“The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” This is the definition of religion given by the oxford dictionary. But what is religion really? Where does it come from? Why do we put ourselves into religious groups? Why is religion sometimes being used for power? Am I religious?
These are questions I have had for many years in the back of my mind. I sometimes thought about them, but for a long time the questions would go as fast as they came. I would wonder about them for a second, then think I do not know and how it all seems confusing, and move on. I grew up as a protestant in a kind of religious environment. I went to church here and there, got confirmed but at the same time tended to say that I do not believe in god. Until I was 16 years old I never questioned this way of thinking, nor did I realize how hypocritical I was. When I started boarding school with people from many different religious backgrounds, I thought about it a bit more. I had met people who saw religion as the enemy and others that would pray before every meal. I kept on changing between being a protestant, an atheist and an agnostic.
Then, I arrived in Ecuador. A vast majority of the population there is catholic and many people that are religious, are much stricter about it than most people I had met in Belgium and Germany. I ended up in a host family that was extremely religious. In fact my host mother met my host dad because her uncle was the local priest, and he was good friends with my host dad’s family. My host family would go to church at least once a week if not more, my 9 and 11 year old host brothers had 4 hour long religion classes each Saturday, my host aunt Aida led a praying club every Wednesday, everyone prayed before we ate and each time I left the town my host dad told me that he would see me later, if god permits. And he meant it.
In buses and at school, religious figures and posters were hanging everywhere. When anything bad happened at school, my co-teacher Maribel would get her prayer book out and start praying. The first time this happened was when I was with one of my eighth grade classes. Maribel and my 32 students all started praying at the same time. This went on for another 20 minutes and I just stood there feeling overwhelmed. When I left the Ecuador to go back to Europe, some of my students gave me small stickers of religious figures as a goodbye present. Religion in Ecuador was everywhere.
You can now probably imagine what a change that was for me, as back home religion was something that happened on the periphery of my life. Not something that I was confronted with on a daily basis. So when I sat in church with my host family, especially the first couple of times when I did not understand anything due to my lack of Spanish skills, my questions came back up. I realized that I wanted to understand the Ecuadorian people’s tendency to rely and believe so strongly in God and the catholic church’s system. How could so many Ecuadorians be catholics if it is a religion that was introduced by the Spanish during the brutal times of colonization? Why would money be used to build big beautiful churches and religious statues if that money could be used for the poor? Why would people give me a disappointed look when I told them that I was not catholic? What did being agnostic actually mean to me?
For many months I wanted to write this blog but each time I thought of doing it, I stopped and told myself that I should wait a bit longer. Just a bit longer. Just until I got the answers to all my questions, understood religion, found the meaning of it all… Ecuador forced me to confront my mixed feelings about religion.
Now I understand that it was not “religion” that I had a problem with, but how it was often misused to manipulate people for reasons of money, power or to create hate. I am still critical about how religion can be corrupted and want to continue asking critical questions: However, I know understand that this does not have to stop me from believing, believing in something greater than us, some higher and connecting power, be it called a god or something else. Though I have not found the answers to all my questions, I have found the answer to what religion or religious belief means to me. It means to me the freedom as an individual, to reflect and have an opinion on my belief on what this greater power, whatever you may want to call it, is all about To ask questions. To not be confined by others. To not be put into a box. To feel connected with all beings in a peaceful way.
The beauty of religion is that it is an area where each one of us can decide what he or she wants to make out of it. If you need religion as a source of connecting community and hope, then so be it. But do allow everyone to find for themselves if they want to believe and if so in what. Ecuador has not made me a Catholic. Ecuador has made me intrigued by religion. I cannot tell you as what I want to be defined when it comes to religion, but now I am not bothered by it anymore, more so I am excited by what lies ahead.