For a long time, I was under the illusion that Kenyans are not a particularly religious nation. This was based solely on my sketchy religious education and the fact that my family has never been particularly religious. At home, there were no religious icons gracing the walls. No hour long prayers before meals. No church group meetings lasting all afternoon. Nothing, except my mother chalking up any feeble attempts to be better Christians as a phase motivated by peer pressure. By the time I was 12 years old, my family had almost completely given up any pretenses of going to church or further developing our spirituality.
In high school, there was none of the mass hysteria that apparently regularly sweeps through girls’ schools, no bible study and no talk of getting ‘saved’. We went for mass once a week, and I played the guitar in order to avoid the crushing boredom of listening to nearly dead priests talk about love and forgiveness.
So I grew up with the attitude that no-one really takes any of this stuff seriously, least of all my age-mates.
At some point, I became curious as to why seemingly rational people could say and believe the doctrine of Christianity. How we could, in full confidence, say that anyone who is not christian will go to hell. Or discuss the miracle of Jesus’ virgin birth and in the same breath discount as nonsense miracles that happened in other religions. How we could gasp at the fact that Hindus worship multiple gods, and yet find it perfectly reasonable that one day, in the near future, everyone that ever lived shall be woken up for the final judgement.
I can think of three experiences that led me to where I am today:
India is where I first became aware of how deeply ritualistic religions are, and that maybe, we don’t need to take everything at face value. I remember watching a woman perform some kind of ceremony with a cow- she fed it, gave it water, walked around it in circles and touched parts of it with her hands for blessing.
Then I somehow found myself in a Sikh temple, washing my feet before entry, walking around a huge table shaped thing, and being pushed along to kiss something at the front. I also went to a Hindu temple and waited for my friends to offer money and milk to various gods.
All these experiences were very strange for me. But the strangest thing was the amount of devotion and belief that people had in these rituals. We celebrated several ceremonies while I was there, and it seemed to me like people came to the office everyday with fresh marks on their faces from some blessing or the other.
As a christian, I knew that this was called worshiping false gods. As a human, I saw deep devotion to their religion, and the unquestioning belief that is exactly how it is meant to be.
Then it dawned on me, if I find it so ridiculous that people worship statues, how much more logical is it that there is a man in the sky who watches everything we do?
I remember that when I was in France, I could not go home to visit my family during one Christmas. I was depressed and feeling sorry for myself, and I thought that I needed a little spirituality to start off the year on a good note. So I went for Christmas mass. I have always said I am Catholic because, to be honest, it is a very low maintenance religion. Plus I really can’t stand all the noise and hysteria that other churches seem to encourage.
Maybe it is because I was suffering from some kind of culture shock, or maybe its because I was sad and lonely, but I have never felt so weirderd out in a church before. The mass was beautiful, all in French but with the same rituals that Catholics have world wide. But I looked at the priest, behind his enormous alter, as he prepared the communion and wine, and I wondered to myself, but why? Why are we recreating blood and flesh? And why is this cathedral so huge and unfriendly? Why did Europeans spend so much money and blood to build huge, elaborate churches at the expense of their people? It seemed to me like it was all just a way to tightly control people.
The priest’s message was beautiful. He asked us to love one another, to show kindness and to think of the less fortunate. To be grateful for what we have been given. It all rang true and I wanted to do that. But I couldn’t help but ask myself- why would such a simple, universal message have to be steeped in so much fantasy and incomprehensible ritual? Was I really obliged to identify myself with this stuff in order to follow the teachings?
I think this is when I began to see just how much religion relies on brainwashing to keep followers. That is the day I finally realized that I would never ever feel guilty again for not attending church, for not praying, and for not believing anything the church said.
Everybody knows about Sicily because of the mafia. But something else about Sicily is that it is a deeply, deeply religious place. There are cathedrals and churches everywhere. There are shrines to Mother Mary, various catholic saints and sweet baby Jesus at nearly every corner. What’s even better is that these shrines are visited by people- who say prayers and leave candles and flowers. In Sicily, it is common to see people cross themselves every time they pass a church or shrine.
An enormous amount of religious days are observed. Processions led by priests, alter boys and a great number of citizens are common place. I even saw one where men and women were passing their babies up a huge chair to touch the statue of someone, for reasons that remain unknown to me. Speaking of which, almost every little neighborhood in Palermo has a patron saint and a festival to commemorate them.
Plus, how come they get to have so much fun, with food and fireworks and partying in the street and days off work? We have Easter and Christmas and Pentecost and that’s pretty much it.
I was baffled because I always thought that Europeans are not particularly religious. Sicily was an eye opener in that respect.
Visiting beautiful churches and cathedrals, decorated with those epic paintings of God and his angels, Mary and her family and all that stuff, I came to the conclusion that most of what we imagine about heaven, God and what it means to be christian is the fertile imagination of Italian artists. We are basically aspiring to the heaven that Italians dreamed of for themselves.
Where do I fit into that narrative? Nowhere, that’s where.
Eventually, I stopped wondering whether God exists, and I became less concerned about uncovering the truth. I found a deep respect for people who are truly religious, no matter what their religion is. I’m not worried about what will happen after I die, because we all have enough things bothering us every single day. I don’t agree with hardcore atheists, especially when they use arguments like the dumber someone is, the more likely they are to be deeply religious. Yeah….no.
I really do not see anything wrong with people who base their values and aspirations in religion. It is difficult to escape the beliefs that were drummed into us by our families and society at large. I think that religion, in any form, probably improves lives, with the exception of fundamentalists, sadists and sociopaths. Freedom from guilt, worry about the future and what exactly it is that you are here for can never be a bad thing.
And like Oprah said, you can’t make it through life if you think that everything is solely up to you.