When people ask me:

“What religion are you”

I usually start by mumbling something vague about being “spiritually” motivated in my approach to everyday life, but not aligned with any particular religious spirituality or manifestation thereof. When people then stare at me as if I’d just coughed up a particularly complex hairball on their carpet, I usually clarify with something like:

“I don’t claim to know what exists and what doesn’t, and beyond that I would be wrong to say I was utterly convinced of the existence of one god or another (or several), or conversely to claim to know that all apparently religious phenomena are nothing more than absurd imagination. This means that your question is impossible for me to answer honestly, whichever way I spin it.”

Usually people then say something along the lines of:

“Oh come on, that’s just a cop-out because you don’t have the courage to say you believe in one thing or another. Which option do you think is more likely than any other?”

At this point I usually consider starting a debate about how many Sunday churchgoing “believers” actually live and breathe their religious beliefs relentlessly, 7-days-a-week, without hesitation, doubt or distraction… but then decide against it, because that usually just descends into unsophisticated nitpicking. Instead I usually reply more-or-less with:

“OK, if you pressure me to give myself a label by stating what I believe is most likely of all the systems of concepts I have come across, I would have to call myself an atheist.”

Usually at this point, once people have regained the ability to breathe after their shock at my sheer audacity and insensitivity for mentioning the A-word without even coughing into my handkerchief self-consciously afterwards, I find myself thinking about something which to me is far more important than what I believe (or disbelieve), and that is how I believe. I always strive to believe anything within a certain context, which is beautifully summarised by Albert Einstein:

The only justification for our concepts and systems of concepts is that they serve to represent the complex of our experiences; beyond this they have no legitimacy.

Namely, I strive on a daily basis to respect any other person’s right to believe differently, and also to respect their potential to convince me I am “wrong” (relatively speaking), particularly if they introduce new facts which replace any prior assumptions I might have made. I always struggle to remind myself that it all boils down to guesswork and approximation (sometimes informed, sometimes not). Regardless how certain I may feel about some things, I always think:

“allow new information the opportunity to revise your opinion”

To me that just makes sense. Then I think about how often I see friends and colleagues who are self-proclaimed “believers” of various religions and creeds, and who browbeat each other and enact shallow façades in which they pretend to engage in dialogue, as a mere excuse for taking turns to blow their respective trumpets, and to glare contemptuously at the “opposing” party who is so obviously “wrong”. This is the point at which I start to feel a boiling frustration at the fact that I am often seen as the “bad guy” and the “uncaring one” with regard to spiritual/religious matters when in fact I often feel I have more respect and sensitivity for the various people’s beliefs than they have for each other’s…

Then I remember there are people like Gandhi, sometimes. And people like the ones who maintain this refreshingly sensible website, which reminds us what terrorists really are and what they aren’t, and that terrorists are not the same things as religions & countries. Then I have hope.

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