Every morning, for as long as I can remember, I wake up with an urge to play the piano. My family tell me this desire was evident from when I was only a few months old (and, so surprised they were, they took photos to prove it) and it has been strong all my life. When I asked to learn to play, my parents told me that I would be able to learn piano after I started school. Apparently I returned angry from my first day of school because the kindergarten teacher, despite the presence of an upright piano at the side of the classroom, had not given any instruction on how to play it. Certainly, my desire to play existed long before I had any lessons, or any beliefs or opinions about whether or not I could play or whether or not I was musical, and before I even knew what music was. This desire, insistent and persistent, led to lessons and to years of practice, which in turn led to some ability, as well as a (justified, true) belief that I can indeed play.
Some people have similarly strong desires to engage in what we often refer to as religious practices – to sit quietly in solitude, to still the mind, to listen carefully, to meditate, to visit churches and temples, to commune with what may be non-material realms, to do Yoga – and they may experience these desires independently of any religious beliefs. Arguably, such desires are the origin of the non-belief-based “religions” such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism, as well as of the mystical strains of belief-based religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have minority mystic strains – eg, the Kabbala in Judaism, and Sufism in Islam. One can be a mystic Christian with very few if any actual religious beliefs, and certainly no beliefs that are particularly “Christian”, as conversations with many Quakers or Unitarians can attest. I am expressing views here that I have before, there and there.
Not having any beliefs, but a strong urge to do something, is a very different state of mind to merely being skeptical about the matters in question, a position Andrew Sullivan expresses. Many in the Western philosophical tradition seem unable to imagine how one can engage in a practice without first having a belief which justifies or supports doing this practice. But that inability of imagination just shows the hold that the Christian confessional tradition has over the minds of even our sharpest secular philosophers, such as Norm. In a later post, Norm says he is contesting “the thesis of the unimportance of belief there” (his emphasis). But, as any Zen adept will tell you: belief (in the form of enlightenment) is what follows regular zazen practice, not what precedes or accompanies it, and it may only occur after a life-time of practice. Belief is very unimportant in many of these practices, to the point where someone can even write a book called, Buddhism Without Beliefs.
Finally, en passant, it is a pity that Norm resorts to speculation about the motives of the people he disagrees with, as if doing so were somehow to weaken their arguments. None of us can truly know the motives of others, so such speculation is ultimately fruitless, as well as being unbecoming.
FOOTNOTE: I am not the only person with a daily compulsion to play the piano:
And yet playing the piano – or trying to play the piano – is now such a part of my life that a day now feels incomplete without having sat at the keyboard for even two minutes. . . . All this may one day become clear. Until then I shall stumble on, feeling that the act of playing the piano each day does in some way settle the mind and the spirit. Even five minutes in the morning feels as though it has altered the chemistry of the brain in some indefinable way. Something has been nourished. I feel ready – or readier – for the day.” (Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian)