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Essay: Losing my religion

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, July 24, 2017  /  09:10 am
Essay: Losing my religion

What disturbed me most was how religious teachings were blatantly abused to control and subjugate people, particularly the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. (Shutterstock/File)

In 2010, I attended the final session of a closed critical discussion group questioning religious dogmas. Our college professor, who facilitated our discussions, had requested that we bring our Bibles that day, causing me to raise my eyebrows. That day, I understood why.

He asked us to raise our bibles. “Now, those of you who no longer believe in the authority of the good book, slam your bibles,” he said. No sound was heard for a few minutes… then, slam! We remained quiet for a few awkward seconds before around 30 people inside that room began to stare at me. “Me in the corner. Me in the spotlight. Losing my religion,” to quote the lyrics of REM’s 1991 song “Losing My Religion.”

I woke up that morning in a cold sweat. Thankfully, it was “just a dream,” as Michael Stipe sings in that song. My outrage at how religion abuses its power, however, was — and still is — more than just a dream.

I was questioning my religious faith when I was a college student, having read books such as Richard Dawkins’ seminal work The God Delusion as well as Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. I was curious about reading these books because certain people warned me that “the books could make you lose your faith.” Showing the hubris of a 19-year-old, I read the books in order to demonstrate that my faith would not be shaken at all. How naïve, right?

What disturbed me most was how religious teachings were blatantly abused to control and subjugate people, particularly the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

In 2010, after being propelled by certain events, I was radicalized as an anti-religion crusader, posting messages on the matter on Facebook (looking back, I realized that my actions were quite risky, considering that there are blasphemy and internet laws). One of the driving forces was the fact that 2010 was the year in which circumstances forced me to stop lying to myself and really come to terms with the fact that I am gay.

I began to see how the Christian church and people who claimed to walk Christ’s path of compassion could be very judgmental and have no compassion at all for their LGBT family members. I also saw how the Christian right-wing in America, the Westboro Baptist Church for one, could be very hateful toward the LGBT community, as well as women, Jews and Muslims.

This religious delusion is leading us to be cruel to each other. A rising Indonesian LGBT scholar and activist once wrote on their Facebook account that Christians should “love your neighbors, except when they’re gay.”

Quite recently, certain friends confided in me that they’ve started to doubt their faith after witnessing how religion has been grossly politicized during the divisive and highly sectarian election in Jakarta. Families and friends — from different or even the same religion — were quarrelling because of political choices and moral righteousness, thanks to politicians who used religion without any concern about sincere religious faith, but only to obtain power.

In a book called Ethno-religious Violence in Indonesia: From Soil to God, edited by Chris Wilson (Routledge, 2008), readers could comprehend how religious dogmas and the figure of God may serve as a potent justification for people to commit atrocities. Religions have always been atrocious and cruel. Remember how the church used to burn “witches” at the stake?

The secularization process driven by science and technology, however, has somewhat distorted religious teachings. On the one hand, most people have begun to shy away from literal readings of religious scriptures. But on the other hand, and this is more dangerous, the comprehension of religious doctrines has a greater tendency to be twisted from sincere confession of faith into commoditization for political and economic purposes. This commoditization, coupled with what philosopher Jürgen Habermas terms as “the revivalism of religion” brought by the spiritually dry modern life, creates a lethal mix.

This explains all the hatred we observe from around the world, whether against LGBT, women, Muslims, Christians and many more. The use of religions as political identities has somehow made the “us versus them” distinction fiercer, leading to endless conflicts and violence.

Observing the moral arrogance of people around me, I became skeptical, even cynical toward religion. I stopped going to church, I could not even pray anymore. I know a lot of people who perform their religious rituals regularly yet still treat others unfairly.

Then I was forced to get out of my black-and-white reasoning. In 2014, I was invited to a seminar on LGBT issues at the Jakarta Theological Seminary (STT Jakarta). The seminar was organized by a priest who found it distressing to see LGBT individuals being rejected by their families and congregations because of their sexual orientation. My eyes were opened a bit when I saw a number of theologians and Christians there who, no matter what religious doctrine they subscribed to, still chose to see those of the LGBT community as dignified human beings instead of reducing them to labels denoting sexual orientations.

I also went to a Buddhist meditation camp in 2015 at a friend’s invitation and participated in a 12-day silent retreat. Despite all the violence in the name of God that was going on out there, I felt deep human kindness and compassion in both places. I discovered for myself that this is what it looks like when people practice sincere faith.

Because faith is something very personal — “Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” Matthew 7:1 says — I began to understand what that meant. Life is tough for everyone. Instead of being judgmental, thereby exacerbating someone else’s suffering, why don’t we try to alleviate the pain instead?

In the end, my friends and I — who are questioning our religious faith — can be at peace with ourselves again. In the end, only kindness matters. We no longer care what someone’s religion is as long as we see deep kindness.

We also begin to see the bright side of religion as a system. Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion ( 2012 ) show that religions do have a positive side as they encourage a sense of community and motivate prosocial behavior. We also begin to recognize that there is gold in every religious tradition.

Apparently, spirituality is at the core of such positive things. As Brené Brown says, “faith minus vulnerability equals extremism, faith plus vulnerability equals spirituality.” We opt for the latter. After all, it is better to be vulnerable and continuously reinvent our spiritual convictions than to have religious doctrines shoved down our throats, propelling us to be brutal extremists.

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