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Religious Diversity and Identity

Religious diversity is a common feature of modern, multicultural societies. To many people religion is integral in defining their identity. For some religion means belonging to a denomination, a community, and being a part of a huge entity. Whereas religion for others, might originate from a deep personal conviction, something that defines you as a person. This might give your life dimensions that are vital for your personal identity. Here, we are going to discuss religious identity and diversity and some of the challenges involved.

Religious Faith

There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experiences…God does not exist.
—Life of Pi, Chapter 7 (statement by Mr. Kumar)

In Yann Martel's novel, Life of Pi, and the film adaptation directed by Ang Lee we meet a young Indian boy called Pi. Raised as a Hindu, Pi is challenged by his biology teacher's atheistic view claiming that God does not exist. Finding himself stuck in a life and death situation on a lifeboat on the open sea, Pi finds comfort in all the main religions - Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.

Life of Pi
Life of Pi

Religion as a Unifying Force and Mark of Identity

Religion might be something that we turn to, not only as in Pi's case, when we encounter mortal danger, anxiety and depression. In a multicultural society we often find that immigrants or people with a foreign ethnicity or culture, tend to seek the company of people with a common background. Religion might be the common ground which unites people.

When Norwegians rushed across the Atlantic in the big immigrant wave in the 1880s, congregations and churches popped up in the Midwest where they tended to settle. Many of these immigrants were not devoted Christians when they left Norway, but the congregations offered a precious opportunity to talk in their own language and exchange news from back home and share common settler experiences.

Nowadays, we can witness the same phenomenon with many immigrant groups. Muslims with an immigrant background might not have been very frequent mosque visitors or very devoted worshippers before they left their native country or region. In a foreign country, however, it is natural to seek the company of people with the same cultural background. Subsequently, religion can become an important matter. Even if their mothers did not wear a hijab, a lot of girls might choose to wear one to signal that they consider themselves devoted Muslims. Thus the hijab becomes a mark of identity.

Religion as a Battleground

Politicians and philosophers have traditionally believed that enlightenment and science would challenge religions and eventually make them “extinct”. In Eastern Europe and in the old Soviet Union it was prohibited to practise your religion in public. However, in spite of the opposition, religions have not disappeared, neither in the east nor the west. On the contrary, they have ignited unrest and rebellions. Recent examples are the Muhammed film and the drawings that made furious crowds set fire to flags and embassies.

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In 1996, the political scientist Samuel Huntington published The Clash of Civilizations. Here he explains religious identity as clashes between groups that comprise millions and even billions of people. Huntington contrasts Western, Muslim and Hindu civilisations and claims that current and future conflicts must be considered as clashing views of the world.

Religion as a Peacemaker

We should not forget, though, that religion has also been a positive source of inspiration, for example, to demand civil rights and democracy. It is maintained that religions have become an essential symbol of civilisations.

One of Huntington's fiercest opponents, is the Indian born Nobel Prize winner in economy, Amartya Sen. He insists that we have multiple identities. Basically people can choose which identity they will prioritise and which parts of their identity they would like to emphasise according to the situation and in various relations. By assigning religious identities, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and so forth, the role of a person's primary identity, Sen thinks we tend to forget about the plurality of our identities and the freedom of choice we possess. He maintains that we can choose which identity we would like to expose in a particular situation. What makes Amartya Sen’s views particularly interesting, is the fact that he is Indian. When the British colony was dissolved in 1949, people were sorted by their religious beliefs. India was divided between Muslims and Hindus. The Muslims were assigned Pakistan and Bangladesh, while the Hindus should remain in India. This separation due to religious identity led to the death of thousands of people in the subsequent turmoil.

Amartya Sen gives an account of an incident that illustrates his point. His family, who are Hindu, lived in Bengal. During the turmoil a Muslim, mortally injured, appeared in their garden asking for water. Amartay, who was 11 at the time, yelled to his parents, and they took the man to hospital. They did not hesitate to help the man, even if they differed in religious beliefs. Their identity did not merely have one dimension. For his family they were all Bengalis, they spoke the same language and shared the same history and culture. They felt that it was fundamentally wrong to sort people on the basis of one identity only: religion.

This example can serve as a reminder; it is necessary to be cautious when it comes to focusing on just one or a few marks of identity. Pi in Life of Pi demonstrates this when he "just wants to love God" and starts to follow three religions simultaneously. When we generalise on the basis of religious beliefs, we are inclined to focus on negative things, like crime, molesting of women and violation of human rights. The Holocaust and the harassment of Muslims after 9/11 are just two of the sad examples.

Source: Øyvind Dahl, NDLA

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Tasks and Activities

  1. Look at the pictures that illustrate this text. Which points are highlighted in the individual illustrations? On the basis of this, discuss the main points in the text.
  2. In Life of Pi, the author explains that he met an old man that told him Pi's story. The old man promised him a story that was so fantastic that it would make him believe in God. Watch the trailer and the film clip, [i]Life of Pi[/i] - about Religion , and discuss the fundamental questions about life and faith raised in the story.
  3. In this trailer, [i]Life of Pi[/i] - about World Religions , the theme of religion is strongly emphasised. What does it say about the importance of religion and which elements do you recognise from Christianity, Islam and Hinduism?

Film and Novel Recommendation

Watch the film Life of Pi and work with assignments on [i]Life of Pi[/i] - Film Education. Read excerpts from the novel, [i]Life of Pi[/i] - Excerpt.