A little less than fifteen years ago, when I was a teenage school student, I had a teacher who was teaching a religion class. She was a Christian, and she fervently believed in the teachings of Jesus. She used to quote sayings from the New Testament on love and the importance of spreading kindness and compassion in our unkind and cruel world. She often spoke about the urgent need of humanity to unite and work together for a brighter future, and explained how people’s alienation from one another is at the root of the troubling times we currently live in.
When she was teaching Christianity, she seemed overflown with joy. Her job, however, wasn’t just to teach Christianity, but the world’s major religions, including Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which she didn’t seem to enjoy that much. Whenever she taught religious traditions other than Christianity, she would be very dismissive of them. In her mind, Christianity was the ideologically superior religion, and she wouldn’t encourage us students to objectively study the rest of world’s religions. On the contrary, she would try to persuade us in any way possible to believe that all religions except Christianity are not to be taken seriously. She even claimed that all other religions are evil and made use of fear-mongering tactics to make us stay away from them. For example, she would tell us that those who don’t abide by the dogma of Christianity will end up in hell — a dogmatic belief that is common among fundamental Christians.
No matter how much she tried, however, I couldn’t be convinced a bit, unlike most of my classmates. Was it because I was raised by non-religious parents, or was there something terribly wrong with me? I wasn’t sure, but one thing is certain: no claims of her concerning the superiority of Christianity made any sense to me.
As a teenager, I had a curious mind and an inquiring spirit. The only problem was that I also had a loud mouth and I would voice my opinions, even when they were contradicting those of authority. I remember one day during the religion class, I presented some of what I sincerely considered solid logical arguments against the Christian dogma. Instead of presenting her counter-arguments, my teacher responded by saying that I was not mature enough to understand the essence of Christianity, and that reason can’t fathom its essence since it’s a faith-based religion. Of course, I didn’t consider this as legitimate answer, and so I kept on bringing up my arguments. To my surprise, her face turned red, she started yelling at me and eventually expelled me from class, because, as she later told me, she felt offended by my “anti-Christian” attitude.
On that day, I wondered: Is this the same person who previously taught about the power of love and unity? How can she preach such lofty ideals and practice quite the opposite? I was utterly perplexed, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that this is a much more common behavior among people than I had first thought.
In my 29 years of life, I’ve had the luck to travel to over thirty countries, and during my trips around the world I had the chance to meet people from various religious traditions. An interesting thing that I always came to experience was that the people who were believing the most in a religious dogma were also the ones who behaved in the most paradoxical way. On the one hand, they would preach love, compassion, unity — the core teachings of most religions — but, on the other hand, they would behave in a very hateful, competitive, non-humane way, especially to those who don’t espouse their beliefs. In other words, they were the ones less likely to practice what they preached.
But why is that so? What could be the possible explanation for this strange psychological phenomenon?
To my understanding, this is an inevitable outcome of being attached to an ideology, whether that is religious or not. When you accept a particular ideology as the sole truth, and you have so much faith in it that you support it and follow it wholeheartedly no matter what — even when facts contradict your beliefs — then your mental capacity to think reasonably and act responsibly is nowhere to be found. In that fanatic, blinded state of mind, you identify yourself so much with a belief system that, if someone is opposed to it, you feel threatened by that person, since you’re under the impression that when your ideology is attacked, you yourself are being attacked. Then, as a psychological defense mechanism, you are ready to do just about anything to protect your ideology and hence yourself.
When existential fear is coupled with irrationality, the result can’t be anything but nonsensical and damaging. Take, for example, the suicide attacks of Jihadists who blow themselves up injuring and killing so many people in the name of God. Or think of the times in India where the Hindu custom of Sati used to be practiced, where Hindu widows would jump into their husband’s funeral pyre shortly after their husbands’ death, believing that this way they would prove to God and society how good and devoted wives they were. Or, contemplate on the witch-hunt of Early Modern Europe when so-called Christians tortured, burned or hanged tens of thousands of women because they thought them to be servants of the Devil. Such fanatic religious people sincerely believe that they are serving God through such violent actions and that this way they are contributing to the betterment of humanity and the world.
In the case of my religion school teacher, her behavior towards me was obviously not as destructive, but it was essentially of the same nature. Her firm belief that the religious ideology she was advocating was the only absolute truth prevented her from conversing in a constructive dialogue concerning Christianity. In order to avoid her ideology being attacked, she would discourage her students to raise arguments against it, and, if they did, she would try to silence them by telling them that they have no idea what they are talking about, or, at worst, by expelling them from class. Regardless of how hatefully at times she behaved, in her mind she was doing the right thing for the rest of her students and for the religion she believed in — she was acting out of “love.” Trapped in her dogmatic belief system, she could neither realize the extent of her cognitive dissonance nor the true consequences of her actions.
What this and the aforementioned examples can teach us is that it’s not a good idea to base our opinions on how ethical a person is according to their words, beliefs and ideals — on the contrary, we need to pay attention to their actions and derive our conclusions about who they are from there. No matter how highly one talks of god, love, compassion, and so on, it is their actions and attitude that ultimately reveal what they are made of.
I read somewhere a quote that struck a chord in my heart: “Sometimes, the nicest people you meet are covered in tattoos and sometimes the most judgmental people you meet go to church on Sundays.” How true that statement is! Many times, those who seem “bad” according to society’s standards have the warmest hearts and those who appear to perfectly conform to the prevailing cultural idea of what it means to be a “good” person are often the ones having the most inflated egos and a very judgmental attitude towards their fellow human beings.
Unfortunately, many people are quick to put labels on others and judge them based on their prejudices. “They are non-believers, therefore they must be immoral, evil individuals,” I’ve heard theists talk about atheists. I’ve also heard atheists talk in a similar fashion towards theists: “They are believing in God, therefore they must be ignorant morons.” To me, it doesn’t matter whether you call yourself Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Capitalist, Communist, Libertarian, Conservative, or anything else — what matters to me is how the ideology you hold in dear faith is affecting your thought-patterns and in turn your day-to-day behavior. Does it help improve your quality of life and the well-being of the world you’re living in? If so, that’s fine. If not, you better reconsider it. Of course, the sad truth is that the more attached one is to an ideology, the less one can objectively assess the consequences of their dogmatic beliefs.
Personally, I’ve chosen to not identify myself with any particular religious, philosophical, political, or any other kind of ideology. The reason for doing so isn’t a lack of interest in acquiring knowledge — on the contrary, I’m so enthusiastic about developing a spherical understanding of reality that I find a single ideology can only limit my perspective of life. Reality is multi-sided and attachment to an ideology or set of beliefs focuses our attention only to a tiny part of it, thus making us neglect the larger view. Therefore, the more open we are to diverse opinions and beliefs, the more able we’ll be to increase our intelligence and grow in our understanding. So why would I want to confine my mind to any particular ideology?
Of course, what I mean by “being open” isn’t blindly accepting what others present you as truth. What I mean is paying attention to different ideas than the ones you’ve been conditioned to have, while using critical thinking in order to reach your own conclusions about them from your own empirical, evidence-based understanding.
Although I enjoy studying and learning from all kinds of schools of thought, I don’t accept anything on belief alone. I always make sure to use my reasoning, and I only keep in my mind and heart the ideas that resonate with me and help me to lead a better life, while I discard those that don’t contribute to my well-being, regardless of the ideology they are derived from. For example, I’ve found pearls of wisdom in all of the major religious scriptures, but I’ve also discovered disturbing and nonsensical teachings in them that I would never embrace or practice just because they are considered holy by certain groups of people.
In addition, being aware that actions speak louder than words, I don’t try to impose my own opinions on others. Instead, I live by example, knowing that only this way I can truly influence those around me. I’m trying to be as conscious of my actions as I can and I take full responsibility for their consequences. I don’t conform to the unconscious herd mentality, I don’t obey to authority, and whenever others are trying to mold my life into a certain form, I rebel against them in order to reclaim my freedom.
Sometimes I imagine a world where people don’t judge one another based on their beliefs, and instead embrace each other no matter their cultural background. A world where people don’t fight one another just because they hold different opinions, and instead are willing to peacefully exchange ideas so they can learn from each other. A world where people seek to develop their understanding and expand their consciousness, instead of accepting and blindly following all the narrow-minded ideological burden that was handed down to them by tradition. A world where people are willing to doubt their beliefs and raise new questions, instead of letting others tell them what is right and true. A world where people are unafraid to listen to their inner voice and follow what their heart is dictating them, instead of following a predetermined path that was forced upon them by authority figures.