Monday, December 15, 2008

Religion, Faith and Culture


My birth certificate states that I am “Buddha” under religion although I think my grandparents were Taoists. My parents are both Atheists. When I was 17, I tried to embrace Christianity and later attended the Anglican Church religiously. Then, when I was 25, I decided to explore Islam and spent about two years learning and practicing the religion.

I am curious about Judaism and Confucianism and even more intrigued by Sikhism and Hinduism. What am I then? I don’t really know and I am contented with not knowing.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “religion” is defined as a particular system of faith and worship or a form of recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny to warrant obedience, reverence and worship.

So, if this is what defines religion, then I think I do have one because deep down, I believe in a higher divine power that has created all living things and each with a purpose. Although I have no idea who or what this divine power is, there is faith in me that it exists. This is my particular system of faith.

Now, I do wonder whether all these so-called religions practised by people around us today deserve to be called religion at all. For a start, many of them are either borne with the religion attached to them (such as my case), brought up to believe that this is the religion they belong to or conversion through marriage or adoption.

I would like to argue that what we understand as religion is actually a cultural practice. According to the Webster New World Dictionary, “culture” is the development, improvement and refinement of the mind, emotions, interests, manners and tastes, as well as arts, ideas, customs and skills of a given people in a given period of time. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the intellectual side of civilization.

If you notice, all the religions as we know of today; Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. were in fact revealed to a group of people at a specific period of time and through them, different practices were adopted and then continued to be practised for centuries later. Many religions have contributed to the development of great civilizations, arts, science, medicine, etc. In fact, if I remember my History lessons well, Islam was revealed to end the age of “jahiliah” or pagan ignorance.

Sure, they would like to believe that these practices were divine order and claim that it is through faith that they believe. My question is, is it really faith or cultural upbringing that they believe? After all, what they know about their religions are from secondary sources.

When a child is borne of a Hindu family, she is taught that cows are sacred and she is told to offer prayers and worship to the Hindu Gods. If she is being brought up in a Christian family, she learns that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and her Saviour. She will follow her parents to church every Sunday and told to repent her sins. If she is Muslim, then she will be told that pork and alcohol are completely forbidden in Islam. This child, depending on which family she is being borne into, will learn the Holy Scripture of the religion and have her believe that this is the religion she belongs to.

While some children may be lucky enough to be given an opportunity to learn about other religions and eventually an option to choose, many do not. Is this called faith then and more importantly, does this qualify as a religion?

I have known a couple of people who identify themselves as Muslims and yet, they consume alcohol but never pork. Does that mean they are not Muslims? I don’t know and I don’t question anymore because to me, it is irrelevant. I do not associate Islam as a religion, but merely a cultural practice. Does that mean they do not have a religion? Again, I don’t know because it depends on their system of faith. If they have faith that there is a divine power above who determines their lives and deaths, then does it really matter to me whether they drink alcohol or not?

I left the Anglican Church because I thought that I have committed a sin which is frowned upon by the church and refused to embrace a religion without fully practising what it preaches. Then, I question this so-called religion. Did I commit a sin because “someone” says so, or because God says so? Well, God hasn’t answered to me yet.

To me, faith has to come from within. I have no faith in a religion which makes me feel guilty about everything and instil in me a fear which I don’t truly comprehend. On the other hand, I have faith in a religion which teaches compassion, kindness, honesty, peace and love. Other practises that come with it are just cultural and even philosophical.

Having said this, cultural exchanges enrich our lives simply for the fact that it helps us to foster understanding, friendship and wisdom. This is probably one thing which allows me to hang on to my faith; a divine Creator who has made us all so uniquely different and yet we need not feel the fear of losing our faiths in Him/Her/It, for if you truly believe, it’s in you.

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