Choosing My Religion

POV

Choosing My Religion

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

I

In these times when the world clamours for freedom of every kind, from the freedom of speech to sexual orientation, I draw cold comfort from the fact that freedom is a relatively new concept, the contours of which are constantly being redrawn and redefined.

The idea of universal adult suffrage, for instance, revolutionary in its time, came into being as recently as 1893 in distant New Zealand. Even France – that flag bearer of modernism which introduced the world to universal male suffrage – did not allow its women to become a part of the process of electing a government until 1944. And in America, blacks were excluded from voting until the late 20th century.

So yes, we are a more liberal society now than we have ever been. We can dismiss our Togadias and Trumps as fringe nuts. Look at our gay bars, we say, and here are our people meeting on Tinder. And if our liberal credentials need any more evidence, we like to point at Islam and the Middle-East. We toast the concept of choice.
But all freedoms are not won yet.

For instance, how much choice do we really have over the one thing that defines a significant part of who we are? Religion shapes our social and economic identity more than any other variable, especially in India. And yet it is only an outcome of the accident of birth. We’re informed, fairly early in the day, that we are Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu and we’re stuck with that label and all that comes with it, throughout our lives.

What follows are years of social conditioning and the rituals that embed themselves into our lexicon, and eventually lead us to fight or defend or at least stand up for our religion – some in overt, fundamentalist ways, others in passive-aggressive ways. And yet, did we really choose our religion?

I was raised by parents of faith, but a healthy scepticism was always encouraged by my father who studied theology. My religion found its way into my life through food, social events, if not a Church or a temple. But what if we stopped introducing religion into the complex mix of parenting and socialisation?

For far too long, vested interests have exploited and attacked this accident of birth, trying to polarise individuals into various camps.

My wife and I weren’t born into the same religion. I am a bit of an agnostic and have never really been a fan of ritual. Having scoured most religious texts, I have a very basic, but clear, understanding of these things – that man invented god and religion for a time and era that required it. Even if the larger spiritual basis and introspective ability of these religions is relevant today, all that we end up raising our children with are the ritualistic parts.

My wife doesn’t really share this sort of agnosticism, but we are both united in the worldview that organised religion, as it is consumed and practiced today, is not the only path toward spirituality.

For my part, my 12-year-old does not know what religion he belongs to and he’s not sure what he would choose. If ever a question was asked about his religion in any of the endless documents we have to fill up as parents, we’ve always preferred to mark it as N.A. or Undecided (mercifully, hardly any government documents or educational institutes want you to specify your religion anymore).

My son is growing up in a milieu where this kind of questioning is encouraged – and I hope the rather mixed crowd that he greets every day in a liberal school with diverse nationalities will help him arrive at a more complex understanding of religion. Whatever questions he has had about which religion he belongs to, have been answered by himself (and he has decided that he doesn’t want to belong to any religion as of now.) I find it a little strange: We haven’t delved too deep into the subject, or spent many hours discussing this, so I wonder if there is a degree of cynicism in there, exposed as we are, to a daily news feed of the horrors of religious fanaticism. I just take hope in the fact that it’s a good attitude to have.

What will it take for our society and our country to embrace the concept of true individual liberty? When will our children be allowed to choose their religion? Would the world be a better place if we allowed our children to decide at, say, 18 (when they’re wise enough, according to most constitutions, to vote, drink, or drive) whether they’d like to be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, atheist, agnostic or label-free? Until then, religious teachings could be a part of all optional school curricula, and students could be free to choose which one they would like to take up.

I cannot imagine how different the world will look if we had the ability to take a considered call on one of the most important aspects of an individual’s life – perhaps the ultimate of our freedoms. For far too long, vested interests have exploited and attacked this accident of birth, trying to polarise individuals into various camps. Will these not become a spent force if we allowed individuals the liberty of choice of which camp to follow, just as we do with other personal liberties?

I don’t have a definitive answer – yet. My wife and I will be able to report the fruits of our little labour in due course. But if I were to hazard a wild guess, I’d say we’re all better off letting the kids decide.

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