The Unbeliever’s Guide to Religion

A few years ago, I was living in Australia and was seized by one of those untraceable urges to throw myself at a new system of thinking to see what would come of it. Despite the many friends who’ve extolled the virtues of meditation to me, I’ve never been all that convinced; at any attempt to quiet the cascade of thoughts in my head, my philosophy brain takes over and starts wondering at unanswerable questions, the Theseus’s ship of consciousness at the forefront (if you take away the thoughts, what makes the mind? If you take away the constituent parts of consciousness, what remains?). However, after a few months of stressful work and not enough fun, the opportunity came my way to spend a (silent!) weekend at a Buddhist meditation retreat centre, and I took it. At the very least, it would let me chill out.

The retreat centre itself, just outside of Sydney, was beautiful. I’d gone with two friends and we shared a room, though we weren’t allowed to speak to each other for the whole three days. We were each given an ill-fitting set of uncomfortable, starchy white clothes and told to wear trainers. At dinner, we ate delicious vegetarian food at tables with 9 other strangers, each of us chewing each mouthful 30 times, as instructed, which simply rendered the food tasteless mush which you then had to swallow. We were taken through a number of different styles of meditation, including standing, walking and sitting styles, each one designed to let your mind settle and empty itself, allowing a space into which serenity could step. I peeked at everyone else to see that they, unlike me, seemed to be getting it.

I gave up on the mediation pretty quickly; too quickly, truth be told. I didn’t really feel like I needed it and to this day I don’t feel I really understand it. But the weekend was interesting nonetheless. Shutting up for once felt pretty good. I had time to think, and I liked it. Everything was on an enjoyable pause.

For our Buddhism lessons we had a wicked cool nun with a perfectly shaved head; she smiled constantly and yet looked like she could definitely kill you if it came down to that. She sat cross legged and told us in calming tones about rebirth and breaking the cycle. She taught us about karma.

Like many in the Western world, I conceived of karma as a sort of “if you do good things, good things will happen to you” sort of system. The idea that if you help an old lady pick up the fallen shopping from her broken bag, some kind soul will return the favour somewhere along the line. This is what we’ve spun karma into, in our unending search for vague, foreign philosophies that we can turn into Instagram text posts that assist in the creation of personalities more objectively attractive than our own. It’s nice to believe that our shitty behaviour just melts into the ether, whereas our positive behaviour is greatly rewarded. It’s nice, but it’s not true – not even in Buddhism.

The bald nun taught us that karma, in fact, refers to every deed done with conscious volition, or free will; it refers to actions driven by intention. Karmaphala is the result of these actions. Every action is accompanied by its corresponding effect; if we engage in undesirable actions, we bring about undesirable effects, like sadness, poverty and greed. If we engage in desirable actions, we bring about desirable effects, like health, wealth and longevity.

Like water, karma seeks its own balance. Bad karma results in things that keep us in samsara, or the endless cycle and rebirth that traps us in the human condition. Good karma results in things that guide us onto the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, the realization of “truth” and the eradication of such traits as greed, hatred and delusion, leading us to nirvana. Unlike Judeo-Christian religions, Buddhism does not hold that there is a merciful or unmerciful God punishing or rewarding us, who will eventually send us to heaven or hell. Rather, we do this to ourselves; hell is the cycle of endless rebirth into the human condition, and the escape from this cycle into nirvana is heaven.*

However, the way the bald nun described karma showed that it does have an idealistic parallel with certain aspects of Catholic belief. Buddhism teaches that there is no beginning to the cycle of samsara, and that the karma of your many, many past lives affects your life today. Good karma can eventually thwart bad karma by nurturing behaviour that guides us onto ascension. Yet we may have millennia of bad karma from our past lives; though we feel that we did not commit this bad karma, we have to struggle to escape its effects. We still have to work to escape this condition. Does this not sound like the Catholic concept of Original Sin, the automatic guilt of all humans stemming from the fall of man in the Garden of Eden? That we are born (reborn) into a disadvantaged state, from which we can only escape by performing actions deemed to be worthy? Are these two things not idealistically one and the same?

With the bald nun explaining all this, I realized that I had totally misunderstood Buddhism.

* * *

This is probably a good time to state that I don’t believe any of this. Some would say that I believe in nothing. Rather, I’d say that I try to understand the world by way of critical thinking and reason and rationality. I think that there is no more reason to believe in a metaphysical post-death world, an omnipresent greater being or an all-encompassing unidentifiable heavenly power than there is to believe in the cloud-palace above Mount Atlas, the Asgardian throne of Odin, Middle Earth or any of the other things written in books over the past few centuries. In short, I’m an atheist.**

However, I also believe in fairness, and understanding, and the power of knowledge.

As a literature student, it galls me when someone refers to a human-made living monster as Frankenstein. As a lover of food, it annoys me when someone says that sugar is “toxic”. As someone who strives (with varying degrees of success) towards fairness, I hate it when a newspaper takes out of context quotes from a politician to imply that they support dictators or illegal wars. These things piss me off not because human fallibility is irritating, but because willful misunderstanding and a cultivated lack of knowledge contribute to a greater ignorance; they create a social atmosphere in which truth is not important and it doesn’t matter what you say. This atmosphere is one in which Donald Trump can say that all Mexican immigrants are rapists, David Wolfe can claim that chocolate is an octave of sun energy and the strange woman in your yoga class can wash the dirt off your feet and claim that, due to ionic detoxication, the resulting brown waters contains heavy metals and carcinogens from your organs – all to the benefit of their own financial and societal standing and at the expense of yours.

It’s also an atmosphere in which people can tell you that something or another is written in the holy text of almost any religion, with no recourse if that turns out not to be true.

Almost none of us read religious books, and if we are religious, we almost never read any texts from outside of our own belief systems. This is because religious books are completely tedious, repetitive and boring, and because it’s infuriating to consistently read assertions of things that you don’t believe to be true. There are about a hundred trillion amazing fiction and non-fiction books to read in this ever-too-brief life, and most people have the good sense to pick up one of these instead of an over-long, bossy religious text that will most likely tell them they’re going to spend eternity in the burning cesspit of hell and that they’re just generally terrible people.

And yet our ignorance of the content of religious books means that we can be led to believe anything about them. Just as you can’t be expected to know that Frankenstein is the doctor rather than the monster if you haven’t read the book, without reading the Quran you can’t be expected to know that nothing in it says that women need to cover their heads. People frivolously assert untrue things about almost every religion, and we accept these things because we don’t have the knowledge to prove otherwise.

So let’s get that knowledge.

* * *

I was in India staying with a Hindu friend when I decided to read the Bhagavad Gita, mostly because I wanted to read the incredible stories of Vishnu and Ganesha and the dozens of other gods. Well, I was shit out of luck there, as the Bhagavad Gita doesn’t contain a single one of these stories; they’re all in the hugely epic Ramayana and the Ganesha Purana and the million other Hindu texts, of which there seem to be an unfathomable amount. I won’t lie; it was a bit of a bummer.

What I did find in the Bhagavad Gita was what Gandhi referred to as his “spiritual dictionary”; an outline of many of the historically central concepts of Hinduism, which have varying degrees of relevance to the way modern Hindus practice their religion today. With some cashew burfi and a few Kingfisher beers, I made my way through the book, and when I was done, I took my (sometimes quite viciously) annotated copy of the Gita and talked to my Hindu friend about what I’d found within. He explained which parts pertained to his daily spiritual life and which he found outdated and dangerous. And in that conversation, somewhere, I found a bit more understanding of Hinduism than I’d had before.

No religious text can give you a wholly accurate picture of how anyone practices their religion. I’ve brought the subject of certain texts up to groups of people who shared the same beliefs, only to see heated discussions break out between them, leaving me scurrying to open another bottle of wine with which to dampen their passions. As the hundred and one factions of Christianity show, there are as many interpretations of the Bible as there are Christians, some of which barely seem to relate to each other.

However, understanding the content of these books will at least give us an educated starting point from which to springboard into the confusing world of religious practice. It will allow us to see more clearly the motivations with which people live their lives. And more importantly, it will allow us to call bullshit when someone mangles the supposed content of these books to fit their own narrative, no matter what that narrative is.

This is why I’m going to read 12 religious books this year – and write about what I find.

I won’t be talking about whether or not the claims made in the books are true or false; I’m not interested in a discussion of whether this or that God exists, or whether we’re on an endless cycle of reincarnation or simply cark it after a few decades and turn off like extraneous machines. I have my views on that and you will have yours. Rather, I’m interested in accurately portraying what these books contain, regardless of my feelings about them.

Still, I am just another person telling you what is really between the pages of a book you haven’t read. I get that. Without creating some mass global book club, this is the situation we’re stuck with. So for every book I read, I’ll tell you exactly what version and translation I’m using, so you can get it for yourself if you want to. I’ll give you references to the exact verses/chapters/pages so you can check that my quotes are accurate. Where relevant, I’ll talk about the various different translations of important verses, and the ways they’ve been rendered in different editions of the books.

I’m not without bias. I know more about some religions than others, and love a good story even if it’s totally ludicrous. All I can promise you is that I’ll be as dispassionate as humanly possible, and I’ll try to honestly state any pre-existing biases before we start on any new book. I’m fairly confident that a week-long university journalism mini-course means I can be as fair and accurate as Jon Snow on a good day.

Most of all, I’ll try not to be dull. So let’s get to some learning.

Knowledge is power, information is liberating, education is the premise of progress.
– Kofi Annan

*If this is all a little confusing, don’t worry; the result of any action is considered to be one of the “four incomprehensible subjects” of Buddhism, which makes it a little difficult to really say whether anything you do will create a negative or positive reaction. Puts you at a bit of an ethical disadvantage, if you ask me.

**or anti-theist, but that’s a discussion for another day.