Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Let's Talk About Religion

Chart from Indiaat2050.com

Is it still a social faux pas to bring up religion when socializing? My parents were adamant about this when I was growing up, i.e. no religion or politics as conversation topics in social situations. However, because of recent events, it seems like everyone is talking about religion, in one way or another. What is the effect of religion on an individual?

Let's talk about religion, i.e. the experience of religion in a person's life and the effects it may or may not have. Usually, religion enters a person's life at a very young age through parents who want to build a strong moral foundation in their children. It doesn't matter which religion either. I think this applies to all religions. As a person grows up, he or she may question the religion or not. But the religion will affect how a person views the world and other people, how he interacts with people, and how open he is to new ideas. The more extreme a person's religious beliefs, the more closed the person's mind, in my experience. I think this is true no matter which religion. Some religions foster more open thinking than others, and are inclusive rather than exclusive.

Norwood Baptist Church in Cincinnati similar to church I attended
I've been thinking about this for many, many years. My parents brought me up in the Southern Baptist church because my paternal grandmother was the oldest member of it in our town. My parents were concerned that I have a solid moral foundation to govern my behavior in the world.  As a child I bought into the Baptist teachings completely, but when I entered my teens, I began noticing things.  For example, how devout the church members could be on Sundays but not the other six days.  Or how brutally judgmental the church members could be about other people in the church doing the same things the members had been doing themselves. It disgusted me and made me sick to my stomach every time I walked into that church.  I finally left it when I was 15, totally of my own accord, based on my observations of the hypocrisy I'd observed all around me.

My father was concerned about my morals (he needn't have been) and insisted that I attend church on Sundays when I was in high school.  He told me he didn't care which church.  He also made church-going a condition for his permission for me to participate in school field trips to New York City to see shows on Broadway. Bribes, in other words, to lure me to attend church. During those years, I attended every church in town at least once, all the Protestant churches and the Catholic church, sometimes with friends. But not the Synagogue. I was shocked when both parents prohibited me from attending Synagogue with a Jewish friend. Their reason? The service was on Friday evening, not on Sunday. Flimsy, at best.

In college, I took a class about world religions. There are a lot of them -- Protestant sects and denominations, Catholicism, Hinduism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism (and its different types), Islam (2 sects), Judaism (Orthodox and Reformed), paganism, and Wicca, among others.  I felt particularly drawn to Buddhism, but was still feeling disgusted with organized religion. I really didn't like that in most religions the emphasis was on clergy being the conduit for a person's connection with God (or Allah, or Yahweh). After college, I remained open to attending religious services at various churches but did not settle at one.  The human need for ritual fascinated me as well as the need for an all-powerful entity. I also began to regard all religious writings as being the product of human beings and their beliefs rather than being truly from the Divine. However, my moral foundation never changed and it remains today probably stronger than ever. What I have learned about religion and moral foundations: being the member of a religion does not guarantee that a person has a solid moral foundation.

Salman Rushdie (Photo: Graham Turner/Guardian)

In 1989, in response to the Fatwa on Salman Rushdie by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini, I decided it was time to delve deeper into Islam. I read the novel that caused the Fatwa, The Satanic Verses, and then I read the Koran. I was surprised by how close the Koran was to The Bible, especially the Old Testament. I learned how important it was to Muslims that the Prophet Mohammad not be depicted in any way. It is deeply offensive to them, a visceral belief in the commandment "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above...Thou shalt not bow down thyself before them..." as it pertains to the Prophet Mohammad. So while Rushdie's book was not offensive to any other religions, and most people from other religions didn't understand what he had done to offend the Ayatollah, Muslims were offended.  Rushdie also had to have known that what he'd written in the novel would offend.  I was glad that I'd made the effort to learn and understand what was going on.

In 1994, I saw a film that moved me profoundly.  It was Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha. This movie reawakened my interest in Buddhism and propelled me into a year-long study of it. This study would influence my spiritual beliefs from then on. Buddhism is an inclusive spiritual belief system that makes the most sense to me of all the religions I've experienced in my life. Most people know of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, and the belief in reincarnation and karma, or have heard of Zen. But how many know and understand the belief in nothingness or impermanence? When asked by Bertolucci about using "Little Buddha" as the title of his movie, the Dalai Lama reportedly replied with amusement that there was a little Buddha in everyone. This idea is also in Hinduism in the word namaste which means "The Spirit in me greets the Spirit in you." 

From my experience and perspective, religions that exclude people are not for me.  We are all connected by a divine energy consciousness, so excluding anyone doesn't make sense. Any religion that rules through clergy who use fear and intimidation is also not for me. Right now in human history, however, there are many religious beliefs. It seems each teaches it is the right religion, the right way to attain salvation or a place in heaven, or the beliefs of the chosen. Some do not recognize that women are spiritual beings, equals of men, but seek to oppress women as a man's property. These religions are also not for me. It has also been an ongoing sorrow for me that Christianity, the religion of my childhood, is a religion that excludes people, sets conditions for acceptance into the fold, and requires subservience and obedience rather than for people to just be as they are in all their magnificent creativity....

Does it bother you that some religions exclude people?  That some religions condemn "unbelievers" rather than including them with love, kindness and compassion and without conditions?  That religion can have such a powerful influence upon the way individuals think about the world and the people around them?


Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Established religions that are highly judgmental and that exclude or shun anyone of whom they disapprove are the opposite of what a religion should be, to me. (Ironically, that makes me judgmental, too.) And then many people make up their own interpretations and use those to undertake campaigns, crusades, jihads, etc. Somehow I have made my way in life with a moral compass based initially on Catholic teachings, but by now I've added in bits of philosophy from Native American and Eastern religions including Buddhism. If I were going to study one belief system today, it would be Buddhism.

Gina said...

Thanks for the comment, Nancy! I couldn't agree more. It is sad how much evil has been done in the name of one religion or another.

Daughter Number Three said...

I find myself better off without religion, but appreciate hearing about your path. Buddhism is one of the two that comes the closest to something I could get behind (along with Quakerism) but they each have essential problems from my point of view... gee, I guess that's going to happen when I don't believe there's any kind of higher power out there, or life after death. But clearly, religion is not necessary to have moral compass.