Your religion is an accident

I have often thought about the fact that what religion you are is usually something determined by your birth. If you were born in a Muslim country, you’d probably be Muslim, in a Jewish country, you’d be Jewish, etc. Very few people actually make a conscious choice to BE this religion or that. I’m sure if I’d been born in China, I wouldn’t be Muslim, and I’m sure if a Chinese person had been born in Saudi Arabic, they would be Muslim. It’s just an accident of birth, for most people.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, one of South Africa’s most famous anti-apertheid fighters, makes this point in his new book God is not Christian, and other provocations.

They tell the story of a drunk who crossed the street and accosted a pedestrian, asking him, “I shay, which ish the other shide of the shtreet?” The pedestrian, somewhat nonplussed, replied, “That side, of course!” The drunk said, “Shtrange. When I wash on that shide, they shaid it wash thish shide.” Where the other side of the street is depends on where we are. Our perspective differs with our context, the things that have helped to form us; and religion is one of the most potent of these formative influences, helping to determine how and what we apprehend of reality and how we operate in our own specific context.

Tutu goes on to say:

My first point seems overwhelmingly simple: that the accidents of birth and geography determine to a very large extent to what faith we belong.

I don’t know what significant fact can be drawn from this — perhaps that we should not succumb too easily to the temptation to exclusiveness and dogmatic claims to a monopoly of the truth of our particular faith. You could so easily have been an adherent of the faith that you are now denigrating, but for the fact that you were born here rather than there.

This has always been my problem with religions. They too often exclude certain people and include others. This has bothered me because you could easily have been a member of the group that is being excluded. In fact, the circle of who is included seems to be getting smaller and smaller for the major monotheistic religions. Now, to be a Muslim, I apparently have to cover my hair and refrain from mixing with men. Whatever happened to saying the shahada and then being a Muslim on your own terms? Anyway, I digress.

We should in humility and joyfulness acknowledge that the supernatural and divine reality we all worship in some form or other transcends all our particular categories of thought and imagining, and that because the divine — however named, however apprehended or conceived — is infinite and we are forever finite, we shall never comprehend the divine completely.

When we read the classics of the various religions in matters of prayer, meditation, and mysticism, we find substantial convergence, and that is something to rejoice at. We have enough that conspires to separate us; let us celebrate that which unites us, that which we share in common.

What I have always wondered about is the declining spirituality in a number of countries, including the Netherlands, where religion is sometimes seen as old-fashioned. But that is reducing spirituality to religion, which it certainly is not. Spirituality is accepting that life is not solely about reason, logic, rationality, hard science, objectivity, and capitalism. That life also has other facets: emotional, spiritual, and all other types of knowledges that have been discredited by the Euro-American modernity project. I recently watched a video by Bertrand Russell on why he does not believe in God, and he replied that he had no reason to, since there is no hard proof.

Is that what life is now? We only believe in things we have “hard proof” in? When I feel God on a sunny day in the park, I should dismiss it because I can’t prove it? When I fall in love with someone and decide I want to spend the rest of my life with them, I should ignore it because I can’t prove it? When I tear up watching a baby try and stand up, I should control myself because emotion is bad and reason is good?

No thank you.

Our God would be too small if he was not also the God of Gandhi: if God is one, as we believe, then he is the only God of all his people, whether they acknowledge him as such or not. God does not need us to protect him. Many of us perhaps need to have our notion of God deepened and expanded. It is often said, half in jest, that God created man in his own image and man has returned the compliment, saddling God with his own narrow prejudices and exclusivity, foibles and temperamental quirks. God remains God, whether God has worshippers or not.

Do I believe God is out there? Yes.

Do I have bar charts, lab test results and fancy equations to prove it? No.

But I won’t reduce God to that, and I won’t give in to this ridiculous modernity project idea that your emotions are useless and you should only live your life rationally.

Ha. What kind of life would that be?

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10 thoughts on “Your religion is an accident

  1. This was very inspirational thank you. It often sounds like the “speech” I give people who come down on me for believing in God. “Its not rational” is the favorite argument.

  2. Praise the Lord. Probably everyone I know would tell you that I am one of the most rational people they know. And I – once a raving atheist – chose a religion for myself at age 15. You could say it was an accident. I just happened to be in a place where this religion was being preached – not that anyone pressured me to accept it, nor for that matter was I in the market for a religion – and… it turned out God does exist. Science has its tools, knowledge of God has its tools. I am sure that I used both sets of tools at the time, I am sure I passed a certain judgment on the information being imparted to me, concerning its reasonableness, and I also used other means to become aware of the invisible presence of God in a direct manner. It does make life interesting when I am dealing with both ‘rationalists’ and with people who were raised in the religion in which they grew up. Probably both sets of people take a dim view of me. Do I look like I care? 😛

  3. “Whatever happened to saying the shahada and then being a Muslim on your own terms?”

    AMEN! Raise the bar, challenge the naysayers and make your own way. It’s completely different to live in a country where you are surrounded by people who share your religion, pray exactly the same way you do and continue to practice that religion the same way their parents and generations of people all over the country did for thousands of years.

    American Muslims have the gift of choice and the room to explore. Crafting our own version, our own recipe for the best life full of belief, spirituality and peace that fits our journey. Often times it is more challenging to make your own path, you make mistakes, you learn and you grow, but in the end it is your journey with God.

  4. “Do I believe God is out there? Yes. Do I have bar charts, lab test results and fancy equations to prove it? No. But I won’t reduce God to that, and I won’t give in to this ridiculous modernity project idea that your emotions are useless and you should only live your life rationally.”

    Bingo. This is precisely why i strongly dislike the popular movement within modern Islamic movements to try to prove the veracity of the Qur’an and Islam with science. No, can’t be done. Isn’t it, simply, bordering the boundaries of shirk/idolatry? I think it is.

    And this is the point I walked away after recently “reading” (listening, actually) to Karen Armstrong’s book, “The Case for God.” The modern (rational) conception of God would be incomprehensible to pre-modern believers. This has started my own explorations of what pre-modern (pre-western scientific revolution) peoples conceived of their religion, in my case Islam. Not sure where it will take me though.

  5. Of course this could be extended to what race you are born…being born white in America gives some people a sense of superiority…as if they had a hand in when and where they were born or something. There should be a law that a child cannot declare himself/herself a follower of any particular religion until the age of 25…and only after exposure to ALL religions out there. Of course, choosing to not choose a religion to follow should also be an option at all times.

  6. Very interesting post! I enjoyed it. I agree that emotions have their place. I get annoyed when people dismiss emotions as if they are some inferior aspect that women possess in abundance compared to men. Like it’s a bad thing to hurt with those who hurt and care for others… really?

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