I remember once in my student days meeting a fellow-student who was wearing a turban and said he was a Sikh. I had never met a Sikh before, but when I started asking questions, his response was, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know much about my religion’. I was too polite to say it, but I thought, ‘What an odd thing to say! How can you have a religion you don’t know much about?’
Of course, we were coming from different definitions of religion. To him, religion was a cultural identity, a heritage he had only partially taken possession of. To me, in my modern Western, individualistic culture, religion meant one’s own personal belief. If I don’t know what I believe, who does? I could say I am the world’s leading expert on my religion! Today, I would define religion in a different way. I see it as a tradition or an institution, very much in the sense in which that Sikh saw it. When talking personally I would be more inclined to use the word ‘faith’.
More and more people today are turning away from organised dogmatic religion and embracing a faith or a worldview which is truly their own. We are seeing the end of the age of dogma and hierarchy. Traditionally, people have believed what their preachers and church leaders have taught them – or, more often than is admitted, pretended to believe it. In past centuries this was backed up by legislation. If you were born in Catholic Europe, you had to be a Catholic. If you were born in a Protestant country, you had to be a Protestant. If you denied the religion of the country you lived in, you were in danger of being burned at the stake. This was just as true of other religions, with varying forms of punishment. In fact, there are still countries where people can be imprisoned or even executed for turning away from the prescribed religion.
In countries like Britain and the United States today faith is seen as an individual free choice, but even so it is only very recently that blasphemy laws and censorship have ceased to be enforced. And, whether backed up legally or not, there is still pressure to conform to the religion in which we were brought up, or the predominant religion of the community we belong to.
This is changing. More and more people today identify themselves as being of ‘no religion’, or ‘spiritual but not religious’. They are working out their own beliefs about the meaning of life and the universe. Theology may sound a grand word, something religious scholars do in their studies, but in a sense any of us who are trying to break free from what we think we ought to believe and set out on a journey to discover what we really believe are doing theology.
Not everyone takes this journey. Many people let the platitudes of their religion flow over their heads without taking them seriously. Most at some time or other question the faith they have been taught. They are often too polite to express their doubts openly in case the religious authorities label them as heretics. But all religion is based on human experience, and if your experience makes you feel that something is true, meaningful, and important, your feeling is valid.
As a Christian minister, I have often said that I don’t have the answers to questions about God, life or the universe. The only difference between me and the people in the pews is that I have read more books about the answers other people have suggested, but nobody can guarantee that they have the ‘correct’ answer. We are all just human beings trying to understand our human experience. To do this, we need to practise honesty. Sometimes, too, we need the courage to break away both from what is traditional and from what is fashionable, and dare to say what is really on our hearts.