I am a pagan. An unbeliever. A heathen. An infidel. While my beliefs about the existence of God and souls have changed considerably over the course of my life, to the majority of the world, I’ve never been someone worthy of blessings, never been someone who would make it to heaven.
I was born and culturally am still a Hindu. Despite how terrible many elements of religion were for me — I am a woman and I am queer — I still respect the role that belief in a higher power plays in many people’s lives. My closest friends are Christian and Jewish and Sikh and Muslim. They are Hindus who believe in God, Hindus who believe in gods, Hindus who believe in only reincarnation, and Hindus who are completely atheist.
I respect that. But I was not respected.
Growing up in America meant routinely hearing that my views didn’t matter — that even the commercialized version of Christmas was inherently holier than days of pooja. I heard jokes about the statues we worshiped and kept at home, about cows being holy, and about bindis. My family and I were required to sign we believed in Christ to join several extracurricular groups in the Bay Area, a very liberal and diverse place. It’s only worse across the middle of the country. Christians in America made decisions for all of us about gay marriage, abortion rights, and the separation of church and state, because they believed their faith was right and imposed that belief on others.
This happens in other countries as well. When we were in Egypt and Turkey, men asked our dad if they could buy us for marriage. I’d hear endless comments about being “allowed” to work and go to college, as if that was something my dad had the right to decide. We had no choice about covering our hair and our bodies — a Muslim friend once told me that, based on her faith, she thought I deserved to be assaulted and that she pitied me for being wrong about God. Another acquaintance once made fun of a person with a guide dog because his religion forbade them. In America, Muslims are a discriminated minority, so we often forget to have important conversations on what life looks like for minorities in Muslim-majority countries or how discrimination impacts religions that are smaller than Islam (all of them, except Christianity).
Even in India, among other Hindus, it was pretty bad for women. My own faith dictated far too much about how I dressed, whom I dated, and when I had sex. From the time I was young, many Hindus I knew would worship women in temples and treat them terribly at home. Boys would be boys. Girls would be nothing. India is secular and a democracy, so like with the United States, we often hold it to a high standard. We expect equality and freedom. But in recent years, Hindus have used the majority religion to discriminate against the Muslim minority in India and treat them as less human, depriving them of rights of citizenship.
As a result of all this hatred and cruelty, like most liberals today, I am deeply uncomfortable with extreme religion. The chances that far right believers of any major world religion believe that I, a queer woman, am equal to a straight man are close to nil. Similar to my interactions with Trump supporters, I ask the basic question: why should I respect their beliefs when those beliefs fundamentally mean disrespecting me? Would they respect me if I believed they deserved to be treated poorly on Earth and spend an eternity in hell afterward?
I am also deeply uncomfortable with how all of this can be blamed on God: the terrible way people treat others and the terrible things they allow to happen. War is God’s fault. Women dying in childbirth because they can’t get abortions? God’s fault. Unnecessarily cruel animal slaughter? God wants it. Conversion therapy? God.
I will always believe that no God worth the name would require such abysmal behavior. I believe there is no excuse for racism, homophobia, or sexism. So much of religion is about subjugating others — religion survived by perpetuating the premise that we are right and others are wrong or evil. But as many religions change and modernize, even strong believers recognize that those parts of religion have to go, while other parts are still worthy of honor and respect. And so I sat and thought up a list of what any God owes us in exchange for the belief we give him/her/them.
First, God owes us the knowledge that we should treat all other people with respect. God owes us the ability to view all humans as deserving of basic rights and of the freedom to control our own minds. The idea that people who disagree will go to hell or face eternal damnation has no place in the twenty-first century. For example, it is fundamentally racist and discriminatory to think that Hindus are less worthy because we are Hindu. Hiding behind an evangelical religion to defend that belief is wrong.
Second, God owes us the ability to change our minds and to adapt to our circumstances. After all, everyone who follows what they were raised to believe in would likely have believed something else if raised in a different home. If people are confronted with proof that their practices and beliefs are hurting people or animals for no provable benefit, they should stop. Period.
Third, God owes us equality for women and the right for women to choose what we want to wear, how we want to dress, and when we have sex. God owes us the ability to respect other religions and races as equals and deserving of as much happiness as we are. God owes us the ability to marry whom we want, regardless of their religion or gender identity, and to choose our own careers and bodily autonomy. Religion is never an excuse to abuse animals, women, children, LGBTQIA+ people, or nonbelievers.
Finally, God owes us the freedom to act and to change things. We have the power to make the world a better place and to take actions to reduce pain and suffering. If God doesn’t owe us peace and justice, then God owes us the ability to work towards a better world. If we don’t get to decide the afterlife, we get to decide what happens here.
So many people refuse to talk about religion or its role in our lives. It’s like we all made the unspoken agreement it’s Fight Club. Friends are told frank conversations will destroy decades-long relationships. Therapists are taught that religious beliefs have to be treated differently and to avoid talking to clients about it. But I believe this is ridiculous. Religion plays a huge role in so many of our lives, and there can be no progress without conversation.
And to end this possibly obvious article about what really should be noncontroversial things, here is a poem I once wrote about the power we created and the limits of belief.
They say that drops of water,
little grains of sand,
make the mighty oceans
and the pleasant land.
That thus the little minutes,
humble though they be,
make the mighty ages
But drops are really made
from the pounding ocean’s spray;
The grains of dust settle
from land broken far away.
The ages of eternity
break into useless time.
The greatest poets do exist
because of greater rhymes.
So finally, it’s we who see
our mysteries unfurled.
For in the end, what would God be
without our little world?