Thought I’d write about my thoughts about religion, and how my perspective on it has changed from my childhood to the present day.
I was raised in a Hindu household. We didn’t eat any beef. We went to the temples on special occasions. My mum had an altar with a pantheon of gods, and she’d pray to them, uh… religiously. Some things about it still stick with me – the religious music she would play, the primary oil lamp that would be left lit all night, the ringing of the bell, the incense smoke. We also had other odd superstitions – we didn’t eat watermelons (my dad ‘gave it up’ for some prayer thing), didn’t wear black (our ‘local god’ didn’t like it).
From a young age I was very aware of the range of religions that existed, and how different people practiced them differently. Being in Singapore, I was surrounded by Chinese temples and muslim Mosques. There was a church across the road from my house, and I went to an Anglican Kindergarten and Primary school. I distinctly remember being amused that there were many different kinds of Christianity.
I also had a curiosity for ancient Greek and Roman gods, and all sorts of other creation myths and mythology in general. I had an Egypt fascination at some point, and thought it was interesting that they had their own Gods too – Anubis, Horus, Ra, Osiris and so on. I thought it was interesting how there were parallels – there’s always some sort of Sun god, there’s always some Death-related god. Nature, fire, sea, water, harvest, Moon, fertility, etc.
It seemed clear to me from the beginning that everybody just picked and chose (or inherited) different imaginary friends, different holy toys to play with. I could never shake the fact that it seemed like the holy men in Temples were playing dress up with dolls, particularly with the hindu ceremony where they bathe the idol and then dress it up, show it a mirror, etc. Definitely seemed Barbie-ish. (As you might imagine, I really loved Sanjay’s Super Team when I got to see it.)
I did vaguely appreciate the ritualistic elements. I found them lengthy and tedious, but also somewhat interesting. The fire and smoke and walking in circles. None of it made sense in a scientific way. I was at the time curious about space, and electricity, and magnets, and cells, and earthquakes and so on – and everything in the world generally seemed to have natural explanations – so gods, in the form that they were presented to me, didn’t seem all that compelling. It was obviously just fairy tales like everything else. God was obviously another Santa Claus.
But I still put myself down as Hindu on the forms, if there were any forms. I did always get tickled by the idea of “Freethinker” as an option instead of Atheist – didn’t it imply that all the others weren’t free? Still giggle about it a little.
Sometime in JC I think I would discover Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and I found it quite absorbing. Before that I might’ve encountered some atheistic arguments in KI (Knowledge and Inquiry), and I found the arguments quite persuasive. They provided a framework for what I was already more or less convinced of. I found Dawkins’ book compelling, though at the time I hadn’t yet encountered the online communities that made a huge deal about it.
I was 11 years old when September 11 happened, and it did seem true to me that religious conflicts were part of the problem in the world – part of why the Middle East was such a mess, part of why terrorism happened. I didn’t know the details, but religious conflicts did seem like… people getting into arguments over their imaginary friends, like people arguing on Tumblr about which TV show is better, only when people disagreed, they got violent and killed one another.
I found the idea of a Godless universe quite compelling, and even reassuring. (This was before I learned about the Heat Death, which would throw me into a second round of existential despair from which I still haven’t fully recovered.)
Over time I found myself feeling rather smug and superior to people who were religious. I don’t think I was super deliberate about it, but I did mock and belittle others for their religious beliefs. I suppose I was insecure and eager to prove myself as superior in some way.
Eventually I began to see that I was annoying or hurting people that I cared about, which was an outcome I did not like.
I began to discover after a while that many of the most strident atheists (who tend to be overrepresented in religious discussions) were those who were abused or maligned by their religious upbringings, by their families, by the Church, by institutions. Especially so for LGBT folks in conservative towns, and so on. This didn’t accurately represent my experience. I didn’t have any big chip on my shoulder – I was just a smug teenager who felt like he was smarter than others, but I didn’t have any deep resentment towards religion. It never forced me to develop a guilt complex (I developed that one entirely by myself, ha ha). So I don’t hate God, I just never really cared for him and assume that the feeling’s mutual.
A friend across the aisle
Around my NS years I played in a band (Gloria) with Caleb, a friend who identified as Christian (a fan of Christ, but not so much of the fanclub). He wrote a great essay called Death Of A Halo, which was a great read. The band never turned out to be anything amazing, but I did greatly enjoy the long conversations we would have on cross-island train ride from Bedok to.. Clementi? Boon Lay? I can’t remember where we got off, but it was Very Far Away.
Caleb was the first guy I remember thinking, “wow, this guy is thoughtful, measured, reasonable, recognizes that there are faults and flaws… etc”. I felt like we had more in common despite having superficially different labels, and I enjoyed exploring that mutual space. I remember a conversation or two over beer about what it meant to be a good person, to do the right thing, and those were things I really appreciate. Surely, if everyone else could have the conversations we did, we’d all be kinder to one another? I still hope.
As time went by, I got really tired of my own superiority complex, of trying to trap ‘ignorant’ religious folks into ‘gotcha’ arguments. It became very predictable, which was boring.
Atheist is a loaded word. Choosing to pin that label to your lapel is like lying down in a chalk outline that someone else drew on the ground. I’m not interested in that. I’m kind of jealous of people for whom religion plays a therapeutic role in life. Like Richard Feynman, I find religion too provincial, too small, too local, too human. The universe is too big and there is too much suffering on this rock for there to be a benevolent daddy in the sky who’s looking out for us. I find myself thinking of a couple of responses other people have had – “How dare you”, one man said (Hitchens?) he would say if he met god. “What’s up with aggressive childhood luekemia? What’s up with malaria? Why?” And I believe there’s a quote somewhere – maybe apocryphal – about how there’s something scratched into the walls of a chamber in Auschwitz- “If there is a God, he will have to beg my forgiveness”. And for the most part I think religion might be harmless, or even beneficial, but when it’s implicated in human suffering, when it stifles human inquiry that’s a damn shame.
Suppression is unproductive
But I don’t believe we should have to suppress religion any more than we should have to suppress fairy tales. We don’t need to turn it into an us-vs-them thing. I get very tired of the “religious wars have destroyed more…” “oh, but Stalin and Hitler were atheists…” exchanges. They really never achieve anything– it’s a losing battle for everyone involved, because we pick sides and then naturally begin to despise the Other. The common thread in all human suffering, all disfiguring of humanity, is humanity itself. I think Victor Frankl wrote that people are either decent or indecent, and I think that’s almost independent of whether or not you believe in something mystical. You can be a good or bad person either way. We want more goodness in the world, and less badness, and we don’t have to frame those things in religious terms.
I now see religion as a manifestation of human desires. There are a few instances that come to mind. One was the death of a friend – his wake was held at his family’s church, and his loved ones sobbed as they sang hymns at his coffin. Religion provided some comfort to them then, I would never take it away from them. On happier notes, I’ve experienced the joy of church weddings for a couple of other friends. There was this delightful symbolic gesture at one, where each family had a candle, and they together lit a third candle which was the couple’s. And everyone sang, gathered together in a lovely chapel on a saturday morning.
I suppose the takeaway there is that human togetherness is a wonderful thing. There are many ways to celebrate it. Here I find myself thinking about how BMT passing out parades have become more dramatic, taking place at the floating platform at the Esplanade – letting conscripts see the nation that they’re defending With Their Lives. Some may say there’s something problematic about that, making the State the new Church, but eh. We have so many things like that, at all scales. We have friendship rituals, nicknames for one another, drinks, sports, live music concerts, festivals. It’s part of what it means to be a human, and even if religion were somehow completely eradicated in the conventional sense, we would find all sorts of new ways to manifest our fervor.
I do think there’s a wisdom in the primitive tribal drum circles, the chanting, the dancing. It’s how we grasp at some sort of transcendence, and if we want to call that God, then yeah, I’m religious too. I believe that there’s something ‘magical’ that happens when people come together in service of something greater than themselves. It can almost definitely be explained scientifically – it’s something that happens in our bodies, in our minds, a certain synchronicity, like a flock of birds, like a swarm, a superorganism.
Life IS a glorious miracle despite all of the pain and suffering, God or no God. There’s a real splendor in great music, great architecture, even in the modern banks and shopping malls and the digital realm. I see “God” in all of that, I just don’t think that anybody has a monopoly on the origin story, that there’s any one way to tell it.
Alan Watts has some great perspectives on this that I enjoy – that basically all of the universe is really just one great thing, and we’re all IT, manifestations of it, the divine. So it makes perfect sense to me that someone might say “my religion is music”, or dance, or film, or gardening, or making minature boats inside bottles.
Sometimes I like to fantasize about what the future of religion might be like, once our grandchildren (or theirs) have all mostly grown up with a sense of the multiplicity of possible Gods, and are able to appreciate it all at a meta-textual level – that is, to enjoy the teachings without feeling compelled to become zealots. I imagine cathedrals of compassion, of contemplation, a testament to connection, to death, to the triumph of the best of humanity, the human spirit. I think humor will have to be at the heart of it – what use is a serious God without a sense of humor? What use is life without laughter? The more I see the less I know, but what has definitely become clearer over the years is that one must imagine Sisyphus LOL-ing. If we aren’t laughing, we’re missing out.
These days, I prefer to not even describe myself as an atheist. That states the case a little too strongly. The truth is I don’t know. I’m agnostic. If someone asks me, “what’s your religion,” I’d say, “I don’t know, should I have one?” Because the conversation we could have then is inevitably so much more interesting than if I had said something they had a stock response for.
PS: I’m reminded now of the experience I had seeing the Mathurai Meenakshi temple in India – super-massive, huge throngs of people, just a phenomenal structure. It’s like seeing the full scale of an ant-hill after only ever seeing a few ants here and there. It made me realize that religion is a POWERFUL force for people, or of people, that moves people in a very literal way. I still haven’t fully figured out how I feel about all of that, but it was definitely something special to witness. I don’t have any answers, any wisecracks, nothing.