Saturday, December 5, 2009

On Religion

I got Hare Krishna'd the other day in the street in Tallinn, near Kaubamaja. Not for the first time...Still, far less likely to get mormonized here, than was the case in when I was working in Riga (which I'm now calling little Utah).
The guy who approached me was perfectly pleasant and not wearing any weird clobber. I later saw him having reeled someone in, a woman, they were speaking in Russian. I think that could be a part of the reason the mormons don't seem to meet with as much success, they're outsiders and, even if they may make some progress with members of the Russian community (as I think their organisation trains them up in that language, certainly all the mormons who've ever approached me have opened in Russian) they're still outsiders. Furthermore, approaching native Estonian speakers in the street in Russian isn't likely to endear yourself to them. It's just the way it is. Better to speak English.
I suspect the real reason is that Estonians simply aren't a very religious bunch at all; as you'll see, if you can find Estonia on a map, according to this survey they're right down there below even Sweden in non-belief in a deity, and coupled with a marked uneasiness with strangers makes for proselytizers having a pretty thin time of it here, especially in the winter!
I've been reflecting that, if this street proselytisation is valid (and I'm inclined to think it isn't, though if there's to be freedom of information I'm not sure how else one tackles that particular arena, for those that are genuinely interested but lack access to information) the 'correct' religion that a person could end up in might just be based on such happenstance of who you bumped into in the street. Which seems to me just wrong. No doubt they'd refer to that as God's will, providence etc, that this encounter happened. Which in some cases it could be - if the person was out looking for answers. On that other hand what if they were bludering along half drunk, or looking for a way to rebel against authority figures, or just to stand out from the crowd.
And this is my real beef with organised religion. Not that I think the whole thing is based on a lie; as an agnostic I don't believe you can prove one way or another about the existence of God, though from my own personal feelings and intuition there's something resounding down the ages, providing a basic moral framework (are there any countries where you get anything other than punished for murder, as murder?). There are truths to be found in all of the major religions and probalby most of the minor ones too. But...I believe, if you spend any time with people who claim to be representing an organized religion, sooner or later, you'll run into one or more of the following as the real reason behind their adherence:

1) cultural and historical (they were 'born a catholic' or whatever. Noone is born anything other than a baby human).
2) a badge (ie, 'you're not one of us').
3) to stand out ('my religion's different (ie better) than yours/the majority religion', etc etc).
4) to rebel ('my family were prods so I'm gonna spite them by converting to catholicism').
5) to conform ('my family are catholic and they'd never speak to me if I left the fold').
6) to get a sense of belonging ('catholics are different').
7) to get a sense of importance (you can 'be' somebody even if you're a nobody in everyday life).
8) to dominate others (religions vary hugely on hierarchies or the absence thereof, with catholicism way up there, islam much less so but with a nasty tendency to throw up self appointed seeming troublemakers. As an aside, this is a trait religions can share with the world of ESL teaching).
9) to prey (note spelling!) on others sexually (speaks for itself).
10) for something to do (especially for old ladies).
11) compelled to do it (forced attendance at 'worship', and I'm not only talking about the Taliban but this might include, in the US, court-mandated attendance at 12-step 'meetings', for example.
12) a sense of being a world changer, and almost messianic figure (Bono).
13) to proselytize (in islam it's called 'dawa'. In other words you get more kudos for the more people you hook in, and are really little more than a salesman or woman).
14) for the laughs (especially true of judaism!).
15) because you believe it is truth (ok this one's ok).

..there are probably loads of other reasons I haven't identified.

I'm not some pleb who's just watched a Richard Dawkins 'lecture' or something and proceeded to reel it off as if it's my own opinion; I've actually studied some of the major religions (including islam) in quite a lot of depth and even in the past been an active participant in (christian) communities, and as noted, I see myself as agnostic, not atheist.
I haven't really defined 'organized' and 'religion' and there's a certain vagueness here which doesn't make things any easier; indeed there collocation could be used to describe to a greater or lesser extent anything from the really major world religions, through to the smaller ones, social clubs, shamanistic local practices, crazy cults and even the 12 step groups of alcoholics anonymous and its clones.
This isn't an attempt to cause offence by dissing the various named and unnamed religions and I'd always welcome freedom of religious expression for all, including attire, right to worship, etc, something that you're unlikely to get as a dhimmi in some countries where islam prevails. But there has to be a trade off, including the right to criticize or portray religion and even God in a humourous light. But this has been raked over and over again enough in the media already, I'm not adding fuel to that fire..

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