God in the mix. Or not.

Gye Nyame symbol on plastic chair

The Adinkra symbol Gye Nyame (except God I fear no-one) on this chair shows how integral religion is to daily life in Ghana.

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.

20130209_164255Anyway … here’s the kind of conversation we have about religion in our family.

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?

8 thoughts on “God in the mix. Or not.

  1. This is such an interesting post, thanks so much for writing it. I’ve never been a religious person and have never practised any faith apart from a few times when I’m having a horrendous day and I look up to the sky and wish for things to be better. My parents are Chinese Malaysian and aren’t hard bent on religion either. They claim to be Buddhists and will go to the temples to pray around the the Lunar New Year. My parents have never forced this religion down my throat.

    I liked your little story at the end, very humorous. It’s so true that we all have different interpretations and beliefs in faith and I agree with you that we should respect each and every one of them. A lot of my couple-friends who share the same faith (Christianity, Muslim etc.) have been together for very long – maybe it’s faith that binds them together as you suggested. I guess when a couple shares the same faith, they aren’t always focusing on themselves but on God, God that usually tells them to look out for others. Which is a good thing 🙂

    • Thanks Mabel, glad you liked it. I like your point about couples who share faith being not so focused on themselves, I hadn’t thought of it that way.

      I was never particularly religious as a child and I’ve only realised in recent years that my parents were agnostic, all the time they were going to church & taking me to Sunday School! But we were in a small country town and they valued the church community and appreciated some of the teachings, the stuff I’ve talked about in my post.

      Thanks for dropping by 🙂

      • No, thank you for writing this post. Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about religion and I find it fascinating some people live by their faith very strongly. They always manage to tie everything back, or explain every situation, to their faith.

        From the outside, church communities so seem close knit and you’re spot on about that. They meet up each Sunday to share in their faith together and usually catch up with each others’ lives as well 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed this post Jill. Thanks for taking the time to write it- and so eloquently too. It is such incredibly hard work relating to and loving people who have really different beliefs. I feel as though I have chosen a path that forces me to live what I believe rather than just read about! Ie that it is possible and enjoyable to live and love other people who are different from me. Often I feel like I have to convert my entire brain over to a completely different paradigm (and even the word paradigm confuses me) in order to understand my partner. I’m sure he feels the same way!

    I think religion can be a powerful binder because it is often the way people put meaning to and explain very difficult to describe phenomena and those philosophical questions most of us do not have the answers to. It seems so huge the amount of things people attribute to ‘god’.

    I grew up agnostic to atheist parents and grandparents. And I am in a relationship with a muslim. I didn’t have any bad experiences of religion – so that helps me refer to ‘god’ in a positive light. I don’t have a problem with god but I also don’t really believe in God. The older I get the more atheist I become. When you talk about Blind Faith- that sometimes religion goes hand in hand with a lack of critical thinking- that is always concerning. If someone is able to reflect critically on their religion- or any aspect of their life. That might be good enough for me. Its the blind faith/ fear and very rigid black and white thinking that I find very difficult to digest. Which of course comes up in my relationship often- usually more on the topic of witchdoctors interestingly.. maybe thats another whole discussion!

    I guess I like the way my partner focuses on the values in his religion- I.e. he thinks treating people well is more important than praying 5 times a day. This belief aligns with my values too- so that helps. I guess he has been able to critique his religion but still keep his own relationship with god. After all- even if people think they are in the same religion- everyone has their own individual relationships with god. Some people don’t step outside of the rules of their religion. The rules also seem to be very cultural. My partner married an infidel – but thinks ‘it is more important to marry someone who is good for you’. How good we are for each other is questionable at times- but we no longer disagree about god. ( I’m sure we will continue to disagree about how to think and talk about things ; ) We are- sure as hell- learning how to love people better without judgement!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments Zoe. I can really relate to everything you said in your first paragraph – I remember the first few years of my relationship with DadaK sometime feeling like the rug had been pulled from beneath my feet, when I thought we were in agreement then realised we SO were not. But I don’t get those feelings so often anymore, so I guess that means we understand each other better now.

      The witchdoctor thing probably is definitely a whole other story, though, I do still get bamboozled by that sometimes. Although I suppose for devout Christians, at least, it can be interpreted as a manifestation of Satan, which you don’t see so much in Australian christianity.

      From what you’ve said I also like the way your partner interprets his religion – certainly proves my point 😉

  3. HI again Mabel – I don’t know why I can’t reply directly to your latest comment in the same thread. Anyway … Yes, I think that tendency to explain everything on the basis of faith can be a hindrance to critical thinking. Although this is not exclusive to religious people of course, you see it in politics (on all sides) all the time. I’ve even see a report on research that finds people are more likely to believe things if they are given information by someone they agree with.

    On your other point, in one of life’s little coincidences, a publication I follow on Twitter has just posted on the downside of church communities that lack diversity, which I found very interesting: http://thisisafrica.me/single-nationality-church-problem

  4. There are so many different parts of this discussion I could say something about. I think I will say something about faith.

    To me mature faith (as opposed to blind faith) grows from one’s experiences. I don’t believe in something because someone tells me to. My faith grows with every experience I have.

    I am not interested in anyone’s religious dogma either. I think Truth is more likely to be found where the different spiritual paths overlap.

    I hope what I’m saying makes sense. It is hard to write something brief about these topics!

  5. Thanks Karuna, yes, there’s always a lot can be said about religion! But your key point seems to be about thinking for yourself, which I fully agree with.

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