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Problems with belief

  • 26 June 2006

‘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