Graphic by The Multimedia Desk/The Gazelle

What is your religion?

“What is your religion?” “Um. I don’t know... love? I believe in love.” That is, ironically, my go-to answer to the frequently asked question, even ...

Dec 5, 2015

Graphic by The Multimedia Desk/The Gazelle
“What is your religion?”
“Um. I don’t know... love? I believe in love.”
That is, ironically, my go-to answer to the frequently asked question, even though I am not so sure if I really believe in love. This response usually gets two different reactions; laughter from people my age, or weird stares and serious follow-up questions when I am talking to the elderly who think that religion is no joke.
In Indonesia, a secular democratic country that officially recognizes six religions, asking about someone’s beliefs is considered to be in the top five choices for socially acceptable interactions with someone you've just met, following the usual small talk starters such as, “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”
As someone who has always tried to avoid awkward conversations and pointless debates, I usually answer the religion question depending on my mood; my frequent response, as mentioned earlier, is to answer that I believe in love. Sometimes I just blurt out the first religion that comes to mind. Sometimes, when I’m not feeling it, I say that it’s rude to ask about someone’s religion, even though most of the time people won’t understand why.
Since starting college at NYU Abu Dhabi, I have realized that the situation here is quite different, although religion is still a hot topic for discussion. People don’t really talk about beliefs, but once the night gets old and dawn inches onto the horizon, conversations usually get deeper and eventually touch matters that we don’t talk about in broad daylight. Of course, top topics are the existence of God and religion.
When I travelled to Iran for fall break, I was asked about my religion three times within two days by people whom I barely knew. Thankfully, I was used to the question and I brushed it off. Once, a professor asked about our beliefs in one of my classes — which I’m not sure is even ethically acceptable — and I answered by saying that I believed in a greater power, yet I’m not settling for any particular religion. The whole class was baffled, and I sat with an awkward smile, trying to guess if there was a need to elaborate.
Even though some people might find it offensive to question religion, I find it a deep and contemplative question. Questioning helped me realize I still struggle to make others understand that I do not identify as a believer in one particular religion. I don’t want to limit myself to that. Trying to formulate answers to these curious minds made me realize that sometimes I don’t understand myself either.
Naturally, I tried to come up with my own theory about my so-called anomaly.
“Maybe religion is like tradition in the way that you get used to it,” I said to myself on one of many nights I couldn’t fall asleep. Most of my friends who are devoted believers of a certain religion grew up in families that are equally if not more devoted. Ever since they were little, they went to their places of worship on a weekly or daily basis. They are encouraged by their family to learn, practice and focus on a particular religion. The associated religious values and practices slowly but surely become an essential part of their routine, and they came to understand a deeper meaning later in life as they learned more about their own beliefs.
I realized that the same thing applies to me. I was exposed to at least six different religions as I grew up. I consider myself lucky to be brought up in a family that does not emphasize differences, and if anything, encourages me to explore different religions. Ever since I can remember, my parents have been telling me that I have the freedom to believe in anything as long as I treat others well and kindly.
Growing up, I learned about many different religions through both formal and informal educations. I was born and raised in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, so I am used to the adhan and Islamic values that were promoted through the media. In addition to that, my maternal grandmother is a Muslim, and my family celebrates Idul Fitri and invites people to come to our house for silaturahmi. We still visit my great grandparents’ cemetery at the beginning and the end of Ramadan because my mother still upholds the Kejawen belief. We still prepare a full meal during suhoor and iftar, and call the spirits of our grandparents to come home and begin or break the fast.
At the same time, I was born and raised in Bali, the only island in Indonesia where Hinduism is the majority belief. My maternal grandfather is a Hindu, and needless to say, having grown up up in Bali, I am not only used to its culture and language, but also to its massive celebrations and its strongly rooted Hindu culture. I had the opportunity to learn about Hinduism for 12 years of school, as religion is a compulsory course in Indonesia. Needless to say that I feel the strongest sense of familiarity to Hinduism, especially since most of my family members and friends in Bali are Hindu.
From my paternal side, I learned about Buddhism and Confucianism. My father is of Chinese and Thai descent, so at home I have a massive shrine with statues of different gods and goddesses to which we present fruits and sweets every full moon. Every year we celebrate the day of the dead to commemorate our deceased ancestors, and we have a full home-cooked Chinese meal for at least five people presented to the spirits. We pray with hio, and in the end we burn clothes, money, makeup-kits, shoes, cars and houses made of paper. Imagine this burning ritual as a post system that bridges the world and the afterlife. We are doing it with the belief that we are sending those items to our deceased ancestors who are living in a different world. Chinese New Year is always filled with a trip to the klenteng — Confucian place of worship — where we wear all red clothing to pray for a better fortune in the coming year, followed by a huge feast at a Chinese restaurant in town.
Other than those four religions, I got to learn about Christianity and Catholicism outside of my family. Beginning when I was three years old, my mother signed me up for singing lessons, which I performed at church and Christmas services. My mom didn’t object when I told her that I wanted to go to Sunday school and learn more about Christianity. It is strange to recall that growing up, we would have Christmas carols playing in our house at the start of December. My whole family would also begin to decorate the house and even put up a Christmas tree, even though no one religiously celebrates Christmas in my family. On Christmas Eve I would usually go to mass with my friends; both my parents were aware of this and the only thing they told me was not to sing the wrong lyrics for the gospels.
I think the way I was brought up makes me used to the freedom and the lack of any one settled religion.
Of course, this unconventional stance leads to confusion beyond the small talks that I have been through. In Indonesia, it is mandatory to put information about religion on your ID card. Being the person I am, I gave the officer the freedom to choose what to write on my ID. Thankfully I heard good news that there is an option to leave the religion column blank on our ID, which I will opt for once I have the time to process my document — or maybe not, because I don’t think that this is an urgent matter. I refuse to allow one word on my ID card to define me.
During my freshmen year at NYUAD, I took a class called Ideas of The Sacred, where I got to formally learn about seven different religions that I found extremely eye-opening. I realized that exposing myself to different religions only taught me how similar all religions are at their core. Each one wants believers to be kind and benevolent and to never hurt other living beings. I think that is why I do not feel the need to settle with one particular religion so far. I do not see the urgency to put myself in one box, when I could benefit from each of their values.
Here at NYUAD, I should admit that I am feeling less and less involved in experimenting with beliefs because of the lack of opportunity and time for me to do so. Back home, I could find temples within walking distance; there are plenty of churches, mosques and viharas, and everyone is eager to go on a spiritual journey. Here, I don’t have shrines. I don’t have statues of gods and goddesses. I don’t have temples. I don’t go to church anymore, and I don’t burn paper clothes for my ancestors. Interestingly, with the lack of religious practices, I am feeling closer and closer to the greater power that I believe in.
I talk to the so-called It often, almost on a daily basis. If you catch me engaging in my conversation with It you might think that I’m insane: it would simply seem like I’m talking to the wall, believing that someone is listening. I don’t have a mantra, I don’t have a certain way of praying. If anything, I wouldn’t even call it praying; I like the word conversation to label what I’m doing.
Regardless of negative remarks I get from people for not adhering to one particular religion, I like to think that being exposed to many different religions and finding my own path to spirituality gives me a wider picture of the religious diversity and humanity at the same time. To me, trying to make everyone believe in the same thing is ridiculous. It is as silly as forcing people to have a universal favorite food, when in fact everyone has different tastes. People are used to different things, and we all have been on different paths and personal journeys to the conclusion that “this is my favorite food, the best in the world there is.”
When you look around you, you will learn that some people like A, some people like B, some people like nothing, some people like everything. And that is okay. I think that their decisions to believe differently should not be open for debate and that it should never be a reason to wage war.
What about me? While I acknowledge that belief is fluid and everything is subject to change, for now I am okay with not showing a strong preference. I think that should be a valid enough answer for anyone.
To me, it is diversity that makes this world a better place. Just like the old saying goes, it’s the different colors of the rainbow that make it beautiful. Maybe I will stop bugging my own mind with endless questions about my religious identity and just accept my belief as it is. The next time someone asks me what religion I subscribe to, I will tell them that I’m still figuring it out, just like how I am still trying to find myself each day. For now I will settle with just being an odd additional color in the rainbow, but hopefully still adding to its beauty.
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