I suppose this is related in that religion is a factor of every human society, and this blog is about cultural artifacts (Indian films). But mostly this is a question I have been wondering about and I am curious to hear what you, my intelligent and varied and original commentators, think about it.
Do you remember Sita Sings the Blues? Remember how Nina Paley has this epic moment in the middle and again at the end where it turns into abstract images of power and grief and connectedness and all kinds of things? I just watched her follow up film Seder-Masochism about Passover and she has similar sections in that. And then I read her biography and learned she identifies as athiest.
The thing is, to me, she isn’t atheist. Not in the way I define that word. But I am beginning to think that the way I define that word might mean almost no one is atheist, and that makes me curious how other people define it.
For me, atheism means No Belief in a Greater Power. Not a “higher” power, but a “greater” power. If you believe in nature, in humanity, in art, in children, in kindness, in justice, in a pure selfless act, then I don’t think you are atheist. I’m not gonna get into a fight with you about it, you can go ahead and call yourself whatever you want and you are just as right for you as I am right for me. I just found it an interesting realization, that something I had thought was a universal definition actually isn’t.
This is probably because I was raised Unitarian Universalist, which is a hippy-dippy fakola religion that does not require people to believe in God. So my church services as a kid tended to be about “Spirit of Life” and “feel the universe around you” and stuff like that. For me, that’s church. That’s believing in something. So if you can fit within those general terms, you are a churchy person and not an atheist.
I came out of that childhood training with a very firm sense that God exists. As a sort of floaty cloudy generalized force that you can lean on when you feel bad about stuff. So, I don’t believe in God-the-old-man-with-the-beard, or even God-the-human-type-entity-with-thoughts-and-messages-for-humanity-who-is-controlling-us-like-a-puppeteer. Which maybe makes me an atheist by some definitions? My general feeling of “God, force of love and sunshine and really pretty music and that feeling you get in your gut sometimes that everything is gonna be okay” might not pass the restrictions some people set for “do you believe in God?”
I also believe in Jesus. Like, when people stop me on the street occasionally and say “do you know Jesus?” or “do you believe in Jesus?” I absolutely say “yes! I do!” But what I mean by that is that Jesus was a really cool dude who lived about 2 thousand years ago and was touched by God in my definition of “force of love and sunshine” kind of way. But, see, if someone asked me “do you believe in Abraham Lincoln?” I would say “yes! I do!” just as enthusiastically and meaning just the same kind of thing (not so coincidentally, my childhood hippy-dippy church was named after Lincoln. Like, I literally spent more time in church learning about him than learning about Jesus).
How does this relate to Indian films, like, at all? Well, the first time I ran across Indian religions, I really liked the idea of Hinduism as this very inclusive philosophy. There was a little bit of nature worship, a little bit of stories and lessons, a lot of different aspects of Greater Force Human Minds Cannot Conceive so that you could pick and choose what worked for you with an understanding that there was no One aspect of God, since God was unknowable by human minds.
That’s why I feel very comfortable with most of the religious stuff in Indian film. I think a lot of you who were also raised non-Hindu are also comfortable with it? I’m not talking the new stuff, the very specific following the rules kind of stuff the Hindu right is pushing, but the older stuff that was just going to a temple and ringing a bell, or a crowd of people singing together and asking for help from a greater power, or God speaking to a little white dog in order to help the right people marry each other. That, to me, is the universal kind of God, the one who even folks that might identify as atheist can get behind. There is a power in singing together, in ritual, in respecting the oldest pool/tree/rock in the neighborhood.
It’s not just standard Hinduism that has this very open view of God. Sikhism is about following Truth above all, God is Truth. Buddhism is about finding balance within yourself and the universe. There’s no all powerful God Figure pulling the strings that you need to worship and believe. I suppose the most important thing about them, in terms of films, is that they are all personal religions. Most of the rituals and so on are personal rituals, you can have your character follow a certain religion without it affecting their day to day life that much.
So, I guess, I started with “what is atheism?” and I’m ending with “what is religion on film?” For me, the religious scenes in films that have power are the ones that get at that universal concept of a Greater Power. And while films from America have increasingly shied away from those moments, Indian films still include them.
Holy cow! A like-minded soul! I always say, “I don’t believe in atheists!” Honestly, it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but people rarely get the joke. The thing is, I have never ever met anyone who actually really *behaved* like a true atheist, in the purest sense of the word. What’s that saying? As long as there are tests there will be prayer in schools? I don’t think humans can actually survive and thrive without a “higher purpose.” People who aren’t religious still tend to find something to be “religious” about. Perhaps we’re just hardwired that way? For me, the concepts of time and the universe are too macrocosmic and immense to even begin to try to understand. And there is so much – too much! beauty and perfection – and I don’t believe in coincidences. I do believe in signs. I do believe the “Universe” is somehow intelligently designed and it speaks to us if we can, or care to, listen.
Anyway, it’s nice to see that someone out there would have gotten my joke, agreed with me, and then perhaps a conversation could have ensued … oh, wait!
Yes, exactly! Humans need something greater than themselves to be a part of. It might be your charity work, or your favorite author, or your hobby, but there is something in your life that makes you feel connected to bigness. And for me, that connected to bigness feeling is what makes you not-atheist. Although I’m not going to fight for my definition against someone else’s, it doesn’t really matter, just for me religion/God/all of that is just that moment of peace and more than yourself sensation you can get from anywhere and anything.
On Thu, Sep 24, 2020 at 10:49 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Atheism: my husband identifies as an atheist. He grew up in Spain, where religion = Roman Catholicism, and his atheism is specifically a rejection of the Catholic idea of god. In its grown up iteration, however, it has also added a layer of scientific certainty, as in he believes in science not religion, we are material beings and when we die we die, etc. (Though it is interesting to me that this is not how he has talked about death to the children.)
I grew up Episcopalian but I identify as agnostic, which in my case means a strong belief in our inability to know the truth about the important things – I respect people who operate on faith in either religion or science as long as it comes with humility about the limits of human understanding. In movies, the scenes that always get me are the crowd scenes (Mourya Re in Don, for instance), collective celebration or mourning or worship. It’s such an innate human thing, I think it’s what I miss most about being part of a congregation. That and the sense of a holy place, a sanctuary dedicated to contemplating purpose, or truth, or solace.
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Does it make sense if I say, for me, knowing there is an unknowable is itself an acknowledgement of God? God is the unknown, the big pieces of things that you feel but can’t explain or pin down.
I’m also very privileged in that I never had some particular version of religion/God that was assumed to be the norm around me, I know there is a painful journey many people go on where they move from a firm clear concept of what God is to something unknown. On the other hand, maybe it is nice at some points in your life to have that firm clear idea to fall back on. And of course the biggest thing to acknowledge is that belief and God and so on is not something you can really argue with a person about, or “convince” them, any more than you can convince someone of their favorite flavor of ice cream. It’s completely individual.
There’s something special in Indian films when they just lean into the crowd scenes in the songs. It seems like in Western music videos, that is maybe something that isn’t done as much? I don’t know really, I don’t watch modern Western music videos. But I can picture way more duet style songs than big dozens of dancer style songs. And certainly dance as a form of collective experience, whether that is worship or grief or what, is not really common in Western films.
Your description of what you miss in worship is why so many people become UU, in my experience. Which is confusing, because I get asked all the time what the purpose of a church is if you can believe anything you want and each person is on their own journey. We still come together, we still sing together, we still have a special sacred place and time. Which for a lot of folks isn’t enough of a reason to come to church, and fair enough. But there is a lot of the “church” experience as defined in the West that doesn’t actually have anything to do with Old Man God.
On Thu, Sep 24, 2020 at 12:53 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
I guess I see appreciation of the unknown as holding on to an important sense of wonder, and hope. But to me, to call something god it has to have agency, a power to make things happen independent of humans, which is a step beyond accepting with humility the unknowable.
To go deep for a sec, part of the beauty of faith is that it’s belief without knowing. That’s the story of Doubting Thomas. If we could all touch god and feel him/her/it/them in the flesh, it would just be fact and there would be no need for faith. Faith is powerful because it’s a choice you make in the absence of certainty.
Back to movies: yes, there is a collective power in the big dance scenes that is definitely not used as much in the west, but also the way a religious event connects it to a story and tradition gives it extra dimensions that even a well choreographed big dance number in a Hollywood movie would tend to lack.
Faith is so important, and about so much more than God. When I think about the things you can see and feel in this world, they are surprisingly few. But you have faith in love and friendship and germ theory and the honesty of your children and the bus schedule and so much else. It’s hard to have faith in God, but it’s impossible not to have faith in ANYTHING. Does that make sense?
Every year the Hallmark and Lifetime and now Netflix and Disney and everyone else holiday movies feels like a sudden blossoming forth of that need. Only at Christmas, for some reason, can American fiction do the Big Social/Religious Event Related to Personal Life storyline. And they aren’t Christian stories usually, they are about Christmas trees and Christmas cookies and the pagan/secular stuff. But you get the songs, and you get the emotions and you get the sense of the whole community celebrating together.
On Thu, Sep 24, 2020 at 3:05 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
That’s the word for it – agnostic. I know lots of people who are definitely spiritual, just not connected to a specified “religion.”
I was raised Catholic, as were my kids, but they are waaaayyy more about the “rules” than I ever was. I have found that their generation seems to be searching for more rules-based religion experiences. I think the pendulum swing away from their parents is heading the other way – which is unsurprising. We always have to be different from our parents! I do think the current hard push away from societal rules/mores/what have you, has the possibility of leaving young people feeling adrift. Parameters are a good thing to have when you’re figuring yourself out. Particularly in the vastness that is the universe and science and people.
I think about this a lot, because I’m giving my own kids less of a religious “home” than I grew up with. Right now they seem onboard with that, but we haven’t hit adolescence yet. I’ve always been careful to tell them that we each make our own decisions about what we believe. Some part of me is totally prepared for at least one of them to become deeply religious in an as yet undetermined faith that they discover when they’re older (a friend? a romantic relationship? Catholic? Muslim? Hindu? Buddhist? who knows). This is kind of what happened with one of my cousins, though he is a Korean adoptee so I think there is another layer of important community in the church for him.
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I also have a deeply religious cousin, who was raised by parents who absolutely hated church and organized religion. You have to rebel somehow!
Being raised UU, the common coming of age ritual thing was that all the girls got really really into Wicca around age 12. I think it was that same craving for rules and definition in the world as any other religious system, but Wicca, so it’s cooler. But the biggest thing I got out of it was the sense of community. On the other hand, my sister and I never did organized sports or really anything else like that, so church was kind of the center of everything for us. If we had been interested in other group activities, it probably wouldn’t have been as important.
On Thu, Sep 24, 2020 at 2:57 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
I grew up Evangelical Lutheran like most Finnish people, mind you, it’s not the same “Evangelical” as you have in the USA which has different connotations attached to it outside of the USA. It mainly means simple, almost bare bone churches, a lot of singing and a lot of teachings on the meaning of goodness and Jesus’ acts, but very relaxed and chill otherwise, at least now: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_Lutheran_Church_of_Finland
Personally, I am agnostic and my family is by no means religious and we believe in science and all that. Sure, we do read The Bible at Christmas and rarely go to church, we only go when the occasion calls for it. Otherwise, the church has no impact on our lives. Christianity is quite performative, in a sense, in our family. For me, God, the man, is non-existent and clearly man-made. I do believe in the “force within the universe”, in Fate (there are sometimes just too many coincidences) and the Evil Eye (people will always wish you ill and you are human enough to make that mistake too). As for Jesus, it’s complicated for me to go on either side of the “divine vs man” argument since so much is lost into history and the perceptions of people view of what happened.
Growing up in Asia amongst Buddhist, Hindu and Confucius temples and shrines, those feel more like home than any church I’ve ever stepped foot into. Not to mention hearing the Islamic call to prayer quite often there and finding it absolutely beautiful. The incense sticks, the calm and serenity in those shrines and temples feel more welcoming. Heck, even in our house there are more Hindu gods and Buddha’s and just a Russian Orthodox icon is any sign we are Christians, but even that is more on the family history side than any faith we associate. If there is a country we visit, there is going to be a trip to the local place of worship, be it a mosque or a temple or a church to pay our respects.
And especially with Buddhism, the fact of trying to be the best one can be and help others out of the sheer goodness of wanting to do good while expecting nothing in return is something I’ve internalised greatly. And that is not even going into all the pagan stuff we Finns still have, like a bonfire during Midsummer, that makes religion a very mixed bag in my life and trying to make the best out of all of them and live according to the basic rules of human decency and seeing the humanity in others, though there is a clear line when that stops with other people.
A very long answer, but there was no way I could put this simply.
That Evangelical Lutheran lesson is something I didn’t learn until high school 🙂 In America, we have “Missouri Synod Lutheran”, which is the super religious and rule following and conservative version, almost unrecognizable as “Lutheran”. My German teacher actually is where this came up, she was regular Lutheran, but one of her kids was Missouri Synod and it bothered her.
Really interesting to think about your familiar places of contemplation and sounds and smells and so on being from religions that you do not identify with. Do you feel a tug ever to officially converting to Buddhism? Or does it not really matter, you can enjoy the philosophy and respond to the rituals while still keeping main allegiance to Christianity?
For myself, I am firmly on the “Jesus was just like anyone else” side of things. But also on the “everyone has some degree of Godliness in them, some more than others” side of things. I think we have all known those kinds of people, who are just so good and so kind that it feels like they are touched by God somehow. There was an old lady at my church who just liked to hug everyone. I could picture Jesus having a similar energy.
On Thu, Sep 24, 2020 at 2:54 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Currently staying with Christianity just because I have the chance to at some point to hopefully be a Godmother to some friend’s child, no other reason. A bit selfish, maybe, but it’s still helping others according to my own philosophy.
And I don’t think, personally, I would make a good Buddhist or anything like that. It’s more trying to be good for the sake of goodness and respecting the rites and stories of those religions others practice. A little piece of everything mostly, since my own surroundings with it are so complicated and I don’t want to pick a favourite and convert to that.
And the whole “touched by God” is something I just don’t agree with. “Touched by basic human decency and love” – Yes! The addition of “God” to the phrasing is just not something I agree with, since the word has been abused so much and has lost all meaning to me.
Wow, BIG thinky post. My relationship to religion is a major work in progress.
So maybe I’ll start with where I’m coming from: I was raised Catholic in pretty rural western Germany, where a very lax form of Catholicism prevailed. It was basically Jesus loves you, now go and have your first communion, because you’re too young to have sinned and to need confession beforehand. But we always had worship services as part of our scout camps, so I know the songs and I remember that kind of community very fondly. During my adolescence, I became pretty certain that I had more of a scientific world view and couldn’t really believe in a creator god and stuff like that, but like so many others, I stayed officially a church member. A friend of ours once put it this way: “I want to get a church wedding after all.” That statement became a major turning point for me, because I was out by that time and I realized: The Catholic church is never going to give me the one thing that has become its major selling point for many lax Catholics. Why then should I give them my tax money? (You actually get to pay church taxes in Germany, unless you officially declare you’re leaving the church you were baptized in.)
Still, I do miss that sense of community. My sister says she doesn’t believe in God, but she believes in the church. I totally get that feeling. It might get me shopping around for a new church, but then, if I don’t believe in the religion I was born into, how can I just accept some other religion’s holy text as fact? I think that’s my personal definition of faith: a rock-solid certainty even in the face of the unknowable. And I definitely don’t have that. I may have a scientific world view, but I know too much about science to think it has all the facts. My biggest certainty is probably that almost nothing is ever purely black and white. So yes, I would consider myself an atheist.
But that doesn’t mean that I can’t *feel* those religious moments. There are moments when I see the leaves moving in the wind and I suddenly feel so thankful just to be in this world. A.R. Rahman’s songs can definitely work too. Just like a choir singing in front of some beautiful stained glass windows with incence wafting around. So yes, I do agree that that seems to be a universal human experience. It’s just that I don’t even frame that for myself in terms of some “spirit” or “force”, I just start thinking about the psychology of it.
I think that those moments must be why humans “invented” religion. (Though I would also never dare say that there definitely isn’t a God.) I’ve argued about this a lot with my dad, who was pretty badly scarred by his early church experiences and loves Richard Dawkins’ arguments about the “God delusion”. My dad claims he doesn’t even experience those moments of thankfulness. (But then he also claims he doesn’t experience fear.) I think he’d be very adamant that even you call him an atheist.
Your church actually sounds lovely, by the way. Maybe I should check out the Unitarian congregation in Berlin some day.
Maybe that definition of faith as believing in a text is what I am missing? I’ve always been taught and believed in faith as believing in myself and the text I write for myself. I probably like the Bible and Jesus better than any other book or person, but that doesn’t mean I have faith in it. I have faith in God (as I define him), but I don’t need some book to tell me what that faith means.
Your Catholicism is a lot looser than the Catholicism that I know. But I really know almost nothing, so it is highly likely that there are loads of American Catholics whose experience is like yours, loosey goosey and open and occasional. That being married in a church is powerful though. A lot of people (including my parents who were not members when they got married) get married in UU churches. They aren’t religious, but they want the church wedding because there is something special about it. UUs don’t make you do anything to qualify for a church wedding, and I’m not 100% sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I don’t want folks to come to church just so they can get married there. But on the other hand, what does the church marriage mean to you if you don’t believe in it?
I agree with your theory of humans “inventing” religion. When you find yourself feeling that extra something while in a group singing together, then you would come together regularly to sing together. And maybe listen to poetry recitations, and stories, and sometimes new ideas, and all those things give you that special feeling. And then you start repeating the same ideas and words and songs every week to keep that feeling going., and that becomes ritual and then religion.
I can’t speak to Unitarians anywhere but the US, but in my experience it is a great place to go if you miss the community and the people and don’t want to commit yourself to a particular text.
On Thu, Sep 24, 2020 at 3:10 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
I always saw text as creating a shared understanding of faith and religion, it’s a way of making sure that the beliefs are actually shared. I have feelings, for example, about the Nicene Creed. I love the language and the ritual of saying with a big nave-full of people, but I can’t actually say it as a statement of faith anymore. That to me says I’m not Christian, since the Creed was created to codify the beliefs that all Christian denominations share.
Just a side comment, because I always think of books, two that I read in the last couple years, when I’ve been in kind of a back to basics mode – what’s left if everything nonessential is stripped away?
ZEALOT by Reza Azlan, about the historical Jesus, what we know about his beliefs, and what the very first Christians believed that created a separation from Judaism. The interesting thing to me was that the resurrection and the miracles were a core beliefs from the beginning, where a lot of the rest of the story about his virgin birth in Bethlehem and the rest was added on later.
LIVING WITH A WILD GOD by Barbara Ehrenreich
A brave book by an author known for tackling social and economic issues about her encounters with the divine, and the quest for understanding it drove her to undertake for much of her life. This is kind of, what do you do when you don’t really believe in god, but god comes to you anyway?
Thank you! I’m especially tempted by the historical Jesus. If you think of the New Testament as a biography, then it is the one authoritative text we have accepted about this person, without considering alternative sources and perspectives. Long overdue for a new critical analysis 🙂
On Thu, Sep 24, 2020 at 5:18 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
There’s plenty out there, I don’t know very much about where Azlan fits into the conversation except that he seems like a serious scholar. I get the feeling there have been historical advances in the past decade or two because of more precise dating and other technological advances. But yes, this was the first I was tempted to read because it also tries to put Jesus in his historical context. One of my favorite bits: we call him a carpenter but there is no wood to speak of in Nazareth. He was likely more like a day laborer, a member of an oppressed minority, going into the rich Roman city to work on construction sites. The whole rise up against the rich and powerful takes on a different tone if you think of it like that.
Oh that is fascinating! I had always thought of him as a carpenter in the sort of educated professional middle-class way. I also have no context for what it was like to be Jewish in that time and place, if they were a majority in the region but minority in the empire or minority in both ways.
Learning is fun!
On Thu, Sep 24, 2020 at 7:37 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Thank you for the book recommendations! Will check out the Jesus book, since it sounds so interesting.
A friend and I both read Zealot a few years ago, and it is interesting how different our reactions were. She was shocked / scandalized at how Jesus was bad. She inherently saw things like his preference for Jews as negating his message. Where as I saw it as a way back into religion. I had long before discovered a hatred really for the Virgin Birth story, and Zealot gave me a way to admire the historical figure again without feeling I had to believe some of the things said about him. I didn’t actually reenter religion, but the book gave me a path back if I choose to take it.
Yes, tying this back into your previous comment, that is how I have always felt about the Bible. It is a meandering collection of various oral histories, put together by a committee of scholars who decided what they wanted to include and what they wanted to remove. But it is about real things and real people, just one particular take on them. Just as the Trojan war actually for realsies happened, but probably wasn’t about a beautiful woman who was a child of Zeus, all the battles and migrations and so on in the Bible probably actually for realsies happened, but weren’t necessarily because of the unquestionable Word of God commanding them. Jesus was a person who really existed and he had a lot of very radical and kind and humanist thoughts, but he was still a person of his times.
On Mon, Sep 28, 2020 at 12:36 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
For those interested, there are some fascinating books and writings by CS Lewis and his conversations with JRR Tolkien. Lewis was an atheist and was drawn to Catholicism by Tolkien.
There is also an interesting read about a theoretical conversation between Lewis and Freud called “Freud’s Last Session”. Very thought-provoking.
I grew up Catholic but officially left all pretense of being a believer behind 12 years ago when I considered baptizing my son, and starting reading the bible again. And as I read I realized I didn’t believe. I don’t believe in 7 days of creation, virgin births, and I’m pretty sure it is wrong to kill thousands of people for praying to a golden cow. But for me watching religion in Indian films was HARD. My father brought me up to believe that the belief in a singular god was a sign of moral & cultural superiority. Movies like Karan Arjun shook me with how NON-Christian they were. It was more than just the reincarnation plot point. Om Shanti Om has reincarnation, and yet it’s world view is more recognizable to me. Movies with Muslim main characters were easier for me to grasp, Islam and Christianity are not so far apart. It is easier now, but it still isn’t always easy.
There is a branch of reform Hinduism, Brahmo Samaj, which takes the philosophical position that all the “Gods” of Hinduism are really just faces of the one true God, different ways of approaching the ultimate power. That works for me, and I think that is maybe also kind of close to Hinduism as it is experienced? Maybe not explicitly stated, but as it is generally understood. Like, I don’t really hear of people fighting because Kali is a better God than Ganesh or something, there is an understanding that they are all related and part of one cosmic whole, and it is just a matter of your family tradition or your personal leanings as to which one you worship.
On Mon, Sep 28, 2020 at 12:30 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
I don’t know if I’m the only Jewish blog reader, but I feel like I have to contribute something, even if I don’t have much to add to the larger conversation aside from my own personal experience.
Both sides of my family are Jewish. We’re Reform, so we were never THAT religious, but we were members of our local temple and went to High Holiday services and the occasional Shabbat service I think. I went to Hebrew school and was Bat Mitzvah-ed at 13, and it was after that that my family stopped going to temple completely, but I think there were other reasons aside from just me being done with school.
I’ve always been very analytical, and religious lessons felt more like history lessons than a connection to some kind of higher power. What keeps me in the Jewish faith, and why I still identify with it, is moreso from a cultural and community perspective. I can get behind pretty much all the major teachings and philosophies–we’re big on learning and having conversations and growing and changing and yet also tradition, and giving back. But maybe it’s because Judaism is such a small religion worldwide that I feel like I’m part of an exclusive club. I went to Jewish events in college for the sole purpose of meeting other Jewish people and trying to build relationships (I only came out with two acquaintances at best, but whatever). So it’s community for me.
In terms of God, I’m not sure. I don’t know if I believe in God as a person or as a force or what. I believe in something, whether you call it Fate or Coincidence or “both the big and seemingly inconsequential decisions you make end up working out in the long run.” I’ve had moments, not out of body experiences, but I can’t explain it other than some sense of connection to the world and the universe itself, so I don’t think I’m atheist in the pure sense of the word like you were saying, but beyond that, I don’t know.