Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Religion, Sprituality, and Community

I found this article about a teen survey called the National Study of Youth and Religion and it got me thinking again about religion's place in the world today and more specifically, amongst desi youth.

So here's the link to the MSNBC report about the National Study of Youth and Religion

Overall, this study (like many studies out there) doesn't surprise me. It simply quantifies what I felt was anecdotally true anyways. What I believe beyond this is that the conclusions drawn about teens and their connection to their religions holds true for their parents as well - that religious belief and faith may be strong, but it's pretty vague and doesn't really mean much in everyday life. It's the communities surrounding the religions that really matter in everyday life.

Before I go on, let me just ask you up front. I want to hear your thoughts on this. It's not something I talk to friends about on a daily basis, but it's something that I hold pretty strong opinions on. Maybe that's why I don't talk about it...I don't want to get into disagreements :)

Anyways, I think this is even more true for desi youth. I haven't done any survey or study to tell me this, I'm basing this on generalities. It's based on the people I know and have known since high school. For the most part, I think most desi youth are nominally religious. There are variations in this. For example, I've known Swaminarayan, and Jain peeps who are much more involved with their temples than other "generic Hindu" peeps. By "generic Hindu" I'm referring to the various sects out there that pray to all forms of Hindu Gods including, but not limited to, Krishna, Shiva, Ganesh, Mataji, etc, etc. FWIW, I'm a "generic Hindu" :) (so you can fully expect that I'm about to denigrate my generic peoples)

So here's my breakdown:
The "generic Hindu" peeps go to temple only because their parents want them to. They're not necessarily forced to go, but they go to please their parents. Plus, it's a congregation point to meet some of their friends. Some may get very involved, but that's the exception rather than the norm. And the involvement tends to be more for reasons of community rather than religion. What I mean is that they get really involved not because they want to enhance their spirituality and get closer to God, but because they see a need in the Hindu community or they see their place in the community. This involvement usually means active organization of events and ceremonies. (And if you're a "generic Hindu" you also know that it involves a lot of in-fighting over who controls temple activities and money)

The Swaminarayan peeps I've known are much more involved in their community. To be honest, I don't know too many Swaminarayans, but the one's that I've known have been quite involved with events at the temple and most importantly, with community service activities being lead by the temple. I haven't actually seen much spritual involvement, so in that sense, it's somewhat similar to the "generic Hindus". But there's a much greater sense of community involvement. I'd say the involvement is the norm rather than the exception.

I've known a few Jains in my life and, for the most part, I've seen a lot of religious, spiritual, and community involvement. By religious, I mean they're engaged with the rites of the religion. By spritual, I mean they're actively looking for the connection between themselves and what it means to be Jain. They're looking for the inner meaning in life via Jain teachings. The community portion is similar to that of Swaminarayans in that they're very engaged in activities with others, especially in relation to Jain Center activities. The norm here seems to be real engagement with their religion at both physical and spiritual levels.

The commonality here, however, is the community invovlement. There are varying levels of religious and spiritual connection, but it's really the community that seems to tie people to their temples. It's not belief in God. And reading into the MSNBC report, that seems to be the case with the Christian and Jewish youth who were surveyed. The kids surveyed have a vague tie to their God, but it's pretty shallow and conceptual. Like I mentioned before, this really doesn't surprise me.

My fundamental belief is that religion was created to tie a community together. I don't believe religion just appeared out of thin air to help people find God. The spiritual action of finding God and understanding ones place in the world seems to me to be a very personal thing. It's not something I do with others. Even if I'm in a room full of worshippers, my prayers are personal and the person next to me doesn't help me find God.

That being said, I think all religions (meaning the codified and ritualized activities) are about the community. People are born into communities and thereby inherit many of the things associated with that community. Religion is one of them. People may truly believe that their God is the right and only god, but c'mon, if they had been born into a different community, their beliefs about God would be totally different. And the reason they believe in that God is because it's a part of their community. I fully know that if my parents were white, Roman Catholics, I'd be a Roman Catholic too.

Let's put it another way: I do believe there's a God. God has been around long before Man existed. But the forms of God and religion that we imagine are created by Man. So in that sense, all of the things we consider divine are just Man's creations. I really don't think we could imagine what God looks like or what God had in store for us at the beginning of time (and no, I don't believe in Creationism). The rituals and codes we've created to connect ourselves with God are really there to tie us together at some level to our communities. It gives us something fundamental and a commonality that's with us our entire lives.

Okay, so I've rambled on way too long and I don't even think this post makes 75% sense. Rather than delete it, give me your thoughts. I may seem a religious sceptic, but that's only because I am. How sceptical are you??

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