How does the saying go? “Religion is like your penis: it’s fine to have one and to be proud of it, but don’t whip it out in public and start waving it around.” I saw that on a billboard once, while studying in the US. This was back before “friend” was a verb, but I’ve since seen the saying posted several times on my Facebook wall. I laughed heartedly when I first saw it, and even found myself agreeing. But after having spent many years living in Africa and the Middle East, I’ve changed my tune.
Now, let’s for a moment put aside the fact that a saying with the word “penis” in it should be the one inciting my internal reflection, and let’s instead consider the consequences of keeping our religion personal. Or rather, of pretending that religion is a personal issue. It’s not. Religion is very much a public issue, and claiming it’s not only keeps us from understanding the depths to which religion shapes our reality.
At what point do you stop labeling other people’s beliefs as ludicrous, and instead ask yourself why you are so adamantly opposed to open your mind to things that seem crazy?
Religion functions in the minds of teachers, politicians, parents, and leaders. Religion shapes their values, morals, and worldviews, regardless of whether they admit it or even are aware of it. Ask yourself this: does the leader of your country believe in angels? Does your colleague practice voodoo? Does the man sitting opposite you on the bus talk to God sometimes? Do your friends believe that evil spirits can possess human beings? Now ask yourself: did you find some of those things more ‘normal’ than others?
Some religious beliefs seem safer and less scary than others. Eating a piece of bread that has been transformed to the flesh of Jesus, for instance. Perfectly acceptable for some. Eating the uncooked entrails of a rabbit. Not so cool. Crazy even. Being scared that a witch might place a voodoo spell on you so that you grow genital organs in your forehead? Insane and uneducated? Worrying that your country will be doomed to hell because gay marriage was made legal? A bit extreme perhaps, but understandable?
I once dated a man with genuine fears of the voodoo spell described above. He was a successful businessman, educated in Europe, spoke about five languages, and had an impeccable sense of style (not that any of those things should matter, really). I affectionately remember him as both kind and intelligent.
We met while I lived in Rwanda, and it wasn’t until I had known him for some months that this particular religious view came up. He wasn’t joking either. He had seen it, he said. He had seen voodoo in practice, and was absolutely convinced it were real. How can you argue with that? I mean, at what point do you stop labeling other people’s beliefs as ludicrous, and instead ask yourself why you are so adamantly opposed to open your mind to things that seem crazy?
A Congolese friend opened up to me about his weekly meetings with a Christian minister who helped him chase out the devils living in his body. The evil spirits made him drink alcohol and have sex, but could evidently be driven out by reciting the right prayers. In Lebanon, I became friends with a Muslim woman who believed pork meat made men lose their sense of jealousy. When men ate pork, therefore, they no longer felt protective of their girlfriends or wives, and didn’t care whether they slept with other men. In the US, a dear friend of mine told me about his belief that Man was created by God five thousand years ago, and that dinosaur bones were placed in the Earth by God Himself in order to test Man’s ability to still believe in Him.
A Ghanaian woman I met was a hardworking doctor, and a respected researcher within HIV/AIDS prevention. She also believed that AIDS could be healed by God, and that the power of Jesus would bring salvation to all who suffered. A British man I met at a recent conference in Europe told me about how the West had risen to power through Christianity and the blessing of God. He and I shared a meal, and I asked him about his views on God, Islam, atheism, religion in politics, and much more.
You will never learn as much about a person— or indeed the human race as a whole— as when you get to know the things he or she believes in.
The people I’ve described here are just a few of my many encounters over the years: people I’ve met and gotten to know, and people I’ve invited to share with me their religious and spiritual beliefs. These are men and women whose work I admire, and some of whom have become very close friends.
Religion is a sensitive issue. I get that. And I am wiling to bet money that some of you are feeling angry or annoyed right about now. Some of you will think to yourself that I probably found the most extreme cases on my travels, or that the friends I’ve made are simpleminded. They are not. They are all intelligent, perceptive, and curious individuals. Many of them have university degrees and hold a lot of power in their communities. Some of you might think I’m trying to portray people with religious beliefs as backwards and ridiculous. That is not my intent. I’m not trying to offend anyone (but one must wonder why we are so afraid to do so when it comes to religion).
Some of you might have travelled the world, and you believe that people you’ve met are just like you, at least deep down. This is a beautiful perception, and one I agree with completely. Still, I urge you to do the following the next time you arrive at a new place: Talk God with the locals. No matter the similarities you might find between you and the many wonderful people you meet on your travels, talking God will reveal new aspects of any relationship. You will never learn as much about a person— or indeed the human race as a whole— as when you get to know the things he or she believes in. You might even start questioning your own beliefs (or for some, the lack thereof).
Is religion a good thing? Does it make us kinder and more open-minded? Does it bring us closer or push us apart? Is it a difference between believing in ghosts or spirits or angels or fairies? Can you respect a person who honestly believes in supernatural forces? Would you respect your boss if she believed in magic? Are religious beliefs compatible with leading a country or educating children or healing the sick? Why are you religious? Because it’s true? Why are you not religious? Because you know better?
These are some of the questions I have been presented with simply by bringing up religion in conversation with the people I’ve met where I’ve travelled and worked. I’ve found that religion can be scary and destructive, as well as inspiring and comforting. The way humans worship varies greatly between cultures and environments.
Is religion a good thing? Does it make us kinder and more open-minded? Does it bring us closer or push us apart?
Still, I believe religion is what bridges us all together. Truly. How incredible is it that humans across the globe should all have such vivid and wondrous spiritual conceptions inside their heads? How insane is it that so many people fail to see and celebrate the commonalities between their belief systems and instead look at the others with fear or ridicule?
As world travellers, we should not settle for good times spent with new friends. We should make an effort to get to the very core of the people we encounter. To me, the most efficient way to do that is to bring up religion. Try it out yourself, and get ready to be blown away by the richness of people’s spiritual lives!