Well, I’m on the train after an afternoon of hanging out with other religious types at MediaCityUK in Salford.
I was up there for the Rethink 2012 Religion and Ethics festival hosted by the BBC. I met some interesting people and got an inside look at how the Beeb and Channel 4 think about programming, scheduling and content of ‘religious broadcasting’.
Although I was semi-successful with my attempt to tweet throughout the event (see my feed @mybuddhistlife), I lost the wifi connection halfway through, and actually I was pretty pleased as I’m not so great at multi-tasking and I wanted to listen to what people were saying.
The word ‘religion’ is a big problem for some people (there were some humanists there) and a word that others are really attached to. ‘God’ is another big word that really turns some people on and others off.
I used to care about such things. Now I think if it makes you happy, go for it!
There was a big debate about whether ‘organised religion’ is on the way out or not. Lots of Christians, Muslims and Jews thought not. The humanists and liberal Christians thought it probably was. There were no Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs or Pagans on the panel so not sure what their take on it would be.
One thing that surprised me was no one mentioned the modern-day religions of science and consumerism. People seemed pretty keen on protecting their gang and hopefully pushing their territory out a bit so they could annex a bit of no man’s land.
The Buddha said all views are, in the final analysis, wrong views (even Buddhist ones). They can be useful for a while, but in the end, we need to go beyond them. Being attached to one’s view is an obstacle to happiness. People get so attached to the way they see things that they build their entire identities around them. Then, when someone threatens that view, they feel that they are being threatened. They have to protect their existence, so they fight. ‘Religious’ people are often the worst for this (see history for a list of past examples and the news for a list of current ones).
View As Identity was certainly there in abundance, although they were having a debate, and I guess they’ve got to talk about something. But really, I got the impression this wasn’t just for the sake of making good telly. They really did care and they really did think those things.
For me, whether or not organised religion sticks around or not is of little interest. Of course it will stick around. Whilever there are people who believe certain things, those people will get together and do stuff. And wherever there is a group of people, there’ll be someone who likes running things and leading things and organising things who will take the role of leader. So you’ll have organised religion.
Is organised religion relevant? Well, it’s extremely relevant to the people who have it at the centre of their lives. For many others, it’s entirely irrelevant.
For me, that’s fine. Buddhism is quite well-suited to the postmodern, pluralistic, relativistic condition. It even gets on quite well with individualism. Most of the Buddhist practices are spoken about from the perspective of the individual practitioner. Sangha (‘community’) is important, but since Buddhism is primarily concerned with training heart and mind, it is primarily concerned with the individual. That’s probably one of the big reasons why it appealed to me in the first place.
The religion of brand
But I was sad that no one spoke about the religion of brand. The ‘individualism’ that pervades society right now is not really about individuals. It’s concocted by corporations to make it easier to sell you stuff. To be an ‘individual’ you need to show how you stand out from the crowd. We can sell you stuff to help you show what kind of an ‘individual’ you are. Most of us are caught in the group trance of ‘individualism’. A few of us are trying to snap out of it.
I’m not much of a one for the monotheistic religions, but it’s clear that where they have receded, the corporations have moved in. Been into an Apple store recently? It’s like a temple. Same with Nike World. Are you a ‘Mac’ person? How extremely individual of you. That will be £1000 please. Oh, and next year we’re bringing out a slightly different kind, and if you don’t get that one, you won’t be a proper Mac person anymore. That’ll be another £1000 please.
So we need some way to move forward that doesn’t involve obedience to some god we don’t believe in, and nor does it require us to be manipulated by corporations in an attempt to fill the void where our beliefs and identity should be. Personally, I think Buddhism has a lot to offer there, but I wasn’t on the panel this year.
I did get to put my oar in for a short while though.
I started with “When I was younger, I couldn’t think of anything more boring than religion.”
I went on to talk about how the badge of Christian or Buddhist or Muslim wasn’t the most interesting thing about religion. What religion is really about is making sense of our lives. Why are we here? What the hell is going on? How should I live?
Questions like that remain highly relevant and will always be so. I would argue they are spiritual questions. Perhaps we could even call them ‘religious’ ones. I argued that ‘religious’ broadcasting should have that as its focus, rather than ‘Here is a programme about the meaning of Easter’.
Several people came up to me afterwards to say they thought this was a really important comment. Including one of the religion presenters on the Beeb. Someone from the Bible Society gave me her card. I met a really cool documentary film-maker from Denmark too. He said ‘You took the words right out of my mouth.’ It turned out he was Buddhist.
So it seems that people of various religious backgrounds are interested in the bigger, deeper, more fundamental questions, and they makes sense of those through their religion. When we focus on what makes us tick, and why we do what we do, we can all sit down, talk about what matters to us, and get along fine. It’s when we focus on the particular badge, faith, weird clothes and funny walks we do that we get into fights about who’s got it right.
It reminds me of that story about the blind men and the elephant. But that’s for another time. It’s been a long day so I’m going to sign out and chill my head out a bit. I’d be interested to hear what other people think about this stuff. Comments most welcome.