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Problems with belief

‘Do you believe in God?’ Recently in Bangladesh, a friend asked me and I answered with the truth. ‘No. I do not.’

‘For a very long time?’

And I told her that indeed it had been for a very long time, since I’d been quite small.

Two years ago, my granddaughters, at the time aged 11 and 5, had asked the same question. When I told them no they had their own follow-up question: ‘Have you been baptised?’

I said I had. There was an exchange of glances. The older one said: ‘I thought baptism was supposed to help you believe in God.’

I had the feeling then, and again the other day, that they knew the answer to the main question before they asked it—they were confirming something.

My granddaughters might have been simply curious. But when the question is asked in Bangladesh it has deep significance. As I discovered when I visited my friend, atheism can be a troubling fact for Bangladeshi Muslims to accept.

My friend’s parents were preparing to leave Bangladesh to go to Mecca for the Haj. It was also the time when Muslim families all over Bangladesh were preparing for the major religious festival of Eid Ul Azha. In the Chittagong district, where I was living, families try to return to their ancestral village for the annual slaughter of beasts that commemorates the story of Ibrahim and Ishmael (which, as a Catholic child, I had learnt at school as the story of Abraham and Isaac).

Belief in God is fundamental to those activities, as well as being an essential element in daily life. Discussions about religion were frequent. Both my friend’s brother and her husband initiated such conversations with me on the night of my arrival. Part of their motivation would have been Bangalee courtesy—making sure that the guest is accompanied. When a Bangladeshi family ‘guestifies’ you, they are bound by their duty towards visitors to feed you and to engage in conversation—and in this household the topic of conversation most often raised was the one of religion and belief.

I found the situation difficult. In what appeared to be an attempt to make me feel at ease, both young men had prefaced their remarks with comments about the Muslim reverence for Issa (Jesus) as a prophet of God, and their respect for Miriam (Mary) his mother. I sensed that they were searching for common ground on which to conduct the discussion, because they believed I was a Christian. And even though they thought that Christians were mistaken in their beliefs, they wanted to convince me of the efficacy of their own beliefs without outrightly condemning mine.

Feeling embarrassed at my failure to meet my obligation as a guest, and wishing to spare both of us any further problems, I told my friend’s husband, ‘I am not a Christian, I am Buddhist.’

But my statement did nothing to relieve the tension. What I said confronted him with an unimaginable situation—I did not believe in God. In his belief system there is no doubt about the existence of God—and you either believe or you do not, there is no alternative.

The story of Abraham and Isaac had been one of the stories that had caused me so much difficulty as a child. It made no sense to me at all that the same God would require the father to kill his only child. Because of temperament more than anything, I began the slow process of becoming a non-believer. In that process I left the realm of what is known as Abrahamic Faith, and lately I’ve been discovering that even in modern times, in an urban setting, there is a tribal sense to all those three religious faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) which profess the Abrahamic tradition. Leave that faith and, in a way, you betray the tribe.

Some of this I tried later to explain to my Bangladeshi friend. That conversation was a gentler one than the ones I’d had with the men of the household. My friend talked to me of how important God was in her life and of the great peace and happiness she experienced when she thought about God. Then, and on subsequent occasions when talking to other people, I was moved by the ways in which people talked about God as real and meaningful in daily life. These people, most of them university-educated and members of the professional middle class, approach life from a rational stance; at the same time they live in a belief about God which they openly express in conversation.

Bangladesh is a nominally secular state, but is gradually becoming Islamised. Atheism, whether practised by Buddhists or Communists, is now unacceptable to a large proportion of the population. Not so long ago people lived harmoniously with difference, and in the smaller communities, i.e. villages and mofussil (small towns), differences in religious belief and practice were acknowledged and at the same time were often subsumed into traditional local practices that were secular in character.

Moderate Muslims, particularly urban dwellers, maintain that the problems of religious intolerance are recent and a feature of urban life where people were not known to each other.

There is intolerance, however, and recent years have seen widespread incidents of communal violence, both in urban and in rural areas. Initially, the violence was aimed at Hindu, Buddhist and Christian communities—suggesting that perhaps the intolerance is of difference rather than of non-believers.

Since early 2002, there have been some incidents in Chittagong that involved verbal threats being made against moderate Muslims. For example, female students were ‘sent’ home from university by young male members of the student political group ‘Shibir’—sent home to change their clothes to something more respectable.

In another incident a group of school children practising for an annual spring display were threatened by a group of Shibir activists because they were using drums and the girls were dancing.

Shibir’s motivation appears to be to intimidate others into accepting a more fundamental practice of Islam—one that places restrictions on the use of music and dance, and that limits the participation of women in public life. Shibir’s members have been known to punish people who do not comply. One way is to cut the tendons of the feet and wrists of those who resist.

These incidents reflect what Bangladeshis call the ‘muscle power’ being exercised by supporters of Jama’at Islam, one of the senior partners in the four-party government elected in 2001, and a party which endorses more fundamental religious belief.

The question of belief has special significance for members of the Muslim community. During my time in Bangladesh, I had a number of conversations with people, mainly men, who were grappling with issues of interpretation of the Koran, and who were not sure if they believed in God or not. One young man told me that on the whole he felt he did not believe. ‘But,’ he said, ‘I do not know if I can call myself agnostic or atheist, because when my daughter is ill, I hope that God will make her well.’

Others spoke earnestly of the importance of Islamic practice, and especially the significance of Eid Ul Azha for the maintenance of good family relations. In a modern world, however, the significance of such rituals may be more social than religious.

The men I spoke to were nonetheless cautious about expressing doubt. One man told me more than once that if he spoke out in his community, in particular about his doubts about some aspects of the Koran, he would be killed. I really had no way of assessing whether that was a legitimate fear, but I did not doubt his concern.

As the public face of the family, men tend to be the ones who are faced with the problem of being non-believers. One Bangladeshi woman—Taslima Nasrin, author of Shame—who did speak out, raising serious concerns about the effects of fundamental belief on the women of Bangladesh, has been forced to live in exile for most of the last ten years.

In Bangladesh, religion and politics are intertwined in ways we in the West are not used to dealing with. Public discussions of religious schooling and festivals, for example, take place on a daily basis in newspapers, and discussions about religion are impossible to avoid in everyday life.

Believing in God, then, is important. And not believing in God is a problem.                                 

Lyn Riddett lives in Canberra.



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