I was having lunch with a colleague the other day. I was getting to know her better. She mostly dominates every conversation and steers towards the topics she likes and makes it interesting for everyone. She was getting to know me as well. We started with the usual banter - work, followed by kids and then conversation was steered towards our costums, values and beliefs.
She asked me about my religion. Any topic about Indian religion always starts with the many gods we have and the main gods - Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. And it invariably moves to discussing cast-ism in our society and various traditions that dominate a particular caste.
I asked her about her religion. This is how I asked her. "So what are you? A Buddhist or Christian?" Those are the two religions that a Singaporean Chinese belong to. She answered 'none'. I asked her again. She has to be something, to me the thought of not belonging to a religion just didn't exist. She said again "none, I don't have a religion." It took me a while to understand what she was saying. She was saying that she doesn't believe or belong to any religion. She was a free thinker.
To an Indian, she had said something unthinkable. We Indians belong to one or the other religion. We are born to a religion, we do not chose our religion. Even if an Indian
doesn't believe in his religion's traditions and practices, he still
belongs to that religion because he is born to parents who follow the
religion. Religion forms the foundation of India, its culture and its society. Religion defines who we are, what we can achieve, what is expected from us. It has influence on politics, architecture, cuisine, dressing and thinking. There are religion and caste based reservation policies. Religion is so important in our society that you cannot understand India or Indians without first learning about their religion and its influence.
How can my colleague not belong to any religion? She must automatically belong to a religion her husband follows. She said her husband's family are Buddhists but her husband himself is a free thinker. So don't they believe in God? She says no, she says that there are things that are beyond her control in this universe, but that is science, not God. How are values inculcated in them? As kids, we were told stories of God, that he is the supreme being. The fear of god, the notion of hell and heaven teaches us what is right and wrong. She says, while growing up, they were told that they are supposed to follow certain things because their parents said so. Their parents are experienced and they know better; they were the guardians, so the kids listened to their parents. They learnt values for the greater good of society and not for the fear of God or religious practices. She clarified that she or her family is not against any religion or its practices, its just they do not follow any one religion. They are free to learn from all religions and pick and practice what they like from each religion.
Whats the role of the society in their lives? Racial harmony is one of the fundamental value of Singaporean government. All the religions co-exist in this country peacefully. Each religious group observes their traditions and government supports and encourages it. Schools and offices celebrate all the major festivals of religions here without bias. In-fact, being a free thinker is a religion in itself in this country. All official documents accept free-thinkers as a religion. There is no religious bias.
My colleague is a very warm person. She is an extremely friendly girl who is
liked by almost everyone. She makes anyone welcome in the group. She can
make witty conversations. She is a super-mom. She is very well balanced
emotionally and is seen to be calm even in stressful times. She is a go-getter. Free-thinking or not being bound to a religion obviously hasn't done her any harm!
That conversation with her left me debating within myself. Free thinking is accepting the values of others and extending friendship by respecting their religion. And since the society doesn't need you to belong to a religion you call yourself a free thinker. This is same as being in a religion, because your society wants you to and respecting & adopting values from other religions. There are many Hindus who bring home a Christmas
tree or cut a cake on New Year. Isn't this free thinking? Or is this just religious harmony?