A young woman called Lola contacted me recently for help with a religious dilemma. She was a ‘non-practising Catholic’ and desperately wanted to marry her ex-boyfriend, who happened to be a Jew. They had broken up because of the religious mis-match and she wanted help in trying to win him back. Lola was willing to convert to Judaism and would do anything to prove that she could be a good Jew. How could she get him to believe her? What could she do to convince him that religion would not be an issue if she converted to his faith?
The problem with religion is that it’s divisive. It separates people into different categories, rather than bringing them all together as one and the same. It forces people to accept certain dogmas, rules and rituals …if they want to be part of the club. And it tells them what to believe rather than helping them to explore their own spiritual selves, forcing them to be judgemental of themselves and others. More importantly, it forces people to choose—resulting in the kind of lose-lose choice that Lola felt forced to make. If I choose this man, I must become a Jew. If I don’t convert to Judaism, I lose this man. Going deeper still, it means: if I choose this man, I lose a part of myself; if I become a Jew, I compromise my values, my independence and my personal freedom. There’s no room here for me to change my mind later; my kids will be brought up Jewish, even if I decide I can’t handle it.
So I asked her if she really wanted to marry a man who made these kinds of conditions and demands. Could she unconditionally love someone who did not unconditionally love and accept her? Was she willing to give up her personal autonomy—her right to choose whatever she might subsequently choose to do or be, in any area of her life, in the future? Was she willing to distort herself to fulfill what this man considered to be a necessary role?
A relationship founded on this kind of unhealthy compromise can never be truly loving, trusting or committed, since all such compromises ultimately require a distortion of the self, which creates resentment. It would be shaped and controlled by an outside force, in the form of religion, and Lola would be monitored for her adherence and commitment to the Jewish faith. She would need to constantly demonstrate her conformity and would likely find herself saying yes when she wanted to say no, going along with rituals and ceremonies that had no real meaning for her, and generally suppressing whatever feelings she might have along the way that might jeopardize her ‘right’ to stay married to her chosen partner.
If religion requires this kind of sacrifice and if it doesn’t bring us together in love and unity, surely there’s something wrong with it. And why should anyone be expected to take on another’s beliefs, when our connection to God (or whatever we might choose to believe in) is a purely personal, private matter? Why should we care what others believe in, provided we live by our own healthy values and respectfully allow others to do the same? How can any faith be threatened, if faith exists inside each individual and is the one thing that no one can take away from them? Does it matter to you that I eat brown bread instead of white, prefer yoga to tai chi, support a different football team, or believe in me more than in a priest/minister/rabbi…? How does it benefit you if I believe exactly what you believe, rather than being true to myself? Being true to me is precisely what makes me reliable and trustworthy, since I won’t be swayed by others telling me what to do. And personal autonomy is the key to empowerment and fulfillment (not to mention democracy), since anything else is control.
So if you’re ever faced with a situation like Lola’s, ask yourself this: Is it really about religion/your football team/politics/vegetarianism? What are you really afraid of, if your partner doesn’t share your beliefs? Is it him/her you’re afraid of losing control over or it is you? And if you’re not in charge of your own beliefs, who is?