things about Buddhism is that it’s the practice that’s important, and by practising, we are supposed to find it easier. But like I said, I feel I’m at a very early stage – tentatively dipping my feet in the water, as it were.

Even so, I think Buddhism has contributed to the mellowing attitude towards religion that I’ve noticed in myself over the past few years. Like Dawkins’s friend David Attenborough, I cannot bring myself to embrace atheism, despite not believing in God or the supernatural. To completely dismiss the whole thing, definitely and absolutely without any doubt, seems to me irrational, however unlikely its premises may be. But more than that, it would seem to invite feelings of arrogance and intolerance, and seeing those forces at their destructive worst in the world right now, it doesn’t feel right to encourage them, especially when it would also suggest arrogance and intolerance towards the beliefs of so many of my friends.

I still have a few things to work on, and remnants of my childhood that I still kick against. A few years ago, my mother suggested that I send my sister an Easter card, because she’d been “hurt” by certain opinions I’d once expressed about religion. Recognising the Catholic guilt forces at work again, and their genius for emotional blackmail, I didn’t send a card but I did explain to my sister why. Only today, a similar situation surfaced. My mother phoned to give me an update on my sister’s progress in hospital; she’s suffering terrible pain following surgery for severe endometriosis. “I know you don’t believe in the power of prayer”, she said with an audible smile, “but maybe you could do it ‘just in case’, as it were.”

That one was more difficult, because Clare is suffering so much that it seems churlish not to pray for her if there’s the slightest possibility that it may help her. But I can’t bring myself to do it. I simply don’t believe, so I won’t do it just as I won’t slit the throat of a lamb in the remote possibility that it may help. So there’s a little bit of guilt hanging around here, amongst the feelings of worry and sadness for what Clare is going through. I have such a fear of pain myself that it’s not difficult to empathise. But – and no offence is meant here to anyone who believes differently – I can’t help thinking that a caring and omnipotent God wouldn’t need praying to. Without hesitating for a nanosecond, he’d help my sister straight away, and the Burmese Rohinga Muslims too, and everyone suffering pain and fear throughout the world.

So, it’s difficult for me sometimes even to extend lovingkindness to those close to me – let alone a multimillionaire British war criminal. But there are times, too, when it is easier – when feelings of tenderness for myself and for someone else can surface and lead to a practice of Buddhism. Agnostic that I am, I’ll be practising a lovingkindness meditation today – and my sister will be very much a part of it. I don’t see any contradiction in that.


  1. Michael, I just typed in a long comment on this entry, and then Wordpress messed me up and I lost it. (For some reason, on Blogger, I can never comment from my Wordpress identity, and it's driving me mad.

    At any rate . . . this is a brilliant post, and I am going through the same struggle/search myself right now, being born Protestant, converted to Catholicism, spent two years as a nun, and now not sure I believe in anything anymore. I, too, am exploring Buddhism, in the hope that its lack of the supernatural and focus on the inner self (minus the guilt we find in so many other religions) will help me, and bring me to some kind of peace. Your blog entry is inspiring, and I understand, in some way, what you are experiencing. Thank you!


  2. Thanks for this excellent piece, Michael. I rarely say that I'm a Buddhist because that word isn't very precise. There are so many different schools and types of Buddhism. I do like to say that I'm a follower of the Buddha's teachings. Then I'm just referring to what later disciples wrote down about what the Buddha said. But even that can be inaccurate. In the same way that the Bible may not reflect Jesus' words, the various Buddhist texts may reflect the bias and interpretations of the people who wrote down his words. This is the problem with labels. Thanks again for such a provocative piece.


  3. And thank you both for your encouraging and responsive comments! I've only just seen them. Toni, once again you're helping me to understand Buddhism and my own problem with labels, ists and isms! And Barbara, it's good to know someone else who is on a sort of parallel journey. It certainly sounds as if we have many things in common in this area, and I wish you well in your quest to find some inner peace with the help of Buddhist teachings. Maybe we can support each other and share thoughts about this as we go along? Wishing you both well, and thanks so much again for your comments; it helps me to feel that writing this blog is worthwhile.