Within each of us lies an inclination, a compulsion to want to connect with and relate to a force or being outside of direct experience, a higher power, the supernatural, a particular deity, we gravitate towards the transcendental, the sacred and the divine. Many think of religion in terms of the half dozen world religions, and their subgroups. Though the fact that our religion is at once a very individual, but also universal human need presupposes that for all the categories and subdivisions, that delineate the nature of humankind’s relationship to divinity, its nature is of infinite and breath-taking variety and scope, a tapestry of immense proportions perpetually shifting and differing across the world and throughout time.
Such a fundamental aspect of our existence invariably means that religion has become a definitive element of our identity, and our definition of ourselves is often inevitably established and reinforced unfortunately in the extent and manner of its difference to others. Where there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of the subtlety of another’s beliefs and little acknowledgement of its value, prejudice prevails and peoples’ perceptions of this crucial area of human existence are reduced to broad brushstrokes and crass stereotyping. If we allow our attitude and behaviour towards people to emanate from this limited perspective, then we cannot reasonably expect to be able to relate to this person with any depth or apprehend the importance of their own affinity with divinity.
Our understanding of different religions and their beliefs and practices is often clouded by the opinions of our family, friends and associates, while societal norms and the influence of mass-media and social networks can leave it riddled with misconceptions. Such an obfuscating outlook can impede our ability to empathise with the other person, appreciate their beliefs and respect their right to worship. Many deeply embedded social events and family occasions within closely-knit communities have their basis in a shared religion, as well as these societal ties and religious doctrine reinforcing accepted standards regarding marital practices and choice of partner. Given then, religion’s significance in terms of who we are, how we see ourselves and others, and the decisions we make from the choices we have; it is unsurprising how incredibly influential it has been on our selection of a life partner and our relationship with them.
Which is why perhaps there has been a tendency more recently for people to describe themselves as agnostic or spiritual, favouring a less rigid outlook on humankind’s connection with the sacred. This way, we can appreciate the religion in the person rather than the person in terms of their religion. It would seem that people don’t wish for religion, although an essential aspect of our lives, to be the dominant factor in our relationships, or for it to dominate those relationships. That said, the major religions today are for many a source and channel of contentment, solace and power, enriching the lives of those who follow them and the people they know. Being such a fundamental element of human nature, it cultivates numerous qualities and endows people with a fulfilling sense of purpose and direction in their lives.
So in traversing this sometimes delicate area, particularly in a world that is increasingly cosmopolitan and where intermarriage between different ethnicities, cultures and religions is ever more common, it needn’t necessarily be a question of your religion or your relationship. By abandoning preconceptions we become more likely to attract people into our lives we never would have otherwise. By focussing on the person, we can see in what ways their religion is important to them and how it makes them the person they are. From this perspective, the decisions both big and small that have to be made are done so from a position of mutual respect and understanding and the relationship itself is strengthened and ultimately more harmonious, as it is a platform from which to share experiences and learn about each other. Religion is ultimately a form of self-expression in our relationship with the higher power and like anything else in life its variety and the freedom to do so in the manner of our choice is what allows for the remarkable diversity and progression of humanity. Religion and relationships are not mutually exclusive but beautifully inclusive, let’s give them the chance to work for each other.