Have you ever had an existential crisis? Not necessarily a serious, identity threatening one, but the kind where you stare at the mirror for a few seconds and ask yourself philosophical questions. I think I had mine at some point in elementary school, and I figure it’s more or less the same for everybody. “What happens after we die?” and “Why are we here?” and “Who am I?” are all quite a lot to handle at any age.
Many turn to religion to answer these questions. In fact, pretty much every religion began this way. One person hypothesized reasons for our existence and a few others nodded their heads while murmuring. A group then formed out of this existential guessing game, and inevitably, these answers morphed as they trickle down generation after generation, like a timeless game of telephone. What’s sad is that The Answers, originally intended to create worldwide harmony, have instead become a medium of conflict.
Just look at history. Religion has been known to hold regional power to which unbelievers represented threats, explaining atrocities like the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Salem Witch Trials, the Taliban, and other big, bad, powerful figures responsible for religious terror. As we gradually pull away from our traditional roots, however, we no longer have “the system” to blame for continuous conflict. We can try to pin devastating injustices like recent mass violence and institutionalized prejudice on the government or the media or capitalism (and certainly, they each do deserve much of the blame), but they haven’t created conflict so much as prodded it out of us.
It’s our fear that plays a central part in religious conflict, as we fear what we don’t understand, and we don’t understand that which is different. “Why can’t they be normal like me?” we might think upon meeting someone wearing a yarmulke or a burqa or a bindi (especially if they’re wearing all three). Their uniqueness threatens our own identity–no person on this planet is that self-assured. “Am I really normal?” enters our minds for the briefest of moments before we overcompensate by asserting that “No, surely they’re the abnormal ones.“ Balancing atop the hill of confidence is tough: let it push you one way and you roll towards insecurity and self-doubt; push back too hard and you tumble towards anger and hatred. We’ve ended up living in two states of terrorism; that of the world and that within ourselves. We can only change the first after starting with the second.
In general, however, it seems that the most forthcoming of advocates often reverses this approach, attempting to change the world before tempering themselves. We see people championing social justice online by posting about the idiocy and evilness of their opposition, painting a black and white image of the world. Even worse is the passive aggressive sharing of political/social “news” videos highlighting the best parts of the side with which we align and the worst parts of the other side.
And while there’s nothing wrong with any of these things or with expressing passion in general, doing so in absolute, non-negotiable terms resolves nothing and instead deepens the divide between groups. Religious discussions are no different and in fact are even trickier, as history and scripture makes it easy for people to point out flaws in other religions while using subjectivity to justify their own.
However, these critics may have a point. Some religions do in some way condone violence or prejudice in their histories and scriptures. Thus, every religious “discussion” ultimately devolves into an aggressively clumsy rap battle of scripture quotes. Treating religion this way, like a verbal pissing contest or a set of data to be analyzed, is dangerous and ultimately short-sighted, much like trying to convince a significant other that their anger is an overreaction.
To add to all the complication, we usually don’t resort to inflammatory tactics out of ill will; we hardly even do it consciously. It’s simply natural for us to treat ourselves as unique, special snowflakes and others as merely a part of their group; a shortcut to secure one’s own identity by perverting those of others. Black guy carries a gun? Get that thug off my street! we think. Police officer abuses his power? All cops are power-hungry racists! Woman wears a hijab in public? That poor, oppressed woman! No one asks why anymore; no one wants to know anybody else’s story, even if the most it would require is an uncomfortable conversation. It’s a fun but dangerous game to define a group by one of its members, and even more so vice-versa. Compared to race, gender, or sexuality, religion’s “don’t-talk-about-it” nature makes it all the more difficult for us to see the person behind the beliefs.
But that’s only one side of the story. Although I believe that religion should be fundamentally personal to discourage the categorization of people, that very categorization promotes a beautiful sense of harmony from within. For many people, religion ties with family and culture to provide them with support and connection. Kids may groan at service and parents may complain about hosting the family holiday dinner, but each of these experiences comes with personal meaning. Weekly congregational services humble us as a reminder that we’re all searching for the same answers together. Holidays give us a chance to reconnect with our loved ones, translating an objective tradition into a deeply personal memory. Why wouldn’t we want to share the love and beauty of our way of life to our kids?
Religion can also provide newfound purpose for someone with a previously unfulfilling life; a reason beyond reason to live. For some people, individual worth ties with the inexplicable divinity that faith presents. It’s the golden thread from which humanity hangs, separating us from drones relying merely on logic to independent beings with unique paths in this universe. It’s not for me, but I bow to anyone aiming for self-discovery.
The social dynamics that this creates are so difficult to navigate that it’s no wonder we don’t talk openly about religion. It provides a community of people to rely on while simultaneously “othering” those who are outside this community. The problems and benefits almost play off of one another. In ancient tribal societies, it was custom to look out for those in your own tribe while treating foreigners with hostility. Have we really grown that much? “Of course,” we’ll tell ourselves.
It might be a good starting point to voice my own beliefs (or lack thereof). I have no religious affiliation. I used to, having grown up in a strictly religious household, but praying every evening slowly became more of a tax than a tribute. I began to fear God, and I felt totally out of control of my own life. Every immoral action or thought exacerbated my anxiety, as I knew it was only a matter of time until I was punished. Hinduism doesn’t even emphasize the idea of sin or hell–in fact, it’s widely known for its acceptance of all religions as equal paths to one God–but I couldn’t dismiss my discomfort in knowing that my value derived from pleasing a theoretical being.
I believe that reason can solve every mystery in the universe. We will encounter infinite questions over the course of infinite time, but we can answer them all, like following an endless trail of breadcrumbs. Many people dismiss this notion because they romanticize the irrational and vilify science, refusing to believe that something so uninteresting and colorless can explain their unique and exciting lives. Personally, I find it beautiful, knowing that consequences to my actions don’t happen from karmic justice but rather from the combination of infinite circumstance.
Clearly, my beliefs and childhood memories are entangled, as I’m sure they are for everybody. We believe for different reasons, but we often forget what those reasons were in the first place. We forget that we’re all people united by our pursuit of the unknown; that every single belief system, whether spiritual or practical, atheist or theist, popular or fringe, is inherently irrational. We forget that no religion began with scripture, congregation, holidays, or prayer: they began as tentative convictions to explore our positions in an infinity. We forget the equality that The Questions brings us and opt for the safety of The Answers. Or maybe we haven’t forgotten anything, and we just prefer the familiarity of strife.
But the past doesn’t have to be the future. To shake this stalemate, we need to turn inwards before facing the world. To ask ourselves “Who am I?” so that we will turn and ask with an open heart, “Who are you?” (or “Who might you be?” if you’re feeling extra polite). To answer not with a “How dare you!” but with a…well, pretty much anything else besides that. And most importantly, to listen to each other’s stories rather than skim the table of contents. A tall order, but one that humanity can achieve nonetheless.
Phew, good job if you finally got through this relatively controversial post. Good luck, and may the ambiguous creator of our universe help you.