Image by AmandaConrad (Flickr)
A few nights ago, I invited three of my friends over for dinner. At some point, the topic of religion came up and the conversation that ensued was very interesting, given the diversity of religious backgrounds represented in the room, but also incredibly challenging. Firstly, there was me, a Baha’i who had been brought up as a Christian in an Eastern Orthodox church with a strong – and very, very old – religious tradition of its own. And then there were my three friends – one of Druze heritage, another with a somewhat secular Anglican upbringing, and the last of Jewish descent. All three of them, however, are self-professed “militant atheists” with a profound disdain for religion that was only kept in check that night by their long friendship with me and their unwillingness to offend me (too much).
For the first ten minutes of the conversation, I found myself feeling incredibly relieved that my role as dinner hostess was keeping me occupied in the kitchen, where I could hear the conversation but be spared the unpleasant task of having to be the sole defender of religion! For the next ten minutes (after I ran out of dinnerware to fiddle around with), I sat with them, feeling a mixture of amusement, discomfort, defensiveness, guilt and indecision as to what the prudent thing to say was. However, as I kept listening, I felt more at ease, realising one very important thing: for the most part, I agreed with them!
It became quickly apparent, as the conversation unfolded, that my friends and I had many values in common and that much of their discomfort with religion came from a strong commitment to the very principles that I cherish as a Baha’i: justice, compassion, honesty and integrity – just to name a few. The only point of difference between us, however, was that while they felt dismayed and despondent about the problems that religion has caused in the history of humanity, I remained optimistic about the transformative power of religion.