I would like to preface this by saying that I am currently in the midst of having an identity crisis when it comes to my religion. I grew up as a Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country. On one hand, choosing to not believe is a hard thing to do, but on the other hand, none of the established organized religions really do a good job of making me choose their side either, what with all the sexism, homophobia, and other prejudice and stuff. So just know that about me.
But regardless, this is something I’ve thought about a lot lately. I actually wrote a lot about it when I was in the Middle East. I think there’s something about being so close to the center of a lot of major religions, whether I subscribe to those religions or not. There’s also something about being so close to a lot of religious and sectarian conflict — you can’t help but think about it.
I was at an art gallery in Amman, overlooking the classic Jordanian skyline, drinking a strawberry smoothie in the glaring hot summer day. It was a Friday. I remember because most places were closed that day, but this gallery was open. There were many art works inspired by Islam, and I was happy to see that. Here’s what I wrote then:
“Religious identities are so curious. Where did it all even start? I guess for people who believe in God, the prophets, angels, and the likes, and subscribe to a religion, the answer is easy. Religious identities come from the religion itself, and the pioneers of the religious establishments (i.e., prophets and such). But it’s really curious for those who chose not to believe. How would they explain religious identity? Maybe as like a corrupt institution started by those with strong imaginations? Maybe.
But regardless of where it came from, individual religious identities are a curious thing. I used to think that the regular prayers that Muslims do five times a day as just something I do, and it’s something I always have to do. But now that I’ve strayed away from it (sorry parents and other family), it’s so interesting to see just how much of the religion stays with me and becomes part of my identity, even when I don’t actively practice the religion itself. For example, I still fast, I still don’t eat pork, but I drink, I do things that go against what Islam taught me. Individual religious identities are so interesting because of the negotiations one has to make to accommodate other aspects of one’s identity.
But collective religious identities are a whole different beast. They can be very oppressive simply because they are more monolithic. The directions they’re going very much depends on the religious leaders. That’s why for those who subscribe to a collective religious identity (which means you either practice an organized religion, more or less), critical thought is really important, and empathy is really important. Sadly though, that’s never really the case.”
That’s what I had to say on the subject six months ago. Earlier today in Paris, cartoonists and journalists for Charlie Hebdo magazine were murdered by gunmen, who reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) before opening fire on live human beings. Throughout many years, many others who claim to be Muslims shouted “Allahu Akbar” before opening fire at countless innocent others: men, women, children, elderly, Muslims, Atheists, Christians, Yazidis, and more. Many others don’t shout “Allahu Akbar,” but they still took other human lives with the belief that that is what their God wanted.
Yes, terrorism is not just about individual extremism, there’s many other complex issues at place like colonialism, economic, social, political problems et al. But just for a sec, look at these people who murdered others in the name of God. I don’t understand how people can be so selfish and so astonishingly arrogant that they have the audacity to think they know what God would have wanted for others who maybe have disrespected God (or the idea of God) in some way. These people who kill, they’re people. They’re humans, and they think they know what God wants? Gimme a break.
I think that’s my whole problem with religion. It’s not that I have a problem with God, it’s that I have a problem with God’s biggest fans. They’re just humans, and humans are imperfect and oftentimes corrupt. Religious institutions are still institutions, which means they have a hierarchy and a power dynamic, and they’re oftentimes run by the privileged few (read: straight cis male). These men often think they know God so well that they proclaim themselves to be kings of the world who can make decisions for other people. When there’s a hierarchy, there’s bound to be inequality, and I don’t want to be part of a system that enforces that.
Most of all, from what I’ve seen, a collective religious identity assumes that people are their religions, not that the religion is a part of the person. It essentializes people. Like Catholics can’t believe in anything else but Catholicism? Or Muslims aren’t also complex human beings who can make choices for themselves, even if those choices may go against Islamic teachings? I don’t want to be part of a system that boxes me out of convenience.
I don’t consider myself religious, but I am pretty spiritual. I pray before I go to bed because if there is a God somewhere out there, I hope God keeps the spiders and weird insects out of my room. I pray when I want to achieve something because maybe if there is a God somewhere out there, then God can help with that. I believe in God, but I believe that each religion are just providing a way to get to the same thing: an easier time with living in the world, and heavenly atonement for those worldly struggles (I guess? I don’t know. That last bit sounds too romantic, but I’ll just go with it for now). But the point is, my relationship with God is my relationship with God, and I do my best with it. If God doesn’t like it, okay, but if other people don’t like that relationship, well sorry but this is a party they’re just not invited to. I mean really, who needs religions? We’re all pretty much just trying to do the best we can while being nice to each other. Isn’t that what every religion teaches anyway?
If you subscribe to an organized religion, know that there’s always a way to make it better. Or you can also ditch systems run by humans who think they know God better than you do and just do you. If you don’t believe in God, I believe that you’ll make it through this weird-ass world cause you’re strong independent people. But just please, let’s be nice to each other while we’re doing all that.
“I don’t know about you, but I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of the Perpetual Astonishment” — Kurt Vonnegut