A few weeks ago, for work, I attended a forum on HIV for religious leaders. I am not a religious leader, I was just there to observe & report, but it did get me thinking about faith, and I realised that I have rarely blogged about the place of religion in our bicultural family life.
I think it’s fair to say that faith plays a big part in the lives of most African people. I’ve rarely met an African atheist or even agnostic, and my own lack of belief is met with surprise, and usually, politely incredulous argument.
AM’s dad, DadaK, was raised Seventh Day Adventist and is now a valued and enthusiastic elder in a charismatic, more or less fundamentalist congregation: the Ghanaian Pentecostal Church. We don’t usually see him or his second family on Sundays because often the entire day is devoted to church and related social activities.
I don’t know if there have been any studies on this, but I have observed that among the mixed couples I’ve known, those who share religious beliefs seem to have stronger, longer lasting relationships. Those who pray together, stay together, as the saying goes? Although perhaps it’s just sharing a deep passion for something; the other solid relationships I’ve seen seem to be based on shared commitment to African culture, especially music and dance.
Was my lack of religion the fault line that fractured my relationship with DadaK, way back when AM was 3? When we first met, religion wasn’t in the picture. There were far fewer Ghanaians in Australia and not much in the way of church, I knew he believed in God, but he wasn’t doing much about it and we rarely talked about it.
It wasn’t until after we broke up and DadaK got seriously ill, that he started going to church. I think he was hoping for healing (he has damaged bone and chronic pain), but the fact that he was about to marry a God-fearing, church going, teetotalling Ghanaian woman (Obaapaa) probably had a lot to do with it. At any rate, he has never looked back. The healing hasn’t happened, but he has embraced the whole church thing with vigour.
I do sometimes wonder, if I had continued practising the faith I was raised in (Presbyterian), would we still be together? Would it have strengthened our relationship? Would shared faith have helped us overcome our cultural and class differences and smoothed us through the inevitable misunderstandings these differences created? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter. I can see DadaK is much happier now than he was with me, and we are closer friends now, than when we were together.
Whether or not religion had anything to do with us breaking up, it’s possible that my attitude to religion has helped us remain friends.
There are lots of things I appreciate about my Presbyterian upbringing. I learned the values of compassion, respect, integrity and fairness. I enjoyed the sense of community the church provided and I remain quite fond of some of the hymns. Teachings of love thy neighbour, do unto others etc., yep, I’m on board with that completely. Those teachings have influenced my own sense of ethics and do still guide my life today. But virgin births, all-knowing gods, water into wine, hellfire and brimstone … thanks, but no thanks. I’m doing just fine without all that.
DadaK’s new family (his wife Obaapaa and AM’s four half-siblings) all know I’m an atheist, and although they clearly view this as crazy white lady recklessness, they are very forgiving and tolerant of it. Perhaps this is because I don’t batter them over the head with it. Or perhaps they think their prayers will eventually win me over and save me from the fires of hell.
The concept of God that I grew up with is a compassionate supreme being who has the big picture in mind. He won’t help you win a soccer game just because you prayed for it, because where does that leave the losing side, who may be equally devout? As my mum once said, why would you believe in a God that rewards selfishness, and demands constant praise? It’s not someone you’d really want as a friend.
To my mind, the teachings of the God I grew up with are primarily about helping humans to live well together, and ‘do no evil’. So that’s the God I refer to, when I have religious disputes with the family, because that’s a God that would make sense to me, if I did actually believe in God.
The brakes on G Ketewa’s bike failed as he started riding down a steep hill. He was able to act quickly and jump off the bike before it had picked up speed, but what if he hadn’t? What to do if the bike had kept careering down the hill, out of control? (The kids are very fond of exploring worst case scenarios).
‘Pray’, says Obaapaa, ‘God will help you’.
‘Well’, I say, ‘you also need to use your brains, to think of a solution’.
Everyone laughs, as though this is totally ridiculous. They usually do laugh, when my lack of belief is so blatantly on display.
‘If you believe in God’, I continue, ‘then you must believe he gave you brains, and that they are good brains, and so it would be insulting to him if you didn’t use them’.
More laughter. Obaapaa acknowledges the truth of this statement.
‘Yes’, she says. ‘Of course. You have to use your brains and pray’.
My comeback – the clincher: ‘But what if you were too busy praying to think of what to do? Splat.’
Okay, I admit, I was playing for laughs.
But I was serious in making the point that a God who’s worth believing in, is a God who expects you to use your intelligence. I was serious in challenging what I saw as blind faith and suspension of rationality. And this is how our religious arguments usually run. I don’t dispute their belief, but I put forward a different interpretation of events or attitudes based on my own Christian heritage.
Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps writing about our conversation about the brake failure is just putting my own ‘I know best’ white arrogance on display. I suppose the point I’m trying to make, though, is that religious (or political, cultural) differences don’t have to divide people; that diverse perspectives can be playfully, even lovingly contested.
Bicultural families like mine are forced to try and figure out better ways of living with difference, or go under. It’s an amazing opportunity. I know I’m not alone in thinking we are at the cutting edge of multiculturalism, because of this. And when I think of how close our atheist/Christian family has become, it reminds me there’s a lot of hope for the world.
What about you? What role, if any, does religion play in your relationship or family? How have you handled religious differences?