Foto: David Meulenbeld

‘People’s faith may change, but they don’t become unbelievers’

Marjolein de Jong8 November 2022

André van der Braak is professor of comparative philosophy of religion at VU Amsterdam. He does research into the fact that it is becoming more normal to combine religions, something he does in practice too. 

Besides being a professor, Van den Braak is also a Zen teacher. It’s only two steps from his home through the garden to the dojo where he holds weekly Zen meditations. „As a professor, I examine scientific issues through a sceptical lens. As a Zen teacher, my religious desire is important."

You study multi-religiosity. What does that mean exactly? 

„People often claim that there are fewer people of faith these days. I don’t agree. People embrace other kinds of faith. During the pillarisation, everyone had their own religion. Nowadays, there is a growing group of people who no longer feel a connection with this, and who prefer to mix and match. The need for religious identification is waning. A Christian who practises yoga, a Catholic who observes Ramadan or a Muslim who is also a Buddhist: it’s all becoming much more normal."

Do you see a difference when it comes to religions? 

„Some believers put the emphasis on devoting yourself to one tradition – on being totally committed to it. Non-religious activities are seen as apostasy, or superficial, as though you are picking out the fun stuff and are not really committed. In Buddhism it is quite common, in Islam it’s more complicated. Islam views it as a kind of infidelity. In Christianity, it varies widely: orthodox Christians are not allowed to stray from their core beliefs, while liberal Christians view it as quite normal."

Isn't it also a question of what people do alongside their religion? 

„Certainly, there are all kinds of gradations. Ramadan really feels instinctively connected with Islam. You can practise yoga, on the other hand, as a kind of exercise routine. It’s not necessarily seen as a religious activity. What we’re seeing is that people who start doing yoga become interested in the chakras and karma after a while. It gradually becomes more and more about meaning."

„If you ask people who drink ayahuasca whether they believe in God, they’ll tell you: it makes no difference, it’s not the point."

Are you recognising any other trends when it comes to experiencing religion?

„Religiosity is becoming a broader notion. Something you may think is not religious, like drinking ayahuasca (a hallucinogenic drink, Ed.) is practised as religion and religiosity. If you ask people who drink ayahuasca whether they believe in God, they’ll tell you: it makes no difference, it’s not the point. It’s about practising something and searching for a connection."

„Many people say: being religious means believing in God. But that would mean that Buddhists are not religious. In fact, religion is not about believing or not believing that God exists. Religion is about performing practices through which you try to connect with superhuman forces. The way you do that may differ: God, Allah, Mother Nature or the Tao. To me, religion is about experiencing something higher in general."


„Even if religiosity is becoming a broader notion, you rarely see this reflected in the media. I’ve noticed that religion is hardly ever a topic for discussion on talk shows. It’s as if it is has nothing to do with the world of right-minded people, or as if being religious is a bit of a curiosity, not really all right. Religion only comes up if you’re talking about subjects like vaccinations and religious communities on the fringe, like Staphorst. I think that’s a pity".

Is your research into religion and spirituality rooted in your own experience?

„Absolutely. I was a devout Catholic boy, but at 16 I started having doubts. A classmate of mine introduced me to Buddhism and meditation. To me, meditating was a revelation. I sensed something that I had never experienced before. It gave me inner peace, a way of looking at myself. I no longer lost the plot straight away if I felt strong emotions, and felt like less of a ping-pong ball reined in by conditioning and habits."

„I decided to put my Catholic faith to one side and became a confirmed Buddhist. A few years later, I came into contact with the charismatic American spiritual leader, Andrew Cohen. I moved to America because of him and his new religious congregation, where I spent 11 years in his movement. I returned to the Netherlands aged 35, disillusioned and having lost my faith."

„Sometimes it goes to their head, they think they’re God or that they’re untouchable."

What made you leave that community?

„Andrew turned out to be an authoritarian leader who could not tolerate criticism and imposed his ideas on the students. There was less and less room for my own individuality. If I mentioned this, I was told: ‘Yes, but the whole point is to put your ego aside.’ I felt more and more that there was something not quite right, that things were not OK. It simmered for quite a while, and then something snapped. Just like a bad marriage that can limp along for years, there came a point when it was over."

What can go wrong in a community like that?

„I describe where it goes wrong in my book Goeroes en charisma (‘Gurus and charisma’). Whether or not things go well depends on the leader. Sometimes it goes to their head, they think they’re God or that they’re untouchable. But disciples can also sometimes uncritically idealise the teacher and put them on a pedestal. That manifests in unhealthy dynamics. You see this in all kinds of organisations that involve leadership."

„For a while I lived the life of a yuppie, including the red sports car and great apartment in Amsterdam."

You had previously lost your Catholic faith. Then your faith in Buddhism. What was that like for you?

„Difficult. I turned my back on everything that had to do with religion. I started working at one of the major Dutch banks. For a while I lived the life of a yuppie, including the red sports car and great apartment in Amsterdam. During the 2001 crash, the internet sector collapsed and I felt that was a good time to acknowledge that I was not at all happy. That’s when I did my PhD on Nietzsche and Buddhism. My approach wasn’t purely rational; I was looking for something more sublime."

„I took up meditation again when I was writing my thesis. Zen means you don’t have to believe in anything. Simply sit on a cushion and meditate. There is no specific purpose. The path and the purpose are one. If you practise Zen meditation, and you go into the silence, you create a kind of receptiveness in which your spiritual path can unfold."

„When I was eighteen, I thought: I’m going to swap my Catholic faith for Buddhism. A kind of conversion. Later I started to realise: it’s not about one thing or another. It’s OK to combine elements. And if something turns out to be disappointing, for instance Buddhism, it doesn’t mean you have to discard everything. So I found my way back to Zen Buddhism and then later to Catholicism too. I became someone who draws inspiration from several religious traditions."

As a Zen teacher, are you also sometimes asked questions as though you are the wise spiritual man who has all the answers?

„Yes, but I try to discourage that as quickly as possible. I’ve experienced how it can get out of hand if someone gets carried away. I do understand the mechanism behind it, though. People need someone to look up to; someone who has all the answers. I try to separate that from my own feelings. Because once you start to take it personally, you’re on thin ice. I prefer to see myself as a conduit."