Religious? Me? Absolutely not. As far as I was concerned, religion was at the center of many of the world’s problems. In general, I held a particular dislike toward religion — too many shoulds and musts and rules and strictures.
As an Indian, such views are frowned upon, since large parts of my culture place a great deal of importance on religion. Coming to Grinnell, I had hoped I’d be able to leave that ridiculousness behind altogether.
When I arrived, though, it was slightly different — very different, actually. To my dismay, I realized that people here were interested in religion and enjoyed talking about it. And it wasn’t a few select people. It seemed that every time I was in a group of more than two people, someone would bring up the topic of religion, and that was that. My way of dealing with it? I’d leave the conversation.
Of course, this is fine at the beginning. But what happens when, in a week or so, you start making friends? When you’re with said friends and they start talking about something you don’t like, is it all right to get up and leave? I tried it, a few times. It resulted in a number of raised eyebrows and sideways glances. People started asking me why I left. Afraid I might say something offensive, I’d mumble a weak excuse about checking my mail.
So the next time someone brought up religion in a conversation, I sat there and listened.
It was then, for the first time in my life, when I learned that religion can be discussed just like anything else. People talk about the weather. People talk about psychology. People talk about politics. And people talk about religion. I suddenly realized you don’t have to be religious to talk about it. One of the members of that first conversation was Muslim. Another was Christian. Despite what I might have expected, they were talking freely without any sort of inhibition.
I kept my ears open and my mouth shut for the initial 15 minutes or so of that first talk. I learned that in both religions there’s more than just going to church or going to the mosque. There’s an entire culture behind each religion. Before it became what it is today, it was a way of life for people. It was how, centuries ago, people stayed connected to one another. After 15 minutes, I found myself talking as well, and that surprised me. I’ve shunned religion for most of my life, and yet I found I knew a great deal about the one I grew up in. But how? I see now, despite all the efforts I made to ignore religion, it’s so prevalent that in spite of my inattention, I was able to subconsciously observe and understand it.
Religion can be made ugly. But anything can be made ugly. It can also be made beautiful. I see now I had made it ugly for myself and ignored its beauty. Religion holds entire histories and cultures within it. So much of Indian architecture, literature, music, and dance forms stem from religion. And I was oblivious to it.
What do I plan to do with this sudden insight? I am planning to take a religious studies course next semester. Religious? Me? Absolutely not. But you don’t need to be religious to appreciate, understand, and learn from religion.
Amar Sarkar '12 is undeclared and from New Delhi, India.