On Religion

A recent conversation at a coffee shop caused me to start thinking about religion, specifically mine. I’ve never been an ultra religious person, but sometimes you can’t avoid being asked the question. I ended up writing the text below at around 3 in the morning in order to answer the question more thoroughly for myself. And for anyone else who is interested….obviously.

“So Andrew, what about you?” John asked.

“I guess I would have to say agnostic.” Andrew replied.

Discussions on religion, like politics, are ones I tend to do my best to stay out of, partly because of their ability to so quickly divide a group. I realize that submitting a typed document on the subject is directly opposed to that behavior, but my answer has been bothering me and I think it needs clarification. Since I tend to write better than I speak, this seems like a good way to submit that clarification.

As I spoke aloud my original answer to John’s question, I felt like I lost standing in John’s eyes, and possibly Jane’s as well. This is certainly what bothers me about my response most, enough so that I had to get up out of bed and work out this explanation. I definitely feel like the answer I gave was incomplete, and that I need to fill in the gaps.

A better, but still incomplete answer to John’s question would have been to reply that I’m a non-practicing Congregationalist (Protestant). This is how someone else at the table responded to the question, although for a different faith. Basically, Congregationalism has as a defining characteristic no select Priesthood; the Ministers and Deacons are “leaders in a community of equals” 1. This is the religion I was taught and baptized as a child; I just haven’t been to the church in a while except for the occasional wedding or funeral, thankfully more of the former than the latter. In fact, as is obvious from the footnote above, I had to do some research just to make sure I had the correct definition of Congregationalist.

In order to begin my search for more information, I first need to see exactly what it is I said in my original answer to John’s question. My first stop was a few Google searches, the first of which led me to a page defining agnostic as:

An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time. 2

I agree with those two sentences. Actually, after reading that entire page it turns out that I agree with a lot of what is said. However, that’s just one person’s view on agnostic beliefs.

I suppose that’s what bothered me a little about my original answer, the fact that I was compelled to place beliefs after agnostic in that last sentence. Also, agnostic seems to carry with it a negative connotation, which is why I felt like I had lost some standing in both John and Jane’s eyes. Being labeled agnostic by my own answer to a question, I begin to feel constrained already by the limits of a definition.

One day I took one of those “See what religion you should be” tests. One of the religions that came to the top of the list was Buddhism. Another Google search led me to the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order web site where they offer a definition of Buddhism as:

Buddhism is a path of practice and spiritual development leading to Insight into the true nature of life. Buddhist practices such as meditation are means of changing oneself in order to develop the qualities of awareness, kindness, and wisdom. 3

Another definition I can agree with. Who can deny that awareness, kindness and wisdom are things that we should strive for? However, I again run into the same problem of feeling constrained by the boundaries of one particular system. Why should we have to force ourselves into one definition when most religions contain things we believe anyway? I have a feeling I could probably continue this exercise of investigating different religions and find that I agree with a lot of what is said, but there may always be a few things here and there that make me take pause.

I suppose the conclusion I’m starting to arrive at is that I have no answer for the question “What is your religion?” because I shy away from anything labeled as such. I definitely have a personal set of beliefs and principles that I try to follow to the best of my ability, but I cannot say that they all belong to one religion. So the real answer to John’s question is that I have no answer, and yes, I realize that that’s a lousy answer.