Nearly two months back I was asked by a friend – “do you believe in God?” I replied – “yes, but depends on what you mean by the definition of God”. There has been a lot of speculation and interest over the years as to my beliefs. As someone who came from a different culture and country at the age of 15, I have experienced and seen many different perspectives. Growing up and practicing an Eastern religion, it took some time to get used to Abrahamic religions. The cultural battles in the United States over doctrines and practices still feels funny to me, because growing up I wasn’t exposed in depth to Judeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs. Honestly, over the past 11 years I have evolved a lot when it comes to my personal beliefs, and hopefully I will keep evolving throughout my life. But I do have a framework about what I believe and don’t. I have held off on writing explicitly about it because my ideas might offend or hurt many people close to me, considering the fact that I come from a conservative/religious society. After a lot of reflection, I have decided to write honestly about my own personal beliefs and my views about religion itself. I have tried to take as many views into account as possible, but I am also not holding my thinking in check to protect anyone’s feelings. I don’t take my beliefs or any beliefs for that matter, as facts. There are over 7 billion people on this planet, and I don’t think there are any two human beings who believe everything exactly with equal intensity. Therefore, my beliefs are subjective, and they fulfill my desire and needs about spirituality. I have divided this essay into three parts – my personal beliefs; my criticisms of organized religion; and my acceptance of religiosity/spirituality. I am going to avoid science as much as possible because it is impractical to take apart each theological doctrine in an essay. I will do my best to stick to logical arguments in tackling various doctrines and ideas. And finally, I will also empathize with our species’ needs for spirituality. So let us take a travel back in time to the evolution of my beliefs and my mindset regarding religion.
A personal journey of love and faith –
I come from a Hindu background, and growing up I was quite religious. More likely, I was religious trying to gain favor with a deity and my community, where religiosity mattered a lot. In short, I wanted to impress God and people around me. After coming to the United States at the age of 15, I encountered doctrines of other religions. Growing up in a pluralistic society like India, I had a general knowledge of all major religions. But meeting people who deeply believed in different doctrines increased my interest in learning about other religions. Even though I had a ‘conservative’ nature when it came to religion and some traditional mindset, I always had a curious mind. And for the first few years in the US, I treated other religions the way I treated them in India – my religion’s doctrines are correct/accurate, but all religions are also correct because they lead to God. I hadn’t thought about the inherent contradictions when it came to the actual doctrines.
15 years back, or half a lifetime ago, I got interested in a Muslim girl in school and it piqued my interest in Islam. Three years later we were in the same college and I spent my summers reading up on Islam. It was the first time I questioned my own beliefs, whose doctrines seemed so different from Islam. I had an existential crisis of how this amazing girl could believe something that was so ‘different’. Her extreme devotion to following her doctrine told me that there must be something correct with her religion. Ten years back I had a broad knowledge of Islam; I had read two different English translations of the Quran and I was ready to convert to Islam for her and started practicing for a year. Conversion wasn’t hard for me because I took the Scripture literally – that all other religions had been corrupted and Quran was the final and perfect Word of God. For someone who loved to impress God, I thought I had found my path. One of the interesting things, which will matter later, was me telling her “how God seems so angry in the Quran”. She left once her family found out about us, and I continued practicing for 7-8 more months. In the 12 months after she had left, I had become more judgmental and self-righteous. I took pride in living a life of self-abnegation, and secretly and sometimes openly I was judgmental of my friends’ ‘immoral behavior’ (alcohol) and my own self-righteous behavior of avoiding anything God prohibits. It was 8 years back, around the time I turned 22, that two of my best friends took me aside one night and told me “just because we drink alcohol and you don’t doesn’t make us bad people and you a better person, and you don’t have to go around telling everyone that”. That was the wakeup call I needed and started my evolution towards understanding religion, spirituality, and human behavior from an academic and intellectual point of view.
Even before my interest in Islam, my idea of God during my late teens lined up with Spinoza’s God. I hadn’t heard of “Spinoza’s God”, but I believed God is everything and God is everywhere. As I grew older, the religious stories seemed too ridiculous to be true. As you can imagine, believing in a Spinoza’s God and Islam (along with a Hindu background) was contradictory. And those couple of years were confusing periods in my life. With time, I saw a lot of hypocrisy in the name of religion. Along with my personal experience with conversion and being insulted for being an infidel, I became very anti-religious. Time, and focusing on good people has calmed me down about religion over the last couple of years.
I don’t know how to label myself, or if a label exists that would define me. I do not believe in any existing religions. I don’t believe in supernatural occurrences because none has ever been documented and proven in the age of science, and none have broken the laws of science. Our universe is governed by natural laws, not the supernatural. Is there a God or deity beyond the natural world, beyond our universe/multi-verses or whatever reality might be? Maybe. But we do not possess the tools to study the non-natural. This is where I reach a philosophical point. Maybe our universe is part of a multi-verse. Maybe there are infinite multi-verses. It is a fact that we exist. Even if we exist in something else’s dream, then that something else exist. But there is something called reality that is in existence. I don’t know what a God might be, but for me a God would be the beginning and the end of everything. If there is something, there must have been a beginning. And that beginning is God. What is the beginning of God? I don’t know. That is a question that keeps me up at night, but no one can answer that question. Even the answer – God has always been – is a non-answer to me. If something is, it must come from something. But none of this can ever be proven, because none of this belongs to the natural world. Therefore, I do believe in the existence of some higher ‘power’, but I don’t know what is that higher power or how to describe it. And my beliefs are my personal beliefs and no one else has to agree with them. I don’t even take them as facts because there is no way for me to know what is a ‘fact’ when it comes to the non-natural. So, that’s my belief – if you want to call it a belief.
A question non-religious people are asked a lot by religious people is – “how do you enjoy the beauty of Creation if you don’t believe in a God?” The magnificence of nature is beautiful enough that I do not need a personal God to appreciate it. And moving away from religion has made me become more aware about human suffering and made me more focused in trying to fix it now – in this ‘life’. I don’t know about the existence of life after death, and that has made me greatly appreciate life, time, and relationships. I want to fight for justice and fairness. I want to fix mental illnesses and bring harmony to my species. I do not have the luxury in the thought that there will be justice in the after-life. I want to create utopia in this world, not in an imaginary heaven. This thinking has also helped me control my anger, emotions, and any negative feelings. I try to maintain the best relationship with everyone, not have a fight, and just be good to everyone. We don’t know if tomorrow will come, and if it doesn’t we don’t know if this life is all there is. So why not be the best we can be every moment, and be the best we can be to everyone on this planet? People also worry about inter-religious marriages because they don’t know what will they teach their children. My answer is – can’t we be humble enough to know that no one knows what is the ‘right answer’. Can’t we teach our children good morals, character, without enforcing doctrines on them at a young age. Or teach them doctrines while also teaching them that there are numerous doctrines followed by numerous people and that we have no way of knowing a ‘right doctrine’. And respect those kids’ own intelligence and personality and support them in their own spiritual and religious evolution into adults.
In summary, this is my personal belief – God is in everything, God is everywhere, but I do not know what God is or how to describe it. God is beyond space and time, God is impersonal. God doesn’t answer prayers; God doesn’t work in mysterious ways. God is nature, God is laughter. All good is God, all bad is God. God is the ultimate unknown. Unless some God decides to definitely make itself known to us in every generation, we will never know what God is. So any and all ideas about God/s are personal and unproven ideas. So why can’t we leave it at that? Why must we insist in the supremacy of religion or our own religions? Why must we insist that our own family members/children/spouses follow our own beliefs? Why can’t we respect everyone’s right to believe or disbelieve – whatever makes them happy. Why can’t we do this without intruding on other people’s personal space and their inherent right to find their own spirituality?
Shortcomings of organized religions –
So what exactly caused my detachment from religion itself? It started with my own experience – the more religious someone called themselves, the more uptight, judgmental, and self-righteous they were. It was not pleasant to be in their company. Whenever a topic came up if we should do something, the answer was mostly ‘no’ because religion didn’t allow it. Or the answer was they had to check if it was permissible to do in their respective religions. There was a bigger focus on the after-life than living in this life. There was too much guilt associated with the simple pleasures of life. Laughter, movies, music, love, jokes, clothing, food, drinking – anything that could bring joy was subjected to guilt. And I couldn’t understand how grown adults could believe their religion, the one they were brought up with as children, is the One True Religion. Religious stories seemed like children’s fairy tales meant for adults. And adults believing in supernatural fairy tales became too much for me. Every religion takes it flavors and ideas from its own geographical location/culture. Religions that were found in the same area share similar traits. For example, Quran is a compilation of The Bible, local Arabian customs and culture, and other Greek mythologies and science already prevalent in the Middle East. It is the same reason why Indian religions share a similarity among each other, but not with Abrahamic or other African or indigenous American religions.
Religions originated for many reasons. One of the original reasons was for a primitive species to make sense of the world around them. That required having gods and supernatural beings who controlled nature and our own lives. As we progressed with time, our gods progressed with us. As humans organized themselves into large nation-states, they needed a singular and powerful God instead of many gods. But this all-powerful God still provided answers that humans themselves couldn’t provide. This God provided the ‘there is a reason for everything’. And religious superstitions also originated when people tried to make sense of the world around them. And I do respect our ancestors for trying to come up with answers, even if it doesn’t stand up in our times. They did the best they could with the technology and understanding of the world that they had. Human civilization has been constantly progressing, as are our answers to existential questions. So I do respect every age that tries its best to understand reality. But what I do not get is today’s age trying to hold on to discredited answers from the past. When our society, science, technology has moved forward, I don’t understand how many people still look backwards. If I have respect for our ancestors who came up with answers that seem nonsensical today, I am befuddled for those holding on or enforcing nonsensical answers on rest of society. For example, there is no reason to hold on to homophobia, or religious supremacy, or any kind of beliefs that have been discredited by science. The answers we come today might still not be perfect or accurate, but it would be illogical for posterity to copy our answers like monkeys if in their own time period science and rationality has come up with different and better answers.
Another reason for the existence of religion is control through fear. One of the unattributed quotes to Mark Twain is “religion was invented when the first con-man met the first fool”. And I would say that con-men have used religion as vehicle to propagate fear and gain control over the masses. Humans have used fear for their own needs since the beginning of time. Fear is an innate emotion that has played an important role in evolution and our survival. It is fear of the unknown and fear of the other that kept us safe from beasts and hostile tribes. And the same fear is being exploited today to turn us against each other in the name of religion, race, nationality, ethnicity etc. But religious doctrine gave us the fear of eternal punishment to force us on the moral path (varies by culture), but also to gain a control over our lives. Men came along teaching us about vengeful and punishing gods and the concept of eternal hell. And the same men promised to turn vengeful and punishing gods into loving and forgiving gods if we followed their, and their word, only. The fear of hell had been planted. And the antidote to hell had been promised. As such, religions had evolved from spirituality and trying to make sense of the world into codified and rigid doctrines.
The more I thought about it, the less sense the concept of a personal God made to me. And it was something I truly believed in. God was my best friend. God was listening to me and watching me. God was doing everything for me. It was a lot of me-me-me. There was a reason for everything. The reason was definitely for my benefit, even if I cannot see it now. With this attitude, I was looking more inwards than outwards at the world around me. Even if something bad happened in the world, there must be a big Plan behind it. But as I grew older and saw how evil the world is, how I saw the quality of life elsewhere in the world – the concept of me-me-me melted away. There is no ‘reason’ why a parent should lose a child. There is no ‘reason’ or ‘plan’ or ‘meaning’ why children should face abuse. There is no ‘reason’ why a personal God would bless some places yet starve children to death in other places. I was only looking at my personal situation, without looking at the world around me. Knowledge, logic, and empathy destroyed the idea of a personal God for me. It felt too childish. A watching protector. It felt like stories we tell children. When it came to the idea of a personal God, I felt like a narcissistic child trying to impress his/her parents and thinking everything is about him/her. Eventually it felt ridiculous to believe in such an idea as an adult.
Finally, one of the biggest reasons that the idea of a personal God troubled me so much was the concept of an eternal hell/punishment and the concept of the end of the world. The deeper I get into neuroscience and psychology, the less I believe in ‘evil’. The more I learn about human biology and behavior, the less I believe in moral absolutes. The idea of a Creator who would also create a hell for Its’ creations is brutal and unacceptable to me. The idea that we should wait for some rapture and the end of the world where only the True and Righteous believers would be saved is unacceptable. The fact that too many religious doctrines place higher emphasis on ‘right’ beliefs rather than ‘right’ actions is unacceptable to me. There have been innumerable religions and there will always be religions coming up in the future. It is part of our genetic identity. The idea that only one sub-sect of humanity is marked for ‘saving’ is unacceptable to me. And the goal of life should not be to wait for the end of the world so that a chosen few will rise to heaven and get rewarded with beautiful real estate in heaven. The goal of life, and our species, should be to spread across the stars and propagate life in other worlds. Life on Earth will exist for only finite amount of time. Our goal should be to preserve life by transplanting it to other worlds across the galaxies. The fundamentals of religious doctrines should stop celebrating death, after-life and ‘true beliefs’, and start celebrating life, joy, and good actions. If there is a God, this life and universe we have is too magnificent and beautiful to not be the greatest gift of a God.
Getting back to doctrines, as a logician I was torn between following scriptures literally vs picking and choosing which parts to follow and ignore, and with what interpretation. I think specifics triumph generalization. Scriptures have generalized teachings for mankind as well as specific teachings about various topics. And I think the generalized teachings present an overall guideline while specific teachings tell us how to act in any individual scenario. So even though scripture might have a generalized teaching about ‘do not kill’ or ‘love everyone’, it has numerous exceptions to those teachings where it condemns various behaviors and acts and prescribes punishments that include death. A simple example is homosexuality. There are scriptures that condemn it and prescribe punishment for it – including the death penalty. Today there are many progressives who oppose any such punishment and preach acceptance and love citing generalized teachings of scriptures. And it pains me to say that textual literalists have the better logical argument. If we accept scripture to be the word of an infallible god, and such a god condemns homosexuality, then the logical argument is on the side of the religious people who don’t accept homosexuality. Even if the practical and humane argument is on the side of the progressives. No matter how much we promote tolerance for our differences, as long as the ideologies exist unchallenged, there will be human beings who will fetishize the past and take scripture literally. We will always have individuals seeking a deeper and different meaning. We will always have individuals seeking to ‘purify’ society from religious interpretations, innovations, and deviations from scriptures. We have seen it in every age; we are seeing it is our age. It is these logical inconsistencies, along with innumerable contradictions, that was the final straw in me letting go of organized religion – because organized religion is built on its doctrines, and I couldn’t stand the illogic and contradictions in the doctrines.
Humanity’s need for spirituality –
Despite my objections to organized religion, I understand that a lot of people have a need for spirituality. And if religion and spirituality give them peace, comfort, and happiness, then I am no one to criticize them for it. Every individual creates their own meanings for their religion. The meanings they create depends on their nature and upbringing, and it keeps evolving throughout life. No one knows the answers to these questions, even the people who are absolutely certain they do! Two people of the same family following the same religion can practice it differently. When it comes to the practical aspect of religiosity (and leaving behind science and logic), I fully support everyone’s rights to their own beliefs. But with a caveat – beliefs should never be forced on or be expected from anyone else. Not your children, spouse, parents, siblings, community, or the world. Beliefs are subjective, and expectations and pressure creates conflict. We can be religious and humble enough to accept that no one knows the real answers, and as such we should support each other in whatever answer gives them peace. And just make sure that the answers we pick does not intrude on anyone else.
Faith, spirituality, religion keeps many of us going in the darkest of times. It transcends the analytical mind because the logical brain deals with facts. When a parent loses their child, it is faith that keeps them going that their child is in a better place. Try telling such a parent that their child’s life meant nothing and that it is now reduced to the dust of time. Faith gives many of us hope that our good actions will be rewarded, the injustice we face in this life might be rectified in an afterlife, or that we will once again be able to see our loved ones whom we have lost.
For the practical purposes of day-to-day living, picking and choosing from scriptures is much better than winning the logical argument and following scripture to the word. Even the most religious of people have issues with many aspects of scriptures. Most human beings transcend their own scriptures and are nice and kind to those of different or ‘wrong’ beliefs. Despite being the logician, I absolutely support this because religion to me is a personal matter. Yes, it bothers me if someone says that no bad things exist in their scripture, because that is factually untrue. But most people realize they cannot follow scripture to the word, and the same people do the best they can to meet their own spiritual needs and be good to their fellow human beings. With religiosity, spirituality, or neither of those coming in over 7 billion flavors, I am in favor of people living their lives based on what gives them peace and happiness – as long as their beliefs do not intrude on someone else’s space and personhood.
I have come a long way in my religious and spiritual journey. And new life experiences, ideas, and learnings keep molding me in newer ways. I have gone from being very religious, to anti-religious, to achieving a truce with organized religion. Over the very long run I do know that organized religion’s influence will keep decreasing, as I think it should. But letting go of doctrines doesn’t mean letting go of spirituality. Religions have come and gone, their meanings and interpretations have changed over time. But our need for spirituality hasn’t changed. Even if ancient doctrines cease to be taken literally and factually, we can always continue our search for the meaning of life and existence. We can always be spiritual and be humble enough to accept that none of us have the right answer. For me, that is the progress, that is the future, and that is what we must strive. Religious doctrines and spirituality aren’t the same thing. Questioning one doesn’t mean giving in to despair and loss of hope. It just means we are maturing as a species and progressing with scientific knowledge. But it also means accepting science might never satisfy our spiritual cravings – unless we figure out every base pair in our genetic code and find where spirituality comes from.
To conclude – I hope I showed the differences between religious doctrines and spirituality. Everyone has the right to happiness – be it through doctrines, spirituality, science, or something else. Just don’t force it on others. Just don’t expect it from others and make them feel guilty for not following your ideologies. And finally, accept that when it comes to the supernatural world, no one has the right answer.