We all know how controversial the topic of religion can get not only among Malaysians but with our own family members and relatives as well.
Agnostic, atheist, freethinker: although all of them have their specific meanings, they are all united in one concept: not believing in a God or religion.
Growing up in a Christian, every-Sunday-morning-is-devoted-to-church and nightly prayers are a must family, it’s quite ironic to see how I’ve become a self-proclaimed agnostic who spends her Sunday mornings sleeping in and her nightly routine consists of scrolling through Reddit until she passes out.
Mom and dad, I hope you’re proud!
Religion In Malaysia
Fortunately, I’m more fortunate I was born a Malaysian Chinese which you already know: freedom of religion. Unfortunately, Malaysia practices strict conversion laws for Malaysian Muslims, none of them are permitted to denounce or convert their Muslim religion unless under special circumstances but even then, probably not.
Malaysia is obviously a multi-racial & multi-cultural country. The moment you step into any public places, you’ll see different races mingling around, all completely at ease. You might think with those in mind, Malaysia would be a country that allows freedom of religion to all its inhabitants right?
Well, not exactly. Yes, in Article 11 of the Constitution of Malaysia, it states every person has the right to profess and to practice his or her religion. Article 3 of the same constitution also states that Islam is the religion of the country but other religions are allowed to be practiced in peace.
This sounds kinda iffy when you know how strict the Muslim conversion laws are in Malaysia. Every newborn Malay is automatically a Muslim, there’s no freedom given to choose their own. What if they choose to denounce Islam once they reach adulthood? The consequences are harsh, caning or being charged into religious-conversion camps are the typical solution.
Ironically, although Malaysia states that it’s a country that allows all religion to be practiced peacefully, recent incidents of religious fighting would eliminate that Constitution article immediately.
In Malaysia, Muslims and Christians have been at odds for a long time. If you must know, religious texts of both religions contain a lot of similarities. Jesus even appears in the Quran! But not as God but as a disciple of Allah which of course doesn’t make Christians too happy. Vice versa, Muslims aren’t too happy that a disciple of the real god (Allah) is being worshiped. It’s a blasphemous situation for both sides.
Instead of peaceful debates, we have bombing of churches. The reason? A high court ruling allowing Christians to use the word ‘Allah’ in any Malay-language literature.
For the literal meaning, Allah’s definition in the Arabic sense is “god”, like a general term but the Malays in Malaysia strictly believe it should exclusively refer to their God in Islam.
Hence why the bombings happened, the bombers hoping it would send a message to intimidate the high court judges to overturn their ruling.
Guess what? It worked.
If you’re a Malaysian, you know how sensitive religion is as a topic, specifically Islam. But sometimes I wonder if Malaysia really did practice what they preach (freedom of religion), would our citizens be more at peace?
And if it was free for all to choose, would Islam feel less of an obligation to Malays and more of a spiritual choice? This can be (somewhat) answered by my personal experience in a Christian family where my relationship with God just felt like an obligation and only practiced just to avoid punishment.
My Personal Experience with Religion
Reverting back to my story, I never really felt a connection to God. Even when I was surrounded by my fellow singing & dancing churchgoers, all I could do was think about when it was going to be over so I could have lunch. Or sleep. Or both. I also marvelled more at the dancing people’s energy than the scriptures being read by the pastors.
I guess that’s what happens when religion is forced down your throat and not a voluntary experience, you really developed a huge resentment towards religion. Hmm doesn’t this sound familiar to how a certain country is run?
After many arguments and blowouts with my parents, they finally stopped forcing me to attend church every Sunday, also because I used the excuse of ever-nearing PMR to use my Sundays to study instead and after that, they never pushed me to attend church even after my final paper.
I’m very glad they did so or I’m sure I’ll have an even bigger stick up my ass about Christianity. Sure, they still made me perform nightly prayers with them but I welcomed it as an excuse to have my parents tuck me in bed (I might not care about Jesus but I still am a big baby at heart!).
Even now, I still look back at those Sunday mornings with contempt. Instead the Sunday mornings I truly cherished were the ones waking up to my mom’s cooked breakfast, spending time with them at the nearby beaches or parks or locked away in my room, getting lost in storybooks.
But back to my main point, I was lucky enough to be born as a Malaysian Chinese who is allowed to convert or denounce the religion they were born into. Unfortunately for Malaysian Muslims, that’s not the case.
So why is religion then such a big deal to everyone else and the world?
Why Religion Is Important to Us
Teaches us how to be better
Every religion advises their disciples to choose the good and moral path. Even a religion named The Satanic Temple abides by this! I guess the bible was wrong about the fallen angel, huh?
Anyway back to the point, all religions tell us to be good and kind people. That means don’t cheat on your wife, don’t steal your neighbour’s goat, no lying or dishonesty.
A sense of community
When you reach a certain age, making new friends is going to be hard. You don’t have the convenience of school to meet people with shared interests anymore, everyone in bars get too drunk to even remember you the next day and workmates… well, let’s just not go there.
So I can see the enticing charm of religion in meeting a community of people together. Sometimes back then all my mom’s friends were from church and when the service ended, it was just a big hangout for my parents. *cue younger me groaning from being too hungry*
Connecting with forces bigger than our own
For centuries, our ancestors have been telling tales regarding powerful outside forces. An earthquake happens? The gods are angry. Crops are growing well? The gods are in a good mood. Us humans love making sense of the world so it only makes sense why religion was created – to solve the unknowable.
Making sense of the good and the bad
Whenever something bad happened to my family, my parents justified it by saying “God wanted that to happen” and I guess it gives a certain comfort knowing things that happen are out of your control. It also explains why prayer is seen as powerful to those who practice religion because when you pray to God to take away your pain or fears, it’s reverting the control to Him if you think about it.
Why I Think Religion Is Not Needed For A Happy, Fulfilling Life
Be better, for yourself
I’ve seen a lot of people fearing to commit sinful acts because of the fear of being sent to hell come the last day of their lives. But this makes me wonder, are they good people because they want to be or just because their religion’s scripture tells them so? Of course, it’s better than allowing humans to run loose without any moral teaching but when you place emphasis on good behaviour = no punishment, you run a risk of creating a society who are fake-good rather than real souls who really empathize.
Putting it all on God
Just like the last point I made about why religion is important to us, believers tend to transfer control over to God which leaves him in a tight position when things go bad. Your relative got lung cancer? It’s all God’s will. Your son dies in a tragic accident involving a drunk driver? Ahh, God has better plans for him.
Uhm what BS. It also shifts the blame of the actual perpetrator to God. Maybe your relative smoked two packs a day and ate Mcdonalds all the time, he certainly should have taken care of his health better. The drunk driver should have never gotten behind the wheel, God’s intentions or not.
It’s (Not) Getting Personal
Nowadays, religion is less about a personal relationship between you and God but is done in a more organizational manner. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to celebrate your love for God with other people.
However, when you bring other people into this kind of spiritual relationship, it starts to get messy and impersonal. Firstly because imagine skipping a week or two from church because you’re too busy or not feeling well but you perform your prayers without fail every night. Then you return to church and get a bunch of remarks like “Oh I always make it to church even when I haven’t gotten any sleep” or “No matter how sick I am, I always make time for Sunday service”.
It’s not a competition, Janice.
Then religion will start seeming like something you SHOULD do and not want to, dismissing the importance of it.
It’s pretty to oversimplify religion as “important” or “non-important”. But too bad this is real life and nothing is ever so clear. Although it’s clear that religion has both its positive & negative qualities, what we can really take away from this is that religion deserves a nice balance in our lives.
Don’t make it your only livelihood nor dismiss its important teachings immediately.
But also don’t make it compulsory for all to practice because in the end, humans love freedom to choose and when forced to, how genuine can that relationship with religion be anyway?
This article is a part of Woke’s Taboo Series where we dive deep into topics most Malaysians shy away from. If you like reading this, check out our other Taboo articles on the dark side of prescribed medication and female circumcision in Malaysia