I grew up in the grasp of God. Well, the grasp of religion.
I sing praise that the school bell rings. I say thank God when things go my way. I shout Jesus Christ when I burn my hand on the stove. I say "mother of God" when the phone line cuts mid-sentence. Sundays were spent at an Islamic school, summers spent at Sikh camp, elementary school years saying good morning to nuns and middle school celebrating Chanukah. I went through phases of being distinctly Muslim and distinctly Sikh, and, for a spell, considered converting to Judaism.
While I suppose it isn't exactly out of the ordinary for a newly-made college student, at the height of freedom and cynicism, to start questioning the existence of God and self, I don't find myself in the position to say what's real and what isn't. I do, however, question if my cynicism in religion as an organized institution is valid.
I ask my mother what religion means to her at the dinner table. She grew up Sikh and Hindu, with one God and with infinite Gods at the fingertips of her mother and father's temples on holiday. Fairly removed from Indian tradition, a single divorcee once married to a Muslim-Pakistani who's cut her hair and dyed it dead and blonde, she tells me it's a complicated but self-motivating relationship. For her, religion is something to believe in when living gets "too impossible." She doesn't deny the existence of a God but embraces the idea of an all-knowing genderless floatation in the sky. In the context of the nearly incredible actuality of events like the Big Bang or the existence of dinosaurs, the idea that our lives are premeditated seems more and more feasible. I ask her to tell me why, if this "entity" exists, the trope "bad things happen to good people" is allowed to exist. Are us lower-powered beings self-indulgent and meaninglessly finding of ourselves as deserving? She tells me it's my journey to figure out if I choose to. She takes a sip of her Diet Coke, dips a fry in ketchup, and says, "And why did He have to make these things so bad for you?"
I ask my father, on a brown and broken couch at the entrance of my mother's apartment building, why he keeps finding a new Islamic devotee in the mirror. I don't see him as a Godless man, I've just never found him particularly God-ful. Perhaps I'd gotten a glimpse at his Sunni physique at times of convenience... needing work, wanting to put a downpayment on a house, praying for a goodbye to Ami's cancer, but never in a stream. He pushes up the sleeves of his Sarar suit, the navy one with white pinstripes, careful not to catch his cufflinks in the fervor, and leans back methodically, crossed arms resting on his stomach. For him, Allah is a requirement and a constant, an answer to questions without any other resolve. He tells me prayer is a way of life, the single promoter of peace and tranquility. I ask him to tell me why, if Islam directly translates to "peace," we get stopped at the airport. Why religion excuses murder and is a purveyor of ignorance and laziness. His face contorts and I tell him I'm a Buddhist. He tells me God will wait for me on judgment day and I'll have to explain myself to him, so live rightly. He rubs circles into his eyes with one hand, pulls down his face, "Go ahead, be Godless. I won't be there to save you when the time comes."
A priest tells me God loves everyone, a preacher tells me religion is for the strong-willed, a man on the subway tells me God will save my soul, and another shouts that God burns homosexuals. I don't think my cynicism is misplaced. But I walk the length of the West Village and the cross street of Stonewall and see churches with rainbow flags in their windows, trans Muslims telling me they love me, Sikhs telling me they like that I've cut off all my hair and Jews asking me to join them for Passover dinner. Christians blame the Muslims for terrorism. Muslims blame the Hindus for 1947. Hindus disagree with the Sikh' singular deity. It's cyclical and dismantling. And it makes me wonder if I have the right to refuse the entire community of believers because I haven't found them accepting of who I am or the community I come from. If I don't accept what I don't understand, am I a hypocrite? Is tolerance of religion enough?
The Eightfold Path, a major pillar of my belief system, tells me that the actions I take, words I speak, people I associate with and thoughts I think must improve the lives of myself and the people around me to be "right." So, I talk to a Catholic preacher on the street and tell him I think God hates me, given it actually exists. I tell him I fear for my life when I am the single brown person in a room because the silent minority of Muslims and I look alike and greater society has labeled us all monsters and that is why more and more brown kids are being found thrown on subway tracks. I tell him I don't understand why a Christian's God would approve of endorsing my placement in gay conversion therapy if God loves all his children. I ask him why he believes in God. He looks at me, red, "I don't know." He can't see it, can't feel it, but wants to feel he is protected. He wants me to feel protected too. I promise him I will visit his church some upcoming weekday to talk about religious cynicism and he tells me he welcomes my company.
Maybe I am a child of God, maybe I will sit here and continue to find my place in the world with nature and higher spirit as a guiding principle. Maybe I am too harsh and jagged on those who just want something to believe in. Maybe I'm just as bad as any other extremist for my demiurge temperance. Maybe I'll go to church this Sunday. I will never be truly in the hands of God, but I no longer am satisfied sitting crushed in his fist.