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The Cost of Faith

I wouldn’t say I am religious, but I would affirm I am spiritual. I do not like doctrine and I find the word religion to be incredibly loaded. The practice of religion is very much a currency in India – every place of worship, especially the ones that we have been to, will be surrounded by shops and attractions that require money. It is impossible to estimate how much this brings in, but you can assume it is a hefty amount and it is inevitably mostly cash in hand.

When my parents brought me up, they were not afraid to admit that they did not have the answers to my questions. Whenever we conducted anything religious, there were always holes to be found in meanings and understandings, but it was a challenge to find out the answer – it was not something to be ignored. This inquisitiveness has never left me. In fact, it has probably permeated into every part of my life.

Our last day in Mumbai was important to my Mum. The school of thought within which my family has learnt about Hinduism is based in a small insitution in Mumbai. Early on a Sunday morning we made our way to the lecture theatre and sat in the room where the teaching had first begun over 80 years ago. Having seen it on videos and in pictures, it was like de ja vu when we walked into the courtyard and took to the benches at the back.

The man who started the movement demanded that it should not be outwardly publicised, but instead should be passed from person to person, so I will not name him here. However, this weekend would have been the celebration of his 95th birthday and so there were people present from all over the world. My mother had actually met him when he had been alive, and their first meeting was when she was only a girl, a little younger than me, just 20km away from where we stood.

He was responsible for the development of the first university in the world that was built on the ancient tapovan system of education – focusing on the development of the individual, rather than their future aspirations. This unassuming campus was tucked away in the suburbs of Mumbai and it was the beginning of my Mum’s faith. It would also be the birthplace of mine.

It is difficult to describe. There were very few buildings, but the place itself was inundated with nature. It was completely green and you could barely hear the sounds of the noisy highway once you were through the gates. The intention was to create tranquillity. To remove the impurities of the mind by purifying the landscape around them. It had a profoundly uplifting quality.

The students were mild mannered and wore simple white clothes. There was not much talking and people from all walks of life trundled barefoot through the landscape. It was only open to visitors on a Sunday afternoon for a few hours and so this was a chance for the outside world to creep in and take a peek. There was a point in my adolescence when I thought this could be my destination, but that seems like a long time ago now.

Before we left, Mum stood standing in front of the flowered gateway. She was crying and looking forward in silence. She told me how she remembered the last time she was here and spoke to the man who made this place a reality. He was sitting on a bench and greeted her like a distant uncle – she remembered seeing a twinkle in his eye but was too naïve to understand the impact that he would have in her life at that point. Years later she stood in the same spot and imparted that knowledge to us knowing that this was where it had all begun, where it had all started to make sense.

A stranger looking onward came over to ask her why she was crying. She said they were tears of longing joy. He smiled warmly and introduced himself and his wife. They made polite conversation and reminded us of the reasons why he was there – to reinvigorate his faith. Mum smiled back and looked at me with the same expression. She was not upset anymore. He took his leave and I never learned his name, but I remember his warm smile and the way his eyes lit up when we spoke.

That probably doesn’t mean much, but it made all the difference to me. There are many places here that will measure the size of your faith by the thickness of your wallet. They will try to fool you and capture your belief. However, I am forever grateful for the fact that my faith was presented to me as my decision. I was not told what to believe and not vilified for what I thought. It has always been a healthy process of re-assessment and contemplation.

I am happy to be a part of something that recognises the kindness and dignity of complete strangers. For a man to look at us and offer conversation as a means of solace, with no ulterior motive. When you can instil a thought like that, there isn’t the need for expensive prayers. Humanity is enough.

Five Minutes on your Birthday

We were up until about 1 o’clock this morning. However, we were not excited in the run up to ripping wrapping paper off gifts or preparing ourselves for a day of constant consumption, we were contemplating. My dad, brother and I, in the absence of being well enough to go to Church this year found ourselves sitting and watching Midnight Mass on the television; one of the few times we have not actually made it in person in my life.

My father made it a tradition well before I was born. That on the eve of Jesus’ birth, we would go to Church and be a part of a tradition that has spanned for over a thousand years. We are not Christians, but it would not be Christmas without hymns, carols, prayer and a sense of peace. Although that is lost on many this year and in the last few.

The holiday has changed – it has become many different things to many people now. I actually think it is great that people spend this time with their families and even if we need to spend lots of money, buy into a consumerist culture and do all of these things as pretence, then at least it is a start. Festivals are supposed to be about remembrance and if that enables you to stop and think, then you can only take the positives from that.

But don’t lose the meaning. It is like going to someone’s birthday party, eating all of their food, enjoying their hospitality and then forgetting to say “Happy Birthday!” to the host. The reason why you all turned up in the first place. Enjoy the festivities, and make the most of your time with your loved ones but realise the sacrifice that one man made, whether you believe in the story or not.

It is not about being pedantic, neither it is about being critical nor mocking the beliefs of others. There are days where we can put our arguments to the side and understand how important sacrifice is and how one individual personified this. I usually use Christmas to read the Bible, or to learn another story about a man that is so revered around the world. It is a shame that when we subscribe to so many fantastic characters, we forget Jesus Christ because Christianity becomes a barrier.

A Prophet in Islam, an Avatar in Hinduism and the Saviour in Christianity; there are very few individuals that many of the most prevalent religions have reverence for. Take some time to understand why he was so special, even if it just for a minute in between the Eastenders special and that movie you have been looking forward to seeing. Because when you tuck in to your dinner, there was someone who broke bread and wine for your salvation, whether you followed him or not, because he believed that you would be the answer.

He believed in man. In you. I don’t think 5 minutes out of your year on his birthday is too much to ask.

Race, Religion and Rationality

As seen in The Boar, University of Warwick’s student newspaper:

‘I am the prisoner of hope’ were the words spoken by Rev Reeves, founder of the Soul of Europe initiative, as he discussed how difficult it is to break down deep rooted barriers of faith and race in Eastern Europe. Listening to his missionary work in Bosnia and Serbia gave me deep reservations about the ability of human beings to respond to peace, when peace itself is considered a dirty word.

The discussion, run by the inimitable One World Week Forum team, was one of the most intellectually stimulating two hours of my time at Warwick. There was no room for rhetoric or dogma in the packed out Woods-Scawen Room of the Arts Centre, as each speaker eloquently gave a unique and intellectual take on the topic. One of my personal highlights was the presentation by Hull PhD student, Zhaleh Boyd, who discussed the ever present danger of slavery or trafficking in our society.

She commented: ‘The existence of slavery is dependent on the process of constructing otherness – the use of these differences allow certain minorities to have power over others.’ Her conclusion reflected the fact that race and religion were tools to differentiate individuals from their common values, and to focus on obscure, physical details in order to manipulate them. It was a frightening thought. The fact that someone’s name, skin colour, strength, place of birth, sex could be used to dehumanise them, and it is even more frightening that in some societies it is more commonplace than we think.

The most interesting aspect of the debate for me was the idea that religion and rationality could be used in the same sentence. It has been clear to me, especially living in a secular society, that those who have religious or spiritual beliefs are deemed to be irrational. It was refreshing to sit in a room with academics that could see the merit or religion in a world that seems to be constantly fighting it.

There is rationality in race and religion even if we choose to ignore it. Our very own chaplain, Rev Dr Alistair Kirk said: ‘The world is a religious place’ and we cannot continue to undermine this fact. We have to learn to embrace the fact that religion and race continue to do good in parts of the world that we have no contact with, with work that is funded on pittance and beans. Where only faith endures.

Even from the prosperity of One World Week itself, we can see that diversity is celebrated and promoted at a multicultural university. It is now time that our attitudes shifted towards maintaining these attitudes throughout the year. This is the legacy the co-ordinators hope to create.

Closet Prayer

There has been a lot of controversy, as of last week, which I have already commented on. However before that event even took place, I had been thinking about this post and about writing it. It seems a lot more potent now. After having various discussions with the more politically aware members of my peer group, it has become clear to me that atheist one-upmanship has become more and more prevalent in civilised debate. It has also become clear that anyone who has any leniencies towards organised religion is ignorant, stupid, easily-led or all of the above. So that led me onto a different thought process. Are moderately religious people in the closet in fear of being ridiculed?

With the amount of “religious” fanatics in the news recently, using their religion as an excuse to peddle their own bloodthirsty motives, can we blame moderates for keeping their beliefs to themselves? When they wrongly use a higher power as justification for their idiocy, it undermines a perfectly reasonable person who tries to discuss how spirituality can go hand in hand with rationalism given half the chance. The atheist argument stems down to the ideal that a deity or God cannot be empirically proved, and therefore does not exist. Without getting too bogged down in this, it is safe to say that gravity existed before Sir Isaac Newton thought about dropping any apples. Nevertheless, it seems that even the most intellectual individuals are being discredited purely because they seem to dabble in prayer.

Einstein, born into a Jewish family, disagreed. His combination of spirituality and scientific rationality, he claims, made him into the visionary that he wanted to be, because his belief system gave him a sense of place. In the same way, not all belief stems from religion and not all religion stems from God. It is true that religion itself has become a dirty word. It has connotations of rigidity, restriction and regression – but people have misunderstood it. When you use a word that has to be as all encompassing as religion needs to be, it is never going to be perfect and it will be abused. As civilised human beings we need to look past that.

So those of you that don’t want to admit that you disguise a cross underneath that jumper or that you wear a kara underneath your sleeve, be brave. Just because you believe in a God, or even if you don’t, but believe in a tradition or way of life…it doesn’t mean that you are not allowed an opinion. Although mind you, ‘because God say so’ is not a valid line of argument. You are open to a culture that has been cultivated over hundreds, over thousands of years – don’t denounce it because you can be deemed ‘irrational.’ Rationality is fickle and facts change every day – just because something is empirical doesn’t mean it is necessarily going to be right forever.

Don’t keep your spirituality in the closet. Don’t neglect your prayers if you are in a crowd of people. Don’t be ashamed – be proud. But most of all, do things with understanding, so if someone asks, you can respond and enlighten them with discussion. Denunciation occurs when there is general ignorance, for the party that does and doesn’t believe. So come out of your closet, and don’t be afraid to shut the door – because even if people don’t understand what you believe, for the most part they will respect your conviction.

Exceptions – Woolwich

I am not about to wade in with a half-measured opinion about the harrowing events of this week. Instead, I am more interested in opening a real discussion about the deeper issues that go past the mere description of the actions of two sociopathic individuals. What I really want to understand is not what happened, but the wider reaction to it from normal people – because that is where the debate and ignorance really lies.

The most important question that I want to answer is why we equate terrorism with religion? It seems that more and more, as attacks and horrible events occur, we seem to jump to the conclusion that it must be down to a religious fanatic? And we tend to place the blame on more monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam – as if those who hold these beliefs are collectively at fault for the actions of a select few. I am not saying that we all harbour extreme prejudice, but I will argue, that for a split second, even if it is just an instinct, when we hear the word ‘terrorist’, do we not think of ‘(religious) extremist’?

I am no conspiracy theorist, but there seems to be serious issues with the way in which these incidents are reported. One of things that infuriated me was the way in which Nick Robinson, political editor on the BBC, referred to the perpetrators as of “Muslim descendant” based on hearsay in Whitehall, rather than actual evidence which was accumulated hours later. It was bad journalism, and by all accounts, he should have known better. There was absolutely no reason to further perpetuate the stereotype, even if he claimed that it was based on a reliable source – it was wrong.

But does that open up the real prejudices that lie just beneath the surface? It seems like we don’t even know what terrorism is anymore. Terrorism is the use of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. The fact that we look to dive into the religious motivations of these idiots may be what they want us to do, but we should ignore it. We shouldn’t give them the satisfaction. When they tell us how the actions of our governments have made their lives and the lives of their ‘brothers and sisters’ intolerable, remind yourself that these people are isolated. When they tell us that we are killing innocent women and children, remember that you don’t have blood on your hands like they claim. When they tell us that they are killing in the name of their God, know that no God would condone murder in his/her name. Don’t buy into the theories of madness.

See them for who they truly are – disillusioned, violent, ignorant, stupid and most importantly, alone. They act alone and we should treat them as exceptions to the rule. Religious people are not in any way associated with terrorists, so don’t act out against them, otherwise you will be proving the excuses of the idiots that conduct these massacres. Violence begets more violence, hate begets more hate and death begets more death. Let’s stop making the same mistakes and start learning.