Talk about religion

Talk about religion

Talk about religion

A Singapore Minister of State said recently that we should talk more about religion. It’s a big turnaround from the time, not so long ago, when we were discouraged from discussing the subject for fear of offending or proselytising.

People are naturally sensitive about their religion and it is not nice to press your beliefs onto another person. But discuss religion we must, since it has become a hot topic and undesirable acts are being done in its name.

Religion is as personal as sex. Polite people do not discuss others’ sexual activity. Nor should they discuss others’ religious beliefs, unless invited to do so. Which makes it difficult to broach the subject, even in print. It was put to me beautifully by a student of the Singapore Management University some years ago at lunch. She said “Religion is religion; my faith is my own”. A neat and expressive way to sum it up. I said a silent prayer of thanks that a young person had recognised a basic truth and was not to be persuaded otherwise.

What causes so much trouble in religion is one word – dogma. It is the root of ‘dogmatic’ – ‘inclined to lay down principles as undeniably true’. And this is the problem. When over-zealous beliefs are adopted we forget that an essential ingredient of faith is doubt. You cannot believe something that is proven fact. So, by definition, what you believe could be wrong. Indeed, the firmer your belief, the more important it is to recognise its fallibility.

All good managers know that the stick is an outdated method of authority. Similarly, cajoling others to believe what you believe is counterproductive. Many an adult can honestly say that, as a child, they were “forced” to believe something. How daft and yet how true. But there is a stage between force and freedom that is called persuasion. We all use it to convince others – ourselves, sometimes – that this or that course of action is right. We are all vulnerable to clever words and actions that seem to enhance our standing.

When religions use improper persuasion or force or seduction or unproven ‘facts’ to enlist supporters they are abusing human rights. Sometimes, it is claimed, that abuse is perpetrated in the interests of supporting human rights. It is at times like this that we need to remind ourselves about what are the objectives of religion.

Religion is an expedition each of us can, if we wish, engage in on our journey of life. It aims to search for, possibly even to find, the purpose and hence the meaning of life. As with trekking through a jungle we may learn the best way to search but we cannot learn what we have yet to discover. Even when others think they have discovered it, they cannot say for certain that they have. They are entitled to believe that they have but they cannot prove it.

It is essential that you and I should be allowed to believe what we want to believe. When it comes to persuading others to believe the same we must back off. We can tell them our beliefs but we must qualify them with the uncertainty that we do not know. And if it comes to enforcing our beliefs we must acknowledge that the very force we intend to use is a denial of the expedition we and our fellow human beings are on.

There may well be something spiritual about living creatures. I suspect it extends beyond human beings, maybe even beyond what we classify as living. I do not know that, and I am not sure if I believe it. What I do know is that I live in a world with you, that you are made in much the same way as me and that if there is a supremely important being it is you.

So when I look at you I see a spirit who I would like to share my journey and whose journey I would like to share. That’s as near as I can get to God.

A prayer is but a kind thought for others; words are not necessary, actions are – JRB