The author wishes to remain anonymous
I was raised as a Sikh, and until six years ago I identified as religious.
There were many reasons for my decision to no longer identify as a Sikh; the main being that for many years I found it difficult to reconcile the idea that an omniscient creator of the world would create an entire universe and yet leave us on a tiny rock in the middle of nowhere. Sir David Attenborough (one of my heroes) once put one of the reasons for his atheism perfectly:
“I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.”
I also couldn’t stomach the self-satisfied explanations of “karma” or “nature balancing itself out” when I saw mainly destitute (and let’s face it, brown or black) people die. Instead, I found answers in scientific knowledge that I couldn’t find in religion.
However, it wasn’t as straightforward as simply losing faith in God. There were also other reasons – for years, I found myself becoming increasingly disgusted with the conflict between Sikh religious philosophy and culture. In the past few years increasing numbers of Sikhs have protested and attempted to destroy mixed-faith marriages in the UK, and yet I found people within the community unwilling to openly criticise the disgusting actions. Likewise, when I heard that there were Sikhs within the racist and fascist organisation called the English Defence League, I felt even more ashamed of my (now abandoned) faith. Why are there Sikhs who are willing to terrorise Muslims on the streets of the UK, but not to partake in charity – one of the pillars of the Sikh faith? How many of these racists have ever truly served God in the way that Sikhism asks each of them?
(photo by Gavin Lynn, obtained from Wikimedia, re-usable under creative commons licence)
It is not enough to look the part with a turban and a beard; true Sikhism comes from within. The first lesson in Sikhism is that we are all equal and that all paths lead to God. If you imagine life as a mountain then each individual on this Earth has a unique path to the top.
Over the years before I removed my Kara (the silver bangle that Sikhs wear on their right wrist), I found the conflict between Sikh religious philosophy and culture extremely difficult to digest. I found the inherent materialism and sense of showmanship in the culture at odds with the religious teachings of compassion and humility. Perhaps the most significant factor was the insistence on maintaining a discriminatory and inhumane caste system throughout the Sikh community. How can we marginalise people based on an accident of birth and yet loudly proclaim to be Sikh? For me these aspects meant that I could not, and would not, identify as a Sikh woman, no matter how much I may have once wanted to.
As the years went by, I found myself losing my faith – I tried, I really did try to believe in God. It was a terrifying aspect to realise that I didn’t believe in something that I thought was a part of me for such a long time. Then as I accepted it, I began to feel more at ease with the world around me, although like all human beings I wanted to belong somewhere. Whatever people say, we are social creatures and our experiences tie us irrevocably to the past.
Naively I thought that I would feel at home in the atheist community – and if you are not aware there is a big one on the internet. It took less than a month for me to see a widespread problem within this community, in particular with racism and sexism. I found that minorities were often targeted and internet atheism was merely a way to legitimise buried prejudices and racism. I often found it amusing that so many of these die-hard racist atheists had no appreciation for the complexity of humanity, for example the role that religions have played in cultural evolution. My point is that as a woman of colour, I found no home in the new atheist movement.
So for some time, I felt lost as to where I belong in society, I didn’t fit in with racist and sexist atheists, and I still could not reconcile myself to all that I despised about my lapsed faith.
Then about two weeks ago I read about the awful hate crime that had been perpetrated in Harlem, Manhattan against Prabhjot Singh. The victim was subjected to horrendous abuse – his jaw had been broken, his beard had been pulled, his perpetrators had shouted racial slurs at him, and they had left for dead. It wasn’t the hate crime that had surprised me – as the media grow increasingly outwardly racist in the Western world, nothing like that surprises me. No, what surprised me was that he gave an interview following his attack which was so full of compassion and positivity that I cried when I read it.
I cried for many reasons, but the most significant was because I felt so proud. Prabhjot Singh – in case you can’t tell from his name – is a Sikh. It had been a long time since I had felt real pride, and I mean real pride, that someone was representing Sikhism in the way that I had once hoped it could be. Here was a man who served his community; his compassion, forgiveness and ability to see beyond a quick fix of incarceration of the perpetrators made me remember that there are people out there who follow the religious teachings of Sikhism. These qualities are not unique to Sikhs – but they are the bedrock of Sikhism; they are humanitarian principles which are the foundation of the religion. I began to remember that there are a lot of Sikhs who are trying to make a difference in society, by following the principles of the religion. For the first time in a long time, I felt as though I had identified something that simply felt like home. It was a feeling of recognition that I haven’t had in a long time – I recognised that there was much that I could remember from my lapsed faith, and much that I could re-learn and I felt so proud and so at peace.
But of course, I still don’t believe in God so how can I identify as a Sikh? The truth is that I feel much more ethnically Sikh than I do religiously – I feel as though I am connected to the philosophy of the religion, much of which coincides with socialist ideology, rather than a belief in God. A few years ago I was surprised that Sikhism is now considered an ethnicity in the UK, but I am beginning to understand why. There is much that I feel still ties me to Sikh culture, but it isn’t materialism, the caste system, or allying with fascists to terrorise Muslim communities. It is remembering that Sikhs are supposed to fight for justice and humanitarian principles worldwide. It is remembering that Sikhism doesn’t care if you believe in God or not – even atheists are offered salvation, if they are good people. For me, I have found my home again – but not religiously, I am someone who has finally discovered what my lapsed faith means to me.
(source: Joel Friesen, obtained from wikimedia, re-usable under creative commons licence).