A friend’s post on facebook triggered some thoughts on religion, so I expanded my comment (not science/policy related, so feel free to glaze over).
I grew up Hindu, or shall we say, Tamil Brahmin. In India, each community’s practice of Hinduism is very different, informed by place, caste, class and more, so calling yourself a Hindu is not very illuminating. I went to the temples with my parents, and felt a connection with something (in hindsight, it was the architecture, grandeur more than Ganapathy) I prayed (after a fashion), more for specific things like “Oh god, let me do well in this test” rather than anything. I participated in the ritual and festivals, like any good kid. All this ritualistic practice aside, my single greatest spiritual memory as a young adult (and to this day) is a 5 minute meditation experience I had with my uncle sitting in a simple Ramakrishna Mission hall. I remember losing connection with my usually racing brain and reaching what I perceived as a meaningful connection with God, but what I would now associate with a particularly successful mindfulness practice. I still haven’t quite achieved that sense of “levitation” since.
I remember being about 15, going to a really crowded temple (I think it was this one) and jostling with thousands of other people to get a fleeting glimpse of a stone (or gold plated? super rich temple!) idol, I lost my faith in one moment (at least, that’s how I perceive it). I persisted in going to temples and participating in ritual for a bit, hell, even going back to the same temple a couple of years later, but there was nothing there.
Into my late teens and twenties, I tuned much more into the powers of organized religion to oppress, deny freedom and restrict behaviour. At that age, I perceived the community around me using religion (in hindsight, it’s much more complicated) to restrict my activities and censure them (oh privileged male!). I was very likely to lump the people with their religion. I did not believe religion to be a force of anything other than restriction and censure, and I judged the people around me who still practiced their religion in spite of “ought to know better”. I very plainly refused to practice any rituals, or go to temples. Leaving India helped as well, since I had no community pressure to practice anything.
Those years were ritual free (after a fashion), and I would call myself a primarily analytical person, using logic to solve problems (oh, so simple!). But, I did find ritual missing in my life. Into my thirties, I sub-consciously (at first) started to incorporate some ritualistic practices like morning coffee, regular gym workouts, and many other time based ritual activities as a substitute. My health and well-being definitely improved, though you could say the fact that I chose gym workouts as a ritual rather than bar hopping did not hurt! But, that’s really the point of ritual, isn’t it, to find the ones that centre you?
As I grow older, I am less militantly anti-religious and more likely to incorporate yoga, mindfulness, meditation and other behaviours that could be associated with spirituality into my life. But I see them as healthy behaviours, almost like exercise rather than connecting me to something greater. I went through a phase wishing I could believe in a god again, it would be a lot easier than having to figure it out for yourself, but that passed. I am still as atheist as I’ve ever been, just a lot more tolerant of other people’s paths and processes. I understand that everyone’s well being depends on connection, whether it is social, or spiritual or physical. If their practice of “religion” or their belief helps them achieve that connection, that’s just lovely (The last few times I’ve visited India, I’ve even let my parents drag me on temple excursions!) That is, as long as they do not end up supporting oppressive homophobic, racist or misogynist behaviour based on religion. I still believe that most organized religion is a tool of patriarchy and control, and cynically uses people’s need for connection to achieve political power and money, so no support there.