The question of religion

Religiously Inclined

Despite all the warnings, I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway. I want to  talk about religion. Undoubtedly, in the process, we’ll probably end up talking about politics, too, but at least by full-heartedly and bravely engaging these two controversial and fiery subjects, nothing can intimidate this endeavor.

Potential danger aside, I am a true lover of religion, even though I consider myself an atheist at this particular moment in time. My interest in religion stems from a long and complicated history in which people, places and dramas have left an indelible mark  on my religious identity.

It might strike some readers as strange that I am still drawn to thinking about and engaging with religious concepts, but what draws me to religion is that very complexity — people react strongly, even violently, to religious beliefs and happenings, whether in defense of them or in opposition. What also fascinates me is the process by which people pick their sides in religious debates, and I fear that in America especially, these are not well-informed decisions.

Therefore, my mission, not being a notably qualified religious scholar myself, is to “unpack”  — forgive my contribution to the Berkeley community’s frequent use of that verb — the many beautifully difficult religious traditions that pervade our culture on a daily basis with the goal of reducing (or hopefully eliminating) even the smallest feelings of distrust, intolerance or hatred that religious tension infamously inspires.

Over the past few years, my peculiar relation to religion has landed me in countless intense discussions with a wide variety of interlocutors, but I always try to be very clear that I do not aim to convert, only to promote broader understanding. One tricky case that I confront often is that of the religiously unreligious opponent — the “I just don’t care, religion is not a part of my life” mentality. I genuinely struggle to respond to this attitude. My aversion to conversion is so complicated that I hesitate even to try to convince people to care. However, I never understand how someone can find that religion is truly and completely absent from his or her life.

Just consider a few current examples: President Obama, although a self-proclaimed Christian, receives political criticism for his involvement in an “extremist” church and is constantly called a Muslim as a form of political debasement.

Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney, the first “non-Christian” — and I use that term hesitantly, as the relationship between Christianity and Mormonism is not simple — candidate to run for president in our national history, is consistently asked to defend his religious beliefs as part of his professional identity.

More locally, at UC Berkeley, the paint‐splattering holiday celebrated yearly on campus, known as Holi, is a Hindu tradition with an entirely more complex significance than just a brightly colored dance party on Lower Sproul.

I could happily continue pointing out the relevant intersections of religion and our culture, mostly because I have a secret fetish for finding instances of this convoluted relationship, but I won’t. Suffice it to say religion is an acting agent in our society whether we concern ourselves with understanding it or not.

Personally, I subscribe to the age-old belief that “knowledge is power,” and, as Americans lack any sort of state-required religious education, an exploration into some of the most basic and yet present religious sentiments and practices can be nothing but beneficial, in my opinion, especially if it prompts one of those “uncomfortable conversations” that I love to instigate.

This column is therefore essentially an invitation relying on simple curiosity mixed with a respectful desire to delve into some of the nuances of our subject. I am well aware of the fact that religion is going to be hard to fit in a weekly column, but this is meant to be just the tip of the iceberg.

I would like to think, thanks to a Cal Bear spirit that fears nothing, that there aren’t any truly “off-limits” topics. Didn’t you ever wonder why some students on campus wear hijab or what “kosher” really means? Or maybe you can’t get over the Hare Krishnas that walk around campus chanting and singing?

Maybe I’m the only one who gets my kicks by looking into these types of questions, but I highly doubt it. And since we face the end of the world again, according to the Mayan calendar this time — also based on their spiritual beliefs of how the world works, just sayin’ — then why the hell not?

Contact Hannah Brady at [email protected].