being in the middle east has helped me understand religion: not to live it or even really believe in it, but to appreciate its beauty and its ability to facilitate connection between people.
coming from the agnostic background that i do, and having lived in many communities that were largely judgmental, disregarding, or even condemnatory of people of faith, it is surprising to now see myself urging an atheistic student to empathize with believers, to put down her bristling weapons of intellect (her cross-references of Bible verse; her scientific and historical evidence of Biblical error; her wielding of sarcasm) and to be less angry, dismissive and critical.
i have Kevin to thank for it, in part: dating a deeply thoughtful, socially progressive Catholic in college was an eye-opener for my judgmental and culturally-Protestant self. before Kevin, i was largely ignorant- un-understanding, rather than unknowing- and dismissive of faith. people who were religious were basically dumb. how could they believe in bizarre, supposed miracles, in the image of a giant, bearded, Caucasian father in the sky who cared about human interests? i believed more in the magic i found in fantasy books and the nonlinguistic conversations i had with cats than i did in organized religion.
Kevin, and others at Bennington, persistently disrupted these beliefs (super ironic, considering Bennington’s rank as #1 most secular college in the US), just by having long conversations, being open to questions, and being interested in pursuing mutual understanding. learning history, especially long human history, also added to my appreciation for the ability of faith to transcend geography and even ethnicity- yes, to cause wars, but also to create unity and peace. studying social psychology, and then living the 21st century social experiment of single working adulthood in an active, academic city in the States, have led me to appreciate humans’ need to connect with each other, to share traditions, rituals, a language of values and belief.
i also more fully now appreciate (and feel) the need for transcendence and humans’ continual striving for it- whether it is achieved by drugs, or art, or sport, or practice at mindful awareness.
in the past few months, as I live in a region deeply layered in religion and religious history and conflict, I’ve felt deeply moved by the beautiful unity found in Christmas carols at my boarding school, the fascinating layers of art and history seen in archaeological evidence at Umm al-Rassas, the quietude and devotion of Muslims performing their timely prayers, the willingness of people who believe to share their ideas and stories with me.
i don’t think i’m becoming a believer in these faiths, but rather in the power of faith. obviously there is just as much evidence for its responsibility for disunity and destruction. but now i can also see its beauty.