By Dr. K. Sohail
It has been fascinating for me over the years to explore the relationship between people’s ideologies and attitudes, their philosophies and their personalities. I have concluded that people’s belief systems are not realistic reflections of their lifestyles. Ideologies are like book covers and we all know that books should not be judged by their covers.
Religious Ideologies and Life Philosophies
When we focus on religious ideologies and life philosophies, we find people on a wide spectrum.
On one extreme are the ultra-orthodox Religious People. They believe in a Heavenly God. They also belong to a Church. For them, belief in a Creator is intimately connected with Institutions, be they churches, mosques, synagogues or temples. They believe that human beings need divine guidance to lead a holy life, and that such guidance has been provided by God in the form of scriptures revealed to Prophets over the centuries. For those ultra-orthodox Religious People, scriptures provide the guidelines for their individual, family, social and political lives. Such people are generally preoccupied with the past. They believe the divine revelations in the scriptures are eternal and true and need not be revised. They believe in a rigid code of ethics and high moral standards based on their Heavenly Books.
Next to them, are the Religiously Liberal People? They have the same belief structure as the ultra-orthodox Religious People except that they are flexible in their interpretation of the scriptures. They believe that as human conditions change, so should the morals and ethics of society.
Next to the Religiously Liberal People are those who consider themselves Spiritual People. These people believe in God but they do not belong to a Religious Institution. They believe that people have to find their own path. Some of those Spiritual People believe in a Creator. They may not even name him God; they might refer to a Higher Power or a Great Mystery. But they believe that there is a Being in the universe that they can connect with and receive personal guidance, consolation or even inspiration. On the other hand, there are some Spiritual People, who believe that God is inside all of us. They do not believe in any Being outside of Human Beings. There are also some Spiritual People who believe that All That Exists Is God, so they do not differentiate between an Inside and an Outside God.
On the other side of the spectrum are those people who call themselves Agnostics or Skeptics or Rationalists. They believe neither in a Heavenly God nor in the Institution of Religion. Generally, they see life through the eyes of logic, rationality and objectivity, rather than in blind faith. Some of them feel that to deny the existence of God is as irrational as to accept the existence. They are of the opinion that they would believe in anything that could be proven scientifically.
On the other extreme of the spectrum are those people who consider themselves Atheists. They feel strongly that there is no God and that mankind has no need of the Institution of Religion. Some of them even feel that the Institution of Religion, rather being a blessing, has been a curse for Humanity, and has played a significant role in causing Holy Wars throughout history. Some Atheists seem to focus more on what they do not believe in, rather than what they do believe.
In the world of life ideologies, Humanists seem to have a special place on this spectrum. They hold Humanistic values close to their hearts. They believe that Human Beings are more important than Heavenly Gods and Religions. They encourage a scientific attitude towards life and become involved in activities to serve Humanity. They are of the opinion that the Church and the State should be kept separate. People’s faiths should guide them individually, while the State’s decisions should be predicated upon recognition of Human Rights, by which all human beings, irrespective of their class, ethnicity, language, gender or religious affiliation should have equal rights and privileges. Some consider Humanism a philosophy rather than a Religion, or even an alternative to Religion.
Most people die believing in the same religion to which they were introduced as children. They are so conditioned by their families, schools and communities that they never analyze or criticize the belief systems they inherit. But in every community, there is a minority that questions the inherited ideology and acquires a new religious identity. When we focus on that minority that changes their ideology and lifestyle, we discover that they do not belong to a homogenous group.
For some people religious conversion is very sudden. They change their religion after a spiritual experience or a catastrophic emotional encounter. For others, it is the outcome of lifelong soul searching. Some people convert from a liberal to a more traditional religious ideology because they are searching for the reassurance of strict guidelines for behaviour.
Others adopt a more liberal lifestyle as they find the institution of religion suffocating to their independent and creative thinking.
Thus, some conversions take place as an entry to the institution of religion, while others mark an exit, and still others manifest movement within the framework of religious ideologies.
In my clinical practice, I have met a number of people who grew up in chaotic and abusive families. They had no positive role models. When they reached their adolescence, they were very angry and resentful, even bitter with their parents, teachers and life in general. Many of them got into trouble with the school authorities and eventually, with the law. Some had been in prison. It was fascinating to see that when these people hit rock bottom and were suffering emotional isolation, they met a volunteer, a nun or a priest who offered them caring and love and invited them to join the church. They then discovered a sense of meaning and purpose in life through religion. They developed a sense of belonging and direction, so that they could leave behind their antisocial and delinquent activities and become law-abiding citizens. They developed a healthy and happy lifestyle. Some even became volunteer workers in the church and helped others who were involved in drugs and drinking. They became good role models for others. For these people, church offered what they missed in life, a sense of belonging. It took care of many of their emotional and social needs. It filled a vacuum in their lives. They were happy to find the structure and a sense of direction so lacking in their formative years, as they had been living like lost souls all their lives.
I met others who changed their religion because they fell in love with a person of a different faith and the only way they could marry that person was to join their faith. For these people, the desire to belong to that family and community was the most important motivating factor. Those people were not facing any emotional or spiritual crisis. If they had not fallen in love with a person of a different faith, they might never have changed their religion. In many cases, their lifestyle did not change. It was more of a legal or a symbolic gesture than any soul-searching experience.
Others that I met changed their religion for social, economic and political reasons. They hoped to obtain some special rights and privileges by legally changing their religion. For example, some of them joined a minority religion and then asked for refugee status. For those people, conversion was a political exercise rather than a spiritual transformation.
And then I met some who after years of studying different religions and world philosophies left their traditional religion and became atheists or humanists. They spent decades in soul searching and contemplation before they chose to change their ideology and lifestyle. For them, it was a profound experience that changed their lives.
To understand the profoundness of the conversion experience, we have to observe the degree to which the person changed after their conversion. I feel there are five stages of that process.
1. Making a declaration. The first stage is to declare the conversion. It is interesting to discover that some religions are easier to join than others. Some welcome converts, while others make it almost impossible to enter. In some religions, one can be a member only if one is born into that particular faith.
2. Practicing the rituals. After the declaration, some people follow the rituals of praying, fasting and going to the church, mosque, temple or the synagogue more than others.
3. Changing one’s habits. Some converts change their day to day habits more than do others. Some begin to dress differently, follow dietary restrictions, observe prohibitions regarding entertainment, and generally comply with all of the behavioral expectations of their new faith. Every religion has traditional and liberal models to choose from.
4. Knowing the history and ideology. Some converts start studying the philosophy of their new religion in depth and gradually become scholars of that religious tradition, while others find that kind of study a theoretical and academic exercise and do not find it useful in their day-to-day lives.
5. Adopting religious values and lifestyles. Some religious people feel that the essence and spirit of every religion is to promote religious values. They believe that religions exist to guide people to become better human beings, so that adoption of the values of that religion is the ultimate test. If people who accept a new religion do not practice its values, then followers of that religion question their motives. Others wonder whether they had converted for some ulterior motives, trying to get some social, economic and political rewards rather than from a genuine desire to embrace a better ideology and a lifestyle.
I feel the experience of conversion is so unique and personal that no two people have the same experience.
People who grow up in religious families, schools and communities or adopt a religious ideology and lifestyle have a tendency to develop Religious Personalities. Such personalities have some or all of the following characteristics.
1. Religious Personalities are emotionally guided by should, have to and must. They have a well-developed conscience.
2. Religious Personalities see life in Black and White, which makes them they are quite rigid in their morals and dogmatic in their ethics.
3. Religious Personalities are generally idealistic and moralistic.
4. Religious Personalities are easily disappointed in themselves and others because of their high expectations. Such experiences can cause sadness and depression alongside feelings of shame and guilt.
5. Religious Personalities have the primary identity of their ideological affiliation. For them to be a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu or a Communist is more important than their ethnic, racial, linguistic or other identities.
6. Religious Personalities divide people into groups based on their belief systems.
7. Religious Personalities have a tendency to be self-righteous. Many of them enjoy preaching and trying to convince others of their position.
8. Religious Personalities have a tendency to be a part of Religious Institutions that are guided by Religious Leaders.
9. Religious Personalities are vulnerable to become a part of Tribal Thinking and lose their emotional and intellectual independence when they are part of Religious Families, Social Groups or Political Organizations.
10. Religious Personalities in extreme cases become part of group violence and follow those Religious Leaders who declare Holy Wars with people of other faiths, philosophies and lifestyles.
I was quite intrigued to discover that Religious Personalities are not only restricted to Religious People. Some people who do not have Religious Ideologies can also have Religious Personalities. I have encountered Atheists, Communists, Feminists and Environmentalists who did not have a Religious Ideology but still had a Religious Personality. They had transformed themselves intellectually but not emotionally. Some of them were quite angry people. Many of them spent a lot of their energy fighting against certain negatives rather than focusing on the positives. I was amazed to discover that some Atheists were more anti-religion than pro-humanism and that some Feminists were more anti-men rather than pro-women.
Such people get involved in very angry dialogues and bitter exchanges in their social and political lives. When I see two people who have different Ideologies but have Religious Personalities, I am struck with their similarities. Many Atheists, Communists, Feminists and Environmentalists felt surprised, shocked and even offended when I shared with them that psychologically they were no different than their opponents. They had opposite philosophies but similar personalities, contradictory beliefs but similar behaviors.
Over the years, I have come to the realization that to become Humanists, Religious People need to go through two significant changes:
A. Intellectual transformation
B. Psychological Metamorphosis.
To become a Humanist people have to adopt a Humanistic Philosophy and also develop a Humanistic Personality. Being a psychotherapist, I am aware that acquiring a Humanistic Personality and Lifestyle is far harder than adopting a Humanistic Philosophy. It is harder to change one’s behaviour and lifestyle, than one’s beliefs.
For the intellectual transformation people have to accept a rational and logical approach towards life and have to prefer scientific attitude to blind faith. People also have to accept that we as human beings are responsible for our lives and that we can sort out our problems without relying on religious institutions and divine revelations.
For the emotional metamorphosis, people have to acquire a clear concept of the Humanistic Lifestyle and then try to develop those characteristics.
The people I have met who live Humanistic Lifestyles exhibited some or all of the following characteristics.
1. Their primary identity is that of a Human Being rather than a member or some ethnic, racial, gender, linguistic or religious group.
2. They realize that every human being is unique. They accept rather than judge people.
3. They are flexible rather than rigid in their attitude towards life
4. They are realistic rather than idealistic in their interaction with others.
5. They focus more on similarities than differences in people, individually and collectively.
6. They respect other people’s beliefs and do not impose their views on others.
7. They believe that religion and state politics should be kept separate.
8. They get involved in activities that serve humanity at large.
9. They do not believe in wars, especially holy wars
10. They strive for peace, justice and harmony in life.
I was quite impressed with some people who combined Religious Ideologies with Humanistic Lifestyles. Those people practiced their faith quietly and respected other people’s lifestyles. I never saw them preaching or imposing their views on others. I have a lot of respect for such people. They have a saintly lifestyle and are generally wise people. They serve their communities in different ways, especially in voluntary activities, and their communities have a lot of respect for them.
It is becoming more and more evident to me that in many people:
…ideologies may not be true reflection of personalities,
…philosophies may not be true reflection of lifestyles,
…beliefs may not be true reflections of behaviors.
While many people with Religious Ideologies have Religious Personalities and many people with Humanistic Philosophies live Humanistic Lifestyles, I have also met some Religious People with Humanistic Lifestyles and some Atheists and Humanists who have Religious Personalities.
Over the years, I have come to respect all those who have Humanistic Philosophies, Personalities and Lifestyles. Now I am of the opinion that they are the ones who enrich our lives and serve Humanity. They are the ones who are symbols of peace, justice and harmony and who have been playing a significant role in Human Evolution.