• "I realised that I didn’t have the commitment or faith to keep believing in any kind of organised religion." (Sophie Howarth)Source: Sophie Howarth
Australia is one of the world’s most vibrant, diverse and successful multicultural societies precisely because, whatever our faith or cultural heritage, so many of us practise what we preach by living and let live.
By
Sunil Badami

13 Jun 2016 - 1:02 PM  UPDATED 10 Jun 2016 - 11:55 AM

We were in the car with the kids when we saw the sign posted up on a road bridge on one of Sydney’s busiest roads.

IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE GOD EXISTS, REACH OUT TO HIM

The inherent solecism aside – if you don’t believe He exists, why would you reach out? – it got my wife and I talking.

Like many people, I’ve had a complicated relationship with religion. Having been inculcated with both Catholic guilt at school and Hindu guilt at home (the first for original sin, the other for not becoming a doctor), I’d had a brief flirtation with evangelical Christianity in my teens and a vague rambling through Buddhism in my twenties before I realised that I didn’t have the commitment or faith to keep believing in any kind of organised religion.

And unlike me, my wife grew up, like most Australians, with no religion at all.

When our daughters were born, we gave them a traditional Hindu naming ceremony – similar to a Christian baptism or a Jewish bris – but like many new parents, this was more out of respect to my mother and a desire to foster a connection to her culture than any real belief.

I remember the teacher in our weekly bible studies class saying, “If God doesn’t exist, as a Christian, I’ll have still lived a good life. But if He does, you’ll go to hell.”

But as I’ve gotten older, like that sign, I’ve often reflected on that.

I know many people, who, like most Australians, don’t follow any organised religion and who live good, conscientious, generous and responsible lives.

I know many people, who, like most Australians, don’t follow any organised religion and who live good, conscientious, generous and responsible lives.

And I know many people who, because of their rigid, unforgiving, dogmatic fanaticism, cause great heartache and suffering to many.

Yet even as over 60 per cent of Australians identified as Christian in the last census, according to a 2013 survey by McCrindle Research, less than one in seven of them actually attended regular services.

And the number of Australians describing themselves as having no religion has steadily risen, from a historic low of less than one in 250 in 1911 to over one in four a century later. More than double ticked the “No Religion” box in the last census than the one before it, with reports this week that the Australian Bureau of Statistics will now put the “No Religion” box at the top of the census form, reflecting these changes.

While, for many good people like my mum, religion is an important part of their identity, giving them a sense of purpose, meaning and morality, as well as solace and joy; and many religious figures, such as the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Swami Vivekananda, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Reverend Ted Noffs, Father Rod Bower and countless others have dedicated their lives, through their faiths, to helping others, it occurred to me as we passed the sign that there was something somehow less than selfless about following whatever commandments your religion demanded of you to be rewarded with eternal life, or a better incarnation, or a paradise filled with virgins.

Our younger daughter, aged seven, piped up. 'I don’t think there’s any heaven, and I don’t think there’s anything after we die.'

What incentive, then, do atheists have to live good lives?

Surely, I asked my wife – if as the Bible says, the best charity is that given without any desire for reward; or as the Quran says, the best charity is that done without publicity; or as the Bhagavad Gita does, that the best reward for doing something is doing it well – the best reward for living well is its own blessing?

But what makes a good life? It’s a question that philosophers and prophets have tried to answer since time immemorial, and it’s one I’m still trying to get my head around.

It was then that our younger daughter, aged seven, piped up. “I don’t think there’s any heaven, and I don’t think there’s anything after we die.”

Even taking our own lack of faith into account, it sounded shocking. It’s not something we’ve ever really mentioned to our children, beyond trying to explain that everyone – from their beloved grandmother and us to them – must die sometime.

And while many Jews don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife, it’s not something you expect to hear from someone so little.

Death is terrifying, especially for little children, even when they’ve got no real concept of the future beyond next Christmas. When I was a child, I was horrified by the thought that my life could end one day, even if that day was hopefully too far away to imagine – unlike the nightmarish idea that I’d be tormented by eternal hellfire and damnation.

Throughout history, countless religions have risen, fallen and been forgotten, but it’s interesting that the so-called Golden Rule that underpins most of them is to treat others with the same compassion as you’d wish to be treated yourself.

She may change her mind and her beliefs down the track, I’m glad that, at least for now, she’s free of the guilt and fear that blighted my childhood.

Of course, there have been just as many cruel and hypocritical non-believers as religious fanatics, but unlike vociferous atheists like Richard Dawkins or Charlie Hebdo, I’m not interested in dismissing or ridiculing anyone else’s faith, nor proving to them why they should believe what I believe.

After all, most religions have myriad sects and interpretations of their scriptures, and just because I don’t believe in them doesn’t mean I don’t think anyone else should either, or that there aren’t good things every religion or philosophy can offer.

But as the Prime Minister has sometimes said, Australia is one of the world’s most vibrant, diverse and successful multicultural societies precisely because, whatever our faith or cultural heritage, so many of us practise what we preach by living and let live.

No doubt there’ll be people as concerned by my little girl’s godlessness, just as many, like me, are concerned by the fact that it is harder for her to study ethics in NSW public schools than scripture taught by organisations with intolerant, homophobic records.

“All I want to do is have a good life, and be a good person who is good and kind to other people,” my daughter said.

And it’s all I want for her too.

While like me, she may change her mind and her beliefs down the track, I’m glad that, at least for now, she’s free of the guilt and fear that blighted my childhood, and proud that she has a better understanding now of what it means to live well – something most of us take years to discover: to try and be as kind, generous and compassionate to others as we all should strive to be without fear, favour or any reward other than the simple, precious joy of simply being good.

Now if we could only convince her to take the same attitude to eating her vegetables…

 

Photos courtesy of Sophie Howarth

 

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