This is likely to be a controversial post so, if you have strong religious beliefs and/or are offended by comments about God then this is probably a good place to stop reading and to go and do something more interesting.
Since coming to the US I have been very surprised by the number of people who are religious. I don’t mean in the sense of just going to church so that the vicar will be able to speak about them personally when he conducts their funeral (as was the case with my late mother-in-law), but in the very real sense of believing they have some personal link with the divine creator and determiner of this world. Prior to coming to the US I only knew one person who was like that and he turned out to be a duplicitous liar willing to harm others for his own advancement – hope you recognise yourself Derek! (Just to avoid confusion this isn’t Derek who taught me so much about kayaking.) The people I’ve met so far in the US who profess a genuine faith in the Christian God don’t strike me in that vein at all, but, rather, as honest, sincere people of good will who try to do the right thing. Similarly in politics. I was with “the British people [who] have long appeared cautious, if not downright suspicious, of politicians who claim to be motivated by faith“. Yet, over here in the US, where it seems government and religion are, at least in theory, strictly separated that doesn’t seem to be the way of it all, with people like Mit Romney and Rick Santorum going to great lengths to flag up their Christian credentials in order to drum up the votes. What I am trying to say is that, here in the US, I have been surprised by the extent to which faith in the Christian God plays a part in both public and private life.
Reading the cancer blogs I’ve been surprised by the number of people who believe that praying to their God will remove the horrible affliction of cancer from them. Now, this, I just don’t understand at all. If your faith is such that you believe your personal connection with your God is such that He has a personal plan for you, then, presumably, you have to accept that His plan included you having cancer, and, that being the case, why would He change His mind. I mean, if God has such a detailed plan then it’s not really possible for an omniscient being to miss the little details, such as your family will miss you when you die in your twenties because He chose to give you cancer: or am I missing something? Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for anyone who can say, “the being who created me, and has power of life and death over me and all beings, has given me a disease which will kill me years before I would otherwise be expected to die, and yet I still trust him totally to remove this death sentence if I (and other people) ask him to do so”, despite the evidence that Christians die from this disease all the time. I have no wish to challenge the faith of such people, I just don’t understand it.
So, it’s fair enough to answer the question about my own belief and faith. I’m a Buddhist. Having begun attending Buddhist meditation about 16 or 17 years ago I found that the philosophy made sense to me. I was encouraged to question everything and only accept that on which I could satisfy myself. There are different Buddhist schools but my understanding is that the essence of Buddhism is the Law of Karma, of action and consequence. One explanation can be found here but there are many others. In Buddhist philosophy I have cancer not because some omnipotent being decided that I should be punished, but simply because, somewhere along the way I have given rise to a karmic action which is being resolved by my having cancer. What that action was I may or may not know. What the purpose of that action is I am not certain, but, I think I now value life more highly than I have ever done previously. I have always been aware that people die, that lives end and that much is left unfinished, but, maybe, I now see the personal value to life and how much my life means not only to me but to other people too. Maybe I realise now more than ever just how fortunate I am to have a human life and how important it is that I don’t waste it. Hopefully I will have the opportunity, thanks to the skills of many, many researchers down the years and to my medical team, to live a long and beneficial life.