Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I am not a non-practising Christian

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

John Lennon, Imagine

An experience I have had several times while living in Istanbul that I have never previously had is being asked what religion I belong to. Because I don't have a religion, I am then labelled a non-practising Christian. This is annoying. I am not a non-practising Christian.

The average Turkish person seems to think that because I am from Australia, a nominally Christian nation, I am therefore a Christian. It is also assumed that because I am a Christian, I naturally have some opinion or other about Muslims. Finally, because I am a Christian foreigner living in Islamic Turkey, I am a figure of some curiosity. All this assumption and curiosity leads to the occassional point-blank asking of questions like “You are Christian, right?”, “What do you think about Muslims?”, or even “What do people in Australia think about Muslims?"

I appreciate the frankness of Turks who have asked me this question. If a Turk has a question on his mind and he wants to ask it, he just asks it. Turks don’t have the same hang-ups that many westerners do about asking questions about sex, religion, politics, salaries and so forth. Sometimes these questions are awkward, though, because the expected answer and the real answer are seldom the same answer. Nevertheless, I believe a direct question deserves a direct answer, hence this blog post.

My ‘go to’ response to the question of my own religion is “I don’t have a religion.” This is a deeply dissatisfying response to the average Turkish interviewer which typically encourages a horde of follow-up questions and the drawn conclusion that I am a ‘non-practising Christian.’ Turkish people seem to understand being a ‘non-practising Christian’ because in reality most Turks, the ones I come across in Istanbul, anyway, are ‘non-practising Muslims’. They understand that I don’t go to church. However, they don’t seem to understand the idea of not identifying with any religion at all.

For the record, not having a religion and being a ‘non-practising Christian’ are not the same thing. I believe in a set of values and ideals embodied in the philosophical ideas of the enlightenment, where not knowing a singular and absolute truth is not a cause to be concerned or to feel a sense of loss about one’s life, but is a cause for celebration. I probably picked up these beliefs when I was at University, studying a little philosophy. I reject the ‘non-practising Christian’ idea because it implies that I accept that there are people who are more morally or spiritually wealthy as a result of their churchgoing behaviour than I am, which I do not believe is true.

When you have no need for nor interest in religion, every new day may be regarded as an opportunity to learn something new about the world. Every person who does have a religion is equally acceptable in my eyes, regardless of what their beliefs may be, which I hope is a satisfactory answer to the other common question, "what do you think about Muslims?". If you think that my lack of any religious identity is blasphemy, well, I’m ok with that, too, so long as you keep your opinion out of my face.

Morality exists independently from religion, allowing me to make up my own mind about what I think is right and wrong, and to experience no conflicts between the swing of my own moral pendulum and that of any form of dogma. If I am convinced of a new truth because of new information, I am free to change my mind about any issue I had previously settled without fear or anguish, because my mind is free. I like to think that most Australians are like me in this regard. So, to answer the question "what do Australians think about Muslims?" my answer is "lots of different things, I suppose!"

I don’t really like the labels agnostic or atheist, so please don’t use them in reference to me, either. Please understand that this is not because I have a fetish with being unlabelled or enigmatic. I know what I don’t believe- I don’t believe there is a fixed and eternal soul, I don’t believe there is a singular deity, or that there are several deities with different personalities or aspects. I do believe that those people who genuinely strive to achieve spiritual understanding can find their way to do so. These ideas are culturally relative, they are truth and myth, entwined. I don't observe any religious practices at all, so in my daily life these beliefs are as irrelevant as they are mutable.

To me, not having a religion is not the absence of something valuable, it is the presence of holistic freedom. Accepting that some people simply don’t have a religion and being ok with the absence of a religious pigeonhole for them has a wealth of spiritual value in it, regardless of your other beliefs. Making up your own mind about things, and thinking about what you are saying before you say them, is a freedom that allows you to find your own truth.

I hope this answers your questions, curious Turkish people. My broader and greater hope is that all people everywhere can embrace a future where we are all comfortable with each other regardless of which religions we do, or do not, believe in.

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