Way too often, people have declared to me, “I am not religious.” I usually take it as a polite request not to discuss religion, which, in today’s climate, I can respect. But lately, as I hear it more and more, I have begun to truly pay attention to what is behind a declaration like that and when and why I began using it in conversations, myself. The declaration is usually followed by a justifying statement of, “I believe in doing good and that all religions have a basis of good.” Some of the best, unsolicited explanations go as far as declaring the speaker is a “believer of all faiths,” choosing to follow a combination of all faiths and their traditions. Some people recognize that their aversion to organized religion is due to the people who have tainted the faiths and traditions, others question the validity in the delivery of the message. These statements were generally made by people of all faiths and it wasn’t ever really from one faith.
“I am not religious”.
I began to pay close attention to when and how these statements were made. I am a very active member in my local Muslim community, organizing festivals, paint nights, writing for a Muslim-based blog, volunteering with faith-based charity groups, and even as President of the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) at my daughter’s Islamic school. Almost anytime I meet someone new and they ask what I do beyond my 9-5, everything has something to do with my faith-based community: Muslims. At the first mention of the words “Islamic” or “Muslim,” the person in front of me immediately makes it clear they are not into religion and I can see them mentally shutting me out. So, I go into this spiel on how I am not religious either, but that I have a deep passion for connecting with and helping people and this happens to take place in the community I belong to. But immediately, I feel I have abandoned my true self, my true identity, and what I identify with simply because I do not want to be shut down or dismissed. So, why was I beginning to declare “I am not religious” to preface all discussions that make any mention of my faith? I began to question myself and my intentions and tried to decipher if being “religious” was something close-minded people did versus being “spiritual,” the open-mindedness of faith.
First, I realized that I was distancing myself using an undefinable word. Being “religious” is ambiguous in my opinion.
What exactly makes a person religious?
Who determines levels of religiosity?
If you are not religious, does that mean you reject God and his message, or does it simply mean you acknowledge it but don’t act upon it in your daily activities?
Does someone who leads their life honestly, give charity, prays in the privacy of their home, but does not actively participate in a religious community consider themselves “religious” or not?
Is religiosity a public or private affair?
Does it have different levels based on your religion and is it all tainted with the sins of misguided “religious” fanatics?
Maybe religiosity is measured by the amount of history and academic knowledge you have acquired in regards to a specific religion. Religion, in my opinion, is a tie between the follower and his creator where faith is strengthened throughout the follower’s life to give meaning, purpose, and direction through a set of guided rules and inspiring stories. Religion was given to people of uncivilized eras to create order and guidance for civilizations. In all 3 Abrahamic religions, it was used as a basis of governance in the land it was revealed in. Even modern day law has been derived from basic rules from the holy books of major religions.
Then, I examined why I was distancing myself from the notion of being religious. It has been tainted over generations by people in power or seeking power, committing sins in the name of religion. From terror to molestations to group suicide rituals, people have tainted religion and made it unappealing to the masses who wish to live their lives in peace and love. Personally, I was trying to distance myself from the atrocities being committed in the name of Islam. I find myself exhausted from constantly having to be a spokesperson for a faith hijacked by criminals. Locally, it was also an uphill battle to distance myself from people who were generally seen as “religious” or involved in religious institutions that were just behaving in a medieval demeanor. Sometimes, the easiest thing when first meeting someone is to distance yourself from labels as not to be associated with the baggage they are associated with.
Now, whenever people mention to me that they are “not religious,” I boldly ask them to define what that means to them. The responses, so far, boil down to religion being seen only as a social construct. The building one worships in, the shaming put on people who don’t regularly attend or visibly contribute, is valued more than the actual spiritual connection one builds with God. And I can relate to this sentiment. As a young, misguided teenager, I became somewhat estranged from my religion because of the shaming put on me by people who ran the building we worshiped in. As I explored religion in college, I actually found my spiritual route and received knowledge from academia without the baggage of society’s sin-shaming. I found peace in my religion; I found guidance and a beautiful love. I wish, as a teenager, I had found this love instead of associating religion with the small rules and noose that sin-shamers hanged each other with.
I have stopped using the phrase “I am not religious” in an attempt to distance myself from a preconceived notion about religion. Many people, especially the young, have had bad experiences with religion because it was a traditional passing down of knowledge from immigrant parents who have not studied the difference between the cultural and religious rulings. So often, culture becomes perceived as religion and actually causes more distance between the believer and the faith. In my experience, this often leads people away from finding a sense of peace with the creator without strings attached. I now proudly state that “I am religious,” and I don’t defend myself, explain myself, or position myself politically or socially. My bond with my Creator is mine and mine alone. Only He has the freedom to judge the strength of it and the way I lead my life. After all, we are humans who sin in hundreds of ways but also praise our Lord in a million ways.