By Joyous Agnos, New Age Islam
20 Jan 2013
I’ve been fascinated by religion for as long as I can remember. I suppose there are convoluted psychological reasons for this. Maybe, deep down, I was utterly insecure and desperately craved a powerful father figure who would solve all of life’s many problems for me. Hence, perhaps, my need to believe in an invisible omnipotent being. Maybe my need for belief in religion stemmed from a refusal to think that life is just about taking birth, growing up, eating, playing, marrying, growing old and dying, and my insistence that there must certainly be a greater purpose lurking behind this seemingly meaningless drama. Whatever the reason may be, I’ve been dabbling in different religions almost all my life.
You would think I am definitely capricious and even mentally unstable, what with my flitting from one religion to another all these years---Christianity, Islam, Ahmadiyya, Hinduism and Bahaism and now no conventional religion at all but still religious in a way—but you are free to think what you want and it doesn’t matter to me. You may pride yourself in your ‘stability’ and ‘dedicated commitment’ for faithfully conforming all your life to just one religion—almost definitely the religion that you’ve unthinkingly and uncritically accepted from your parents and have grown up firmly believing in. But, if you ask me, the ‘stability’ and ‘commitment’ that you boast of is, I suspect, simply a cover-up for your refusal, born of laziness or fear, to explore the truth on your own or to admit that your beliefs might be wrong. For my part, I know and honestly admit that I’ve been ‘unstable’, being unable to stick to one religion for too long, but that’s just another term for refusing to conform to other peoples’ dogmatic truth-claims.
You might want to know why for many years I hopped from one religion to another and now find myself quite comfortable in not needing to have any religious identity whatsoever while still not considering myself irreligious. There aren’t any complex theological explanations for this, contrary to what you may expect. Put simply, it was the dogmas that cannot be substantiated or morally defended of a particular religion that soon made me lose interest in it, goading me on to another religion, whose dogmas seemed, at first, less unconvincing or more morally edifying or appealing. But, soon enough, I would discover that in this other religion, too, there were dogmas that I couldn’t coerce myself into believing—on rational or moral grounds—and this would propel me on to a third religion. In this way, I kept flitting from one religion to another, driven by my inability to force myself to continue to believe in what I soon began to regard as the unacceptable or unbelievable dogmatic claims of each religion, till I finally realized that I simply had no need to believe in any religion or set of dogmatic claims at all. By the time I arrived at this stage, I had lost the psychological need to believe in any religious dogma whatsoever. I now realized that, at least for me, what mattered was being, rather than believing.
Arriving at this point after a long and arduous journey, my understanding of religion underwent a complete transformation. I lost all interest in religion, as conventionally understood as a dogmatic belief system. I could no longer be a ‘believer’ in any dogma that wasn’t based on my own personal experience. I felt it an insult to my intelligence and moral worth to have to force myself to believe in beings and supposedly ‘holy’ persons whom I had never personally encountered in order to earn the pleasure of the divine or gain entry into paradise—which is what most religions, conventionally understood, require of you. I refused to force myself to believe, as some religions insist you must, in miraculous happenings that supposedly took place several hundred or thousand years ago as necessary to my salvation, for I had never seen those happenings myself. I didn’t see why I needed to believe in a particular theory about what happens after death in order to be ‘saved’. I could wait for my own death to discover the answer to this for myself, instead of blindly accepting anyone else’s opinion. How could I insist that angels existed when I had never seen one?
No, I firmly decided, I could no longer be religious if religion meant belief—in things that I had not personally seen, heard or experienced. And that pretty much ruled out my believing in any of the religions as conventionally understood. I came to see the insistence on dogmatic belief as a major fetter on human freedom, as an enormous barrier on the spiritual path, as well as the major divide between the different religions and their adherents, and, hence, the principal cause of inter-religious antagonism.
At the same time, my inability and unwillingness to believe in this sense enabled me to discover that it was possible to conceive of a different sort of religiousness, one that was free from the heavy burden of being forced to believe in dogmas, in some cases plainly immoral, that conventional religions impose on ‘believers’. In this way of understanding religiousness, it was your quality as a person, the way you lived your life, from moment to moment, rather than the content of your beliefs and dogmas about the ‘supernatural’ that determined and shaped your religiosity. It didn’t matter at all what beliefs and dogmas you clung to, if at all. It was you, rather than your beliefs, that was the centre of this way of imagining the religious life. All that was important in this human-centric, as opposed to god-centric, religiousness was what sort of human being you were—loving or hate-driven, compassionate or greedy, aware or unaware and so on. And so, gradually, being began to take the place that belief had once occupied for me.
Once beliefs dropped, being replaced by being, I no longer needed to force myself to have faith in unreasonable or immoral dogmas—that is to say, in religions as conventionally understood. No longer did I need to agonize about defending religious beliefs from critique and attack. No longer did I have the desperate psychological need to hold any such beliefs in order to make sense of my life and give me hope to carry on. I could be religious without having to be a ‘believer’, without having to believe anything that wasn’t based on my own experience.
This did not mean that I ruled out completely the possible reality of the ‘supernatural’ realm altogether. There may well be forces, laws or beings that we cannot perceive, I admitted, but there was no need for me to hold any particular beliefs about them in order to lead a virtuous life. These matters were, I realized, possible mysteries that we mortals could only speculate about but never fathom, and so were best left as they were. Our beliefs about them were always going to be limited, in any case, by our own human frailty and so were always going to be open to doubt and dispute. The ‘supernatural’ could take care of itself, and my beliefs about it were immaterial to it and even to myself. All that mattered to me now was the quality my own being—the sort of person I was. Moreover, I realized, admitting that I had no firm knowledge of the reality or otherwise of the possible ‘supernatural’ realm was a much more honest position than clinging onto dogmatic claims about them, which is what most ‘believers’ are expected to do, often at the cost of their own integrity.
That, in brief, is the story of my eventful journey from belief to being and of stumbling upon a new, and, at least for me, a much more acceptable and liberating understanding of religiousness.