New Age Islam
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Spiritual Meditations ( 21 Sept 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Power of Belief: You Become What You Believe In


By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam

Scholars have devised several ways to categorise different religions—sorting them into different types on the basis, for instance, of the number of supernatural beings they revere, the historical periods in which they emerged, the regions in which their founders were born, and so on. Another interesting way to classify various religions is according to the personality-types of the deities or other important figures (such as founders) that they are centred on. These figures can be regarded as vengeful, spiteful beings, easily provoked to anger, grim and fierce. Or, they could be thought of as jovial, gentle beings, loving, forgiving and graceful. They could be believed to be like brutal dictators, imposing their will through fear, force and the threat of punishment. Or, they could be thought of as loving companions, easily forgiving and never vengeful.

Invariably, different sets of followers of a particular religion strongly differ among themselves on the nature of the personalities of the beings whom they adore. The same beings may be thought of as loving and kind by one set of followers, and as vengeful and hate-driven, by another set of co-religionists. One reason for this is that every group consists of people with markedly different personalities. A loving person will want to see his deity as loving, too, while his hate-driven co-religionist has an innate propensity to see the same deity, mentioned in the same scripture, as angry, bitter and fierce.  

For a believer in a particular religion, the deity and/or key human figure that this religion is centred on is the model which he believes he must emulate and whose attributes he must embody and reflect in his own personality. And so it almost inevitably happens that an ardent believer begins to behave—or, at the very least, believes it his principle duty to behave—like the deities or religious figures he reveres. This holds true no matter what his religion is. If he believes his deity to be an angry, spiteful being, he inevitably grows into an angry, vengeful person. If he understands the founder of his religion to have been aggressive and intolerant, he, too, becomes aggressive and intolerant. If his god is cheerless and severe, he, too, inevitably becomes that way. If his god thinks having fun is a sin, he’ll become grave and dry himself. If his god doesn’t have a sense of humour, you can be sure that he, too, will be stiff, glum, grim and boring. If he thinks his god craves to be worshipped, you can be sure that he, too, will crave attention and demand the total obedience of his subordinates. If he thinks of his deity as someone who unleashes terror on those who don’t believe or accept him or do anything that he doesn’t approve of, it is quite possible that he himself will take a malicious delight in glorifying violence. If he won’t take up a gun, at least he’ll terrorise his wife and children—folks whom he thinks ‘belong’ to him, like his possessions—with his foul temper.

On the other hand, if a person thinks his deity to be gentle and compassionate, it is likely that he will become that way, too. If his god is forgiving, he’ll be a forgiving person. If he thinks of the founder of his religion as epitomizing such virtues as love and service, he will cultivate these virtues in his life. If he thinks of the founder of his religion as cheerful and joyous, he will inevitably become joyful and cheerful, too.

Such is the enormous power of belief. You inevitably become like the forces and figures you passionately believe in.

Now, this doesn’t at all imply some sort of rigid theological determinism—that you are doomed to become a carbon copy of the figures or deities that the family you are born into revere. Everyone has a unique personality of his or her own, which can escape even the most rigorous efforts at social conditioning and religious brainwashing. That’s what human autonomy and freedom are about. And so, you don’t necessarily have to grow up to become a pale reflection of the religious figures your family worships if you don’t want to, especially if you find that your personality and theirs just don’t match.

Suppose you simply cannot identify with the personality type of the deity or other key figure in the religion you were born into. Your personality-type and that of the deity simply don’t gel at all, being completely antagonistic to each other. It could be that you are the compassionate, loving sort, and the deity is angry and vengeful—or, at least, is thought to be so by most of your co-religionists. Or, you are the violent and intolerant sort, while your deity is thought to be just the opposite. Whatever be the case, at the bottom of your heart you know that you and your deity have contradictory personality types. Naturally, this poses a very painful dilemma for you.

In such a situation, there are several things that you could do in order to reconcile the contradiction that you are faced with. One way—and this is what a great many people do—is to cease to take your religion at all seriously. You might—for purposes of the census, for instance, or in just a mild, cultural sense—still identify somewhat with your religion, but for all practical purposes you cease to believe in it because you simply cannot force yourself to behave like your deity or religious founder—your personality types being absolutely opposed to each other.

Another way to wriggle out of the dilemma—and this is a really painful one—is to struggle to maintain a fragile balance between some sort of commitment to or faith in your deity, on the one hand, and your desire to be who you are—a personality whose type simply cannot match that of your deity. But to do this, you have to make enormous compromises almost all the time, and this is sure to make life really miserable for you. At almost every point, you will have to force yourself to believe, or pretend to believe, in your religion against your will, to act in a way other than you would have had to if you didn’t choose to continue believing in your religion. You constantly have to force yourself to interpret or misinterpret your religion in order to make it correspond to your values. Deep inside, you know that what you are doing is not quite right, and that you are simply trying to fool yourself. You become a giant bundle of contradictions.

There are other ways you might react if you find that your personality and that of your deity or other key figure in your religious tradition don’t match, and that they are simply incompatible. You may want to replace this deity or figure by another one—borrowed from another religious tradition—one that is more in tune with your personality and value-system. In other words, you engage in a process of religious conversion. You may be fed up of an angry god, and so you convert to a religion that adores a loving one. You may be tired of a loving god. You may want one that reflects your angry, violent personality, and so you become a member of a cult that adores an angry, jealous god. The founding figure of the religion you are born into maybe quite unacceptable to you, because his and your personality types don’t match. He might be a warrior and you are a pacifist. Or, he might be a pacifist but you are a fascist. And so you convert to a religion whose founder shares your personality type.

Alternately, you may decide not to revere any god at all—that’s dropping out of religion altogether. Or, you may decide that while for some reason you don’t want to abandon completely the religion you have been born into, you simply cannot accept the image of your deity that your co-religionists uphold. You find it impossible to force your personality to become like this deity’s. You feel life would cease to have any worth at all if you were compelled to do so because these two personalities—yours and this deity’s—are polar opposites. You find the personality of the deity, as understood by your co-religionists, simply too suffocating, embarrassing, primitive, superstitious, violent and shocking for you to accept and believe in. And so you seek to transform that image to become more acceptable to you and more in line with your own personality and values. This is what religious reform is often all about. Or, to meet the same end, you may choose to convert to a rival sect within the same broader religious tradition in which you were born, whose understanding of the personality of your deity resonates with your personality.

In these many ways, you might seek to save yourself from being crushed by the religion that your family and society seeks to impose on you if you find that your personality and that of the deity or other significant figures in this religion simply don’t match. But for the most part—and this seems to be the case in all religious communities—people are so heavily conditioned that they simply face no such contradiction. They inevitably become what they are groomed to believe in—their personalities being profoundly shaped by the beliefs which they are socialized into accepting without questioning.