Me? Oh, well, I don’t have a faith. And, no, I’m not interested in getting one either.
That was my polite non-answer when asked about my religious beliefs by two Christians who stopped by Aditya’s and my doorstop to proselytize last weekend. And it was as true, as far as it goes – I’m not one much for simple faith in any context. When discussing my religious beliefs with friends & family, I’m most likely to to describe myself simply as an atheist. But when I’m feeling a little mischievous – or argumentative – I’ll sometimes put in that I’m an atheist – and a Hindu.
Yeah, it’s a bit of a complicated situation; I blame Aditya for it completely. Like many other things in my life, religion is something that has become more complicated since we set off on our intercultural marriage adventure.
My religious past
Growing up, I’d describe my family as nominal Christians, like so many other Americans. We’d occasionally go to church, we’d celebrate Christmas and Easter with both secular and religious iconography & stories, and one summer I went to a day Bible camp at the urging of my (more religious) grandparents.
I never really “got” religion. When I went to church while my grandparents were visiting it was because after Sunday School they served doughnuts! And juice! At five I was junk-food deprived. I did try to understand & believe in what I heard in church and from family members – I distinctly remember trying to fit the Christian story of creation together with my understanding of evolution when I was six:
Maybe the kids of Adam and Eve interbred with the evolved humans, and people who are particularly stupid or do bad things like murder and steal are that way because they have more monkey genes!
Moral theory, eugenics and faith-based science in one sentence from a six year old! (There are family members who are surprised that I’ve managed to grow up into a reasonably sane adult.) To compound things further, when I was ten I stumbled onto both Dostoevsky and philosophy, and, well, early exposure to that sort of thing is bound to screw a kid up. In my case, Ivan Karamazov’s presentation of the problem of the evil rocked my world view, and ultimately led me to disbelieve in an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent god:
Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?
Since then I’ve read significantly on religion, ethics, and the philosophy of religion, but nothing I’ve read has given me such a strong punch to the gut – and nothing has changed my mind on the nonexistence of the Abrahamic God. That, along with strong leanings towards secular Humanism and a scientific mindset were all of my “religious” beliefs when I met Aditya.
Hinduism & Aditya
Aditya is very up front about his religious beliefs. While I wouldn’t call my husband a “spiritual person”, many of his actions and thoughts seem to flow from his religious background and beliefs – like many Hindus I know.
He’ll be writing his own post on the topic of religion and our relationship, so I won’t attempt to explain his religious beliefs myself – suffice it to say, he calls himself an atheistic Hindu – although pantheistic Hindu might be more accurate. Prior to meeting him, I had very little knowledge of Hinduism, besides the fact that it talked about reincarnation. I did know it had something to do with reincarnation, and lots of gods. Speaking of, here’s a Fun Reincarnation Anecdote: as a barbaric, bloodthirsty child I used to go out after it rained to get rid of the snails in our garden. My mom initially objected to my use of a salt shaker as the weapon of choice, but desisted when I appealed to her vague hippie leanings that the snails were probably just people who had been very bad in past lives, and were getting what was coming to ‘em. That Russian literature, it screws a person up, I’m telling you.
Anyways, when Aditya and I first became a serious couple one of my first actions was to audit a Hinduism course, as described in this post – although I admit part of my motivation was to end the association I had between Hinduism and evil snails. Each new aspect of Hinduism that I discovered through the class led to hours of discussion with Aditya as I learned about the specific practices he and his family followed (none of it included snails).
After these discussions I never worried that religion would be a source of friction in our relationship because our belief sets, while somewhat different, are mutually respectable and give us similar Weltanschauungs (worldviews). I think both of these – respect of the other’s beliefs, and similar mindsets, if not similar beliefs – are key to a successful relationship. I know that I could never have a serious romantic relationship with a Christian or moral relativist simply because those beliefs are antithetic to mine – and given my fascination with philosophy of religion and metaethics we’d never quit arguing about it. And as Aditya will attest, I am a classically-trained s.o.b. in a philosophical argument.
It also helped that I find many of the religious texts of Hinduism – particularly the Gita and the Upanishads – incredibly meaningful as philosophy, albeit not presented in the analytical framework I’m most familiar with. And while I don’t hold with the superstitions of any religion, including Hinduism, I certainly don’t think that the rituals and traditions of Hinduism are bunk, as I discussed in this blog post on intercultural acceptance. Rather, for me, ritual and tradition are the containers within which substance is stored – they create meaning in the same way as performative speech.
Becoming a Hindu?
While I incorporated some Hindu beliefs and rituals in my daily life and thoughts since studying the religion in college, I have only been somewhat comfortable calling myself a Hindu since having an Arya Samaj wedding a year & a half ago. Until that point I would have said that I agree with some Hindu philosophy (I use “some” as a modifier since the heterogeneity of Hinduism means that no one can coherently accept all parts of Hindu philosophy). So why the change?
Well, as a wife of a Hindu man, a daughter in a Hindu family, and a eventual mother of Hindu kids, I am now not just a believer in some Hindu thought , but also a participant in Hindu culture and family life. And for me, personally, that makes the difference between being a Hindu and believing in some parts of Hinduism. It’s an odd distinction to many Westerners, I think, who are use to the straightforward conversion processes in Abrahamic religions, which have relatively clearer doctrines of faith than most religions developed in Asia, which can often be atheistic in nature.
Hinduism’s mark can be seen in our household – if you look closely – but day-to-day life isn’t much different than what you would expect in your typical nonreligious Western home. There’s a shelf of religious texts above my shelf of ethics & philosophy books. One flat surface in the house plays host to a Nataraja, a Buddha, incense, and a growing collection of Ganishas – but also has Indian knicknacks and the occasional tea mug. Setting up a better puja area is on the long to-do list…
But, really, that’s about it. We don’t go to Hindu temple regularly, despite the fact that there’s two temples within ten miles (I wasn’t joking when I wrote that we now live in the Desi suburbs of DC). We don’t follow many common rituals – and there’s certainly no daily household pujas happening here! Right or wrong, I do sometimes feel that this lack of outwardly trappings of Hinduism makes my claim on Hinduism less “real”, at least to others. This is a relatively recent phenomenon – when I was simply a humanist atheist I never questioned whether my identity in that group was real or not. I suspect part of the issue is simply the way Aditya and I are settling into life and looking for a community; I’ve even been considering hitting up the local Unitarian Universalists to see if we’d fit in there, with our atheistic notions and statues of gods. The two, after all, are an odd combination to most people.
In the end though, I feel extremely comfortable with my philosophical and religious beliefs. Hinduism was an unexpected addition to my philosophy, but I have no doubt that I’m much richer for it (Aditya was unexpected too – so help me, as a preteen I had a grand plan of studying math at CalTech, getting an MBA in Switzerland, and marrying an Austrian). And while it’d be pure hubris to say I’ve got this whole religion thing figured out by my mid-twenties, I do think I’ve developed a good structure on which to grow my understanding in the future. And, hey, I’ve always got my Russian literature to fall back on.
(Not Leo Tolstoy though – he’s a religious fruitcake.)