Friday, 6 August 2010

Let's keep our beliefs to ourselves

It's always best to avoid discussing religion if you can help it. Even when cornered by people eager to learn and quiz my religious beliefs, I go out of my way to say either as little as possible or nothing at all. The reason for my uncompromising approach is that I know for a fact that religion is probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest divider of people. Co-workers appear to interact effortlessly until of course one person takes offence at another's religious beliefs or lack thereof.

In the West there are those who equate atheism with intellect and therefore by process of elimination would argue that anyone who believes in the existence of God or Buddha for that matter must be a simpleton. It transpired by error rather than design a few months ago that I subscribe to the notion of a higher being and a colleague with whom I often have heated political debates sniggered in disbelief. He even asked if I was joking, thinking I presume that I was someone of sound mind who had somehow been brainwashed. He was proud to call himself an Atheist which I could just as easily found laughable but instead respected as his well thought out rational belief. This sense of understanding and tolerance is not borne out of an uncertainty in my own beliefs but rather a firmly held opinion that there are many truths. I don't think I'm in a position to say with absolute certainty that my way is better than his or vice versa. At the end of the day its about what works for you – if you’re a better person without religion then that’s fair enough, who am I to judge? Likewise if fasting or going to church or meditating helps you get through life then once again good for you. Who am I to judge?

I spotted a poster on a highway in Upstate New York which read 'There is only one way to God, through Jesus Christ' which amused me especially as I am so used to random people approaching me in the streets and asking me if I’ve met Jesus Christ as though he were some local celebrity. Yet I appreciate that while this statement is the foundation of Christianity, there are many Christians who do not subscribe to this view for the simple reason that they know that its not a practically sound. Let’s think about it for a second, it suggests that millions of people in the world who have never come across Christianity and its teachings simply because of their geographical location, are now doomed to an eternity of hell fire which I’m assuming is the opposite of heaven. I guess many of them can take comfort in the fact that ignorance is bliss so while their date in hell in sealed by some random Priest's sermon on a Sunday morning when he talks about the consequences of not accepting Jesus as your saviour – these pagans can go about their business oblivious of their fate.

Of course there are the Born-Again Christians who tell us we’re all doomed unless we repent and become one of them before we 'pop our clogs' (die). Again we can draw comfort from the fact that there is still time for those of us who have yet to embrace their truth, because so many of them have such 'colourful' pasts that there is clearly hope for the rest of us. The key from what I can tell is to stock up on the sinning, lies, even crime and then when you've had enough or been sentenced to prison, you can finally see the light. I can think of a number of men who’ve killed, maimed, heck even committed genocide and then decided to become Born-Again Christians. It's quite genius really!

Although a good chunk of people from different religions recognise that they share the same values as each other and are more influenced by the way people live their lives than the religion they follow, this practical view is unfortunately not shared by all. For instance, there is an ongoing debate with much opposition about a mosque being built two blocks away from the ground zero in New York City. The irony is that the proposed building is also meant to house a cultural centre which has as its primary purpose the promotion of religious tolerance and is backed by New York Mayor, Mike Bloomberg and a number of Jewish Leaders. Yet according to polls which have to be taken with a pinch a salt 6 in 10 New Yorkers oppose the building of the centre. It says a lot about people that they should be offended by something that seeks to encourage a better understanding of others' beliefs. It's also sad that Islam as a religion and Muslims as a whole are held responsible for the heinous acts committed by a few, obviously psychotic individuals.

I recently had a discussion/argument with a Catholic friend who remains convinced that Islam is a violent religion and encourages extremist behaviour. Much as I tried I could not convince her that most of my Muslim friends were no different from my Christian ones aside from the fact that they prayed to Allah every day and observed different religious festivals. Islamic fundamentalism in the Western world has probably done as much harm to Muslims as it has to Christians. The subconscious religious profiling which many of us practice means that Muslims are all guilty until proven innocent. There is a constant need for them to show how 'normal' they are. The task of blending in becomes even more pressing than for the average non-Muslim. It goes without saying that we should keep an open mind but in an era of countless national security threat and Western involvement in the affairs of numerous Muslim nations, our governments thrive on our collective paranoia, the bogeyman they have created has links with Al Qaeda and could be the turban wearing Sikh living next door to you. A woman wearing a hijab is judged to support extremist views even though if she may simply be reflecting her cultural upbringing and nothing more.

Whether you are Muslim or Christian or an Atheist, there is an increasing need to keep your beliefs to yourself lest people judge you. If however you are brave enough to don a hijab or a cross then you have to be thick-skinned enough to deal with the ridicule, contempt, scorn or even fear. Personally I know which option I choose.

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