Roy Jafari

We live in a world where—after gender, skin color and perhaps nationality—religion is the thing that most defines us. Our religious identities often lead us to use religion as a lens through which we see and interact with others.

Although I disagree with defining ourselves by  gender, skin color or even our nationality to a level where we end up playing roles instead of just being ourselves, identification with religion is a whole other ball game.

For one, religion—unlike the other categorizations listed above—is a choice, or is at least largely perceived as one. However, if you have lived for the most part of your life in a Muslim country and migrate to another part of the world where Christianity is celebrated and practiced, as I have, you will start to understand that geography is a very powerful deciding factor in religious choice.

I have seen people in Iran practicing Islam and thinking Islam is the only truth. Then I came to Mississippi State University to pursue my graduate study, and I saw so many people practicing Christianity thinking it is the only truth.

This was definitely a liberating understanding for me. Just as liking or disliking a human being just because of their gender, skin color or nationality is wrong, the religion of their “choice” should not affect our love for other humans.

Even if everyone completely accepted and understood that people are more than just the categories they fit in, as I like to believe we have, understanding is a far cry from being able to act accordingly. 

For example, no one would condone making a decision about whether to hire a person based on their gender; however, it is almost impossible for a potential employer to completely ignore a person’s gender.

Dr. Randall C. O’Reilly the professor of psychology at the University of Colorado in his book “Computational cognitive neuroscience” puts it perfectly.

He writes, “Although many of us walk around with the impression (delusion?) that our actions are based on rational thought and planning, instead it is highly likely that basic biological motivations and affective signals play a critical role in shaping what we do.”

The question this knowledge creates is how to guard against these base biological motivations.

I believe this is where religion and spirituality can play a significant role. Osho, an Indian Godman and leader of the Rajneesh movement, wrote an elaborate comparison between knowing and practicing. 

In his book of secrets he explains that spirituality is not a philosophy of knowing, but a set of practices with the purpose of changing one to the point of enlightenment.

The ability to love others, even when our primordial senses are making it impossible, is treated differently in different religions. 

Christianity teaches the capability to love through Holy Spirit. Islam wants its followers to be pious and therefore capable of letting the love of God be shown on earth through them. Buddhism and Hinduism alike preach the power of compassion towards humans and animals so as to reach a level of enlightenment.

Also, even Eckhart Toll, listed as the most spiritually influential person in the world in 2011 by Watkins Review, believes true love is only accessible to a conscious human. 

What he means by consciousness is a spiritual awakening which gives, as he puts it, the individual a higher level of intelligence—higher even than that of the human mind—which knows what to do in every situation.

Religion and spirituality are not on a par with knowledge, but they are about performing practices that will give an individual a new and special dimension. 

A dimension that will not worry about a person’s gender, skin color or nationality or their past stories, and give them the ability to emanate love beyond these categories.

Seeking an identity completely from a religion—or identifying with a religion to the level where you think of people only as either a member of your religion or not—only defeats the purpose of religion itself. Judgemental religious identity can only hinder one’s religious practices for reaching salvation or enlightenment.

My understanding is that religion is meant to free us from our “biological motivations and affective signals.” Forming too strong an identity from a religion only fans the flame of these base motivations.

(1) comment

Gordon Lee

Very thoughtful article. I would love to see you write an article addressing some of the specific ways in which the media (both on the left and the right) talks about religious identity in unhealthy ways.

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