This post is a long one, so hold on to your seat and take a deep breath. 🙂
Is our true identity defined by our belief system?
My take on the issue of “christianity versus atheism” especially in the West is that the kind of christianity propagated by the instititional church systems tends to be the legalistic kind that heaps guilt and fear upon people. It is no wonder many people are shunning the christian religion and embracing atheism, thinking that atheism is the epitome of life, or the panacea to all the problems that are perceived to have been caused by the fundamentalist christian beliefs. Yet atheism in the West tends to take another extreme form, in that it is seen as a platform to actively oppose christianity. So this becomes an “us” versus “them” mentality for both the fundamentalist christian camps and the atheist camps.
I do think there can be a balance, which can be achieved by not subscribing to any form of label or outward identity to ourselves or others based on what we believe. After all, “atheism” and “christianity” are only different schools of thought, just like hinduism, taoism, buddhism and so on.
To be attached to a label can cause us to be tossed to and fro because our belief systems change every now and then – we are all constantly evolving over time as and when new revelations or circumstances pop up, and we keep revising our belief systems. So I think it is probably best to see ourselves and others as human beings, regardless of belief system.
When I look at a newborn baby for example, I don’t find myself trying to find out whether the baby is an atheist or a christian or a buddhist. We all want to hug and care for the baby simply because a baby is a baby who needs love and care. A baby doesn’t know whether he/she is an atheist or christian too, because a baby only knows how to just be a baby. Similarly, when we grow up, even though we may develop some schools of thought along the way, we remain a “baby”, so to speak – or more accurately, we remain a “human being”. I think this identity as a human being is something that does not change over time, even as our thinking changes and evolves.
This is something that the poem “Awake” below touches on too. It helps people awaken and remember who we really are – we are not defined by our beliefs (or lack of beliefs) – we are simply who we are by birth and by our original design.
Awake, Awake, Awake, to the Music in You
To the Poet in You
To the Love in You
To the Power in You
To the Artist in You
To the Greatness in You.
Awake to your Innocence
And remember who You are.
You are the Music
You are the Song
You are the Melody
You are a Workmanship, created in Love.
An imaginary conversation about “Who Am I?”
What happens when we try to define ourselves not based on our original design and blueprint but based on our belief system? We may find ourselves proclaiming we are christians one day, and then atheists another day, and then buddhists some other day, and so on.
Some of us may describe ourselves like this: “Once I was a buddhist when I was young, then I grew up and became a christian. But after some time, I decided to become an atheist. I call myself an ex-christian and ex-buddhist. Now I am thinking of embracing mysticism or agapethism (or fill-in-the-blanks).”
Even for those of us who subscribe to a mainstream belief system, we can see or imagine a conversation that goes something like this (if we are willing to be intellectually honest and courageous to examine our own beliefs and mental conditionings):
A: I decided to become a christian when I attended a church camp in my teenage years.
B: Really? So what denomination are you?
A: Well, I started off as a conservative baptist christian. I believed the Bible is inerrant (nevermind the translation errors) and Jesus will return literally.
B: Interesting. What happened after that?
A: Then, some guest minister came and preached about the baptism of the holy spirit. I thought it was cool, so I decided to become a charismatic christian and I spoke in tongues regularly.
B: Cool. And then what happened?
A: Then later, some human rights activists were decrying the spiritual abuse and condemnation caused by organised religion. It got me thinking about the church creed, and I questioned about the doctrines of hell. I came to the conclusion there is no literal hell. So I became a universalist christian.
B: Ooo — wouldn’t the calvinist and armenian christians and all those evangelical christians call you a heretic then?
A: You bet. It is not easy being a universalist christian. Then again, it is better than to live a life wondering about the kind of God evangelical christians believe in — one who is a mean, vengeful egomaniac.
B: So, are you still a universalist christian then?
A: Well, you know, even universalist christians don’t always believe the same things. Some believe all are reconciled to God already. Some believe one day all will be reconciled to God. Also, sometimes life is hard. Sometimes I don’t feel like God answers my prayers. Some of my friends are good at rationalising away things in life, dismissing religion and spirituality as myths and fairy tales. I am contemplating to become an atheist.
B: Oh, do you think God will be angry if you become an atheist?
A: Well, not really, because I come to understand God as love and only love. I’m sure God understands. Besides, we are already one with God, and God already knows what we are talking about even at this present moment — He is probably smiling and nodding in understanding. I believe the so-called “wrath of God” is simply something that the ancient people imagined in their mind because they felt separated from God and Jesus had to come to tell everyone the kingdom of God is within each of us.
B: So will you be an atheist?
A: Maybe, maybe not. I still believe there is God. But sometimes, I am not so sure. Maybe it is safer to call myself an agnostic. I know of people who call themselves atheist agnostics.
B: What a mouthful — atheist agnostics.
A: Haha, that’s nothing compared to some of the fancy terms some christians call themselves — such as the so-called “apostolic, Bible-believing, devil-chasing, tongue-talking, spirit-filled fundamentalist reformed evangelical protestant christian”. It’s as if it sounds very impressive to other people, eh?
B: You bet. I know of people who give themselves impressive-sounding titles like “Most Holy and Reverend Emeritus Professor of Theological and Theosophical Bible College and Seminary with Doctorates in this and that thesis” — you get the picture, yea. I’m half-exaggerating to make a point.
A: Yea, I know. Sometimes I wonder if it is all just in the mind. You know, these preachers talk about love but they don’t really demonstrate love in their life.
B: Oh yea?
A: Yea, some are like celebrity preachers and hardly mingle with the congregation.
B: So their teachings are just good-sounding doctrines, eh?
A: That’s right. They also are not very kind to their own peers who belong to other denominations. They will say “Well, I believe the Bible says X, Y and Z, but you believe the Bible says A, B and C. So I am now officially disfellowshipping with you and your church because you are a heretic and misled by the devil. Farewell.”
B: That’s serious, man.
A: You bet. And so Preacher A calls Preacher B a heretic, and Preacher B calls Preacher A a legalist. And so on and so forth.
B: Wow, whatever happens to love and unity?
A: That’s why I don’t want to associate myself with mainstream christianity anymore, you see. I don’t want to be a hypocrite, or look like one to others. Sometimes a secular humanist is better at human relationships and seeks to champion or promote social justice better than an average evangelical or mainstream christian minister.
B: You are not judging people, are you?
A: Not really — it is more like stating an observation. There are good and caring ministers everywhere, no doubt, regardless of whether they are in the christian or muslim or buddhist or whatever spiritual or religious circles.
B: So where are you at now, spiritually speaking?
A: I don’t know. I am constantly evolving in my belief systems. Maybe it is better not to label myself based on my belief system. It can be tough trying to revise the terminology to fit in my ever expanding and ever growing understanding of the divine, of the world, of life in general. Any label would be restrictive and may even impede my spiritual progress or development, so to speak.
B: I suppose many people wouldn’t agree with you. They like to fit you in a particular category in their conversations for ease and convenience of reference.
A: Yea, I understand, but life isn’t always so clear-cut. There are always grey areas. For example, at which point do I consider myself to belong to a particular belief system that has a label without contradicting myself at some other point in time when my belief system evolves to another level of understanding? I think man-made labels like “christian”, “calvinist”, “lutheran” etc are best taken with a pinch of salt, if they are worth any salt to begin with.
B: That’s true. Talking about salt, aren’t you already the salt of the earth, metaphorically speaking?
A: That’s a good analogy. Thank you. So are you. You are the light of the world.
B: Thank you. I gotta get going. I wish you a pleasant day.
A: You too. Namaste.