A Conversation about Religion

Over coffee at the NGO where I am volunteering, the conversation I was having with two girls -both in their early twenties- had turned to religion. I don’t know how we got there, but we did.

The girls: Do you believe in God?
I: No, I don’t.
They: So you’re an atheist.
I: That’s not what I would call myself, but maybe yes, I don’t know…
They: But what do you believe in?
I: Nothing. Not in a God at least.
They: You don’t believe in anything inside [yourself]? That there is a God?
I: No, really I don’t.
They: But what is your religion then?
I: I don’t have a religion.
They: But what are you? Christian?
I: No, I am nothing, I don’t have a religion.
They: Hmmm, interesting…

The girls were obviously having a hard time grasping this and, as almost always when religion is brought up in a discussion, I thought it better to just let the conversation die right there.

This inability to grasp that one can be not religious at all is something that I have noticed more often in Armenia. For Armenians, religion is such a big identification marker, that for many people it is hard to grasp the idea of not being religious at all. Even Armenians who never go to church, don’t pray and don’t “show any other sign of religious activity” will still maintain that they are Armenian Apostolic. I don’t know how strong this link is among Diaspora-Armenians, so any comments on that are welcome.

14 thoughts on “A Conversation about Religion

  1. Been there as well, although because my name is Armenian I’m told I’m a Christian whether I want to be one or not. Again, I say that I’m an atheist on a bad day, and an agnostic on a good one.

    Then, of course, because I’m half English I’m told that because England is a Christian country then I’m definitely a Christian which brings us all the way back to square one. Basically, you’re right, people can’t understand that you can not be religious.

    Gets even stranger when they then add, “well, you wouldn’t marry a non-Christian even if you say you’re not a Christian, right?” To which I reply, sure, if fell in love with that someone, why not?

    Anyway, you put your finger on it. Religion is more of an identification of being Armenian than anything spiritual. I think this is especially so in the Diaspora.

  2. This reminds me of something else I noted.

    When people find out that I am not married (which is usually pretty soon in the conversation as it tends to be the second question I am asked – after where I am from) they will say that I should marry a nice Armenian guy and they can help me find one.

    On the other hand, I cannot count the times when my Armenian boyfriend was told (upon finding out he has a non-Armenian girlfriend) that he should find and marry a nice Armenian girl. Implying I am not good enough simply because I am not Armenian… I should be insulted but I know that’s a waste of time and energy so I just shrug it off. Besides, I know that the bf gets just as annoyed about these questions as I do, if not more.

  3. Been there as well. “Are you Armenian?,” some people ask. “I’m half-Armenian, half-English,” I reply.

    “Your father is Armenian, or your mother?” they continue.

    “Father.”

    “Then you’re 100 percent Armenia,” they conclude.

    Hmmm, wait a minute. They just wiped out the English side of my family in one fell swoop. Of course, now I don’t protest and just let things move on.

    However, weirdest situation was being interviewed by Internews a few years ago.

    “You’ve been here a long time now,” the journalist said. “Do you consider yourself Hayastantsi or Diasporan?”

    After I closed my mouth from disbelief at the first question I was asked, there was only one answer to come to mind.

    “I consider myself a person.”

  4. It is interesting how many Western Europeans who do not consider themselves religious find it difficult to understand the cultural and identity issues surrounding religion. Many Europeans and to a lesser extent North Americans have discarded their religious identity although not their national identity. This is part of the reason for the current conflict in places like Holland and Britain between some Muslims and the greater secular civil society.

    Many Jews for example are secular even atheistic yet they want their children to be raised with all the rituals, attend Jewish schools, and marry Jews. It is not uncommon to meet Muslims in the West who are non-practising but who observe Ramadan every year or who consider themselves “cultural” Muslims.

    Armenians identify with Christianity in general and the Apostolic Church in particular, and this whether they are believers or not. It is impossible to understand Armenians whether in the diaspora or in Armenia without acknowledging this.

  5. Anonymous, agreed. But I wonder where Hamshen (Moslem) Armenians in Turkey fit into this?

  6. With regard to Israel, it’s those outside the country who think that most Israelis are religious, or that the country has a far more religious character than it actually does. I’m always rather shocked when I encounter Europeans who genuinely believe that we are all religious here, and that all decisions are made here according to religious law, when this is simply not the case. People are surprised when I tell them how secular the country is.

  7. Onnik,

    The Hamshen are actually split between those living in Abkhazia and the Krasnodar area of Russia who are Christian, and those living in Turkey who are Muslim. My understanding is those living in Turkey acknowledge in private that they are Armenian.

    Liza,

    I didnt actually refer to Israel but its true that many, maybe the majority, of Israelis are secular. After all Zionism was a secular movement. However this proves the point that religion can be as much about identity and culture as about spirituality and belief. Secular Israelis are still very much Jews and the country has a number of laws and practises which reinforce this. For example there is no civil marriage (only religious) therefore those wishing to have a non-religious civil wedding must go abroad, frequently to Cyprus. The Law of Return allows people with one Jewish grandparent to become a citizen. In Jerusalem there are now bus services for orthodox Jews only where women have to sit at the back of the bus literally.

  8. The thing is, although Armenians living in Armenia claim to be Christian and religious, in reality they’re not, especially when it comes to practicing religion. Perhaps my observation is based on a comparison of Armenian religion to that of the most Christian fundamentalist country in the world where religion is not only raised to the degree of fanaticism, but also plays a determining role in country politics. Religion does not really play a big role in every day lives of Armenians. Even the most basic sociological survey of average citizens will show it: ask them how often they go to church, how well they know the bible and how well they know the religious characteristics of Armenian Apostolic Church and see what you get. I am sure the past 70 years of Soviet regime has a lot to do with it – but at this point, it is more important for Armenians to say that they are religious than actually be religious. Even the rites and rituals and certain holidays are observed more out of habit and tradition than deep religious beliefs. I do not deny the tremendous role religion has played and is still playing in determination of our national identity and its perseverance throughout history. But at this point one has to wonder whether religion is merely one of the cultural aspects or based on what they call faith and belief.

    < I hope that this comment does not insult anybody in any way. If it does, I truly apologize. Feel free to stone me to death.>

  9. Nika are you suggesting that the USA is the most fanatical Christian fundamentalist country in the world today! I wont stone you.

    I dont disagree with you about Armenians and their knowledge and practice of their religion. What is interesting though is how groups of all kinds (and Armenians in particular) hold on to their identity through the ages. A corollary to this is how those who have largely lost their religious identity, as many have in the West, no longer understand that sense of identification in others.

  10. The reason Armenians and others hold on to their religious/national identity is because they are trying to avoid the exact thing that the West (monstly the US) openly embraced – assimilation. As for cultural insensitivity – the world wouldn’t not be as big of a mess as it is now if we all were a little bit more considerate towards each others’ values.

  11. I meant to comment earlier, actually started writing, but left the comment half-finished. I decided to reply anyway, even though the discussion has already finished.

    Nika, I tend to agree with the points you raise about the role of the church and religion in contemporary Armenia.

    Anonymous, I think one needs to distinguish between cultural and religious traditions, but I do admit that the line is sometimes thin. I would say, that being Jewish in the 21st century is not only or exclusively a religious identity anymore, but also and at least as much a cultural identity. The example you give regarding the Law of Return for example doesn’t have anything to do with religion and Jewishness as a religious identity.

    Also, Anon, saying that the problems with the integration (or non-integration) of Muslims in Europe are partly the result of secular Westerners not understanding the role religion plays in the lives of these Muslims, that may be true, but as you said it is only part of the problem. You seem to suggest that only those secular Westerners need to understand and respect the role of religion. I think that it is the same the other way around: the Muslim part of society in European countries need to -if not understand- then at least respect the role and impact of secularization in the societies they are living in.
    I would say that the problems in Europe are a result of mutual non-understanding.

    I think a large group of first, second and third generation Muslim immigrants to Europe did not (and do not) truly understand the secular nature of European society or the values that these European societies hold and the duties and responsibilities that follow out of that. That these values include freedom of speech (and thus the possibility of being offended or hearing something you might not like) and equality between men and women for example.

    Understanding and respect is a two way street. Is it really strange that someone who grew up a-religious finds it hard to grasp how religion can so define someone’s thinking. You seem to expect non-religious people to understand and tolerate, but religious people don’t need to understand or tolerate? Why do you ask more from one than from the other? I think the least one can ask from both parts of society is to tolerate and respect the differences. Nika, you said it well: “the world wouldn’t not be as big of a mess as it is now if we all were a little bit more considerate towards each others’ values.” For me, ‘each others” being the core words in that sentence.

    One last thing. Anon wrote: “Armenians identify with Christianity in general and the Apostolic Church in particular, and this whether they are believers or not.” Maybe this is where I (as a non-religious person 😉 ) get lost. If you are not a believer or religious, why would you still identify with a certain church? Is it because it is the *Armenian* Apostolic church? What if Armenians would have been Roman Catholic, a church that is not specific to one nation or people or country? Would someone still identify with the Catholic church even if s/he would consider him/herself non-religious? Would religion or the church still be such an important aspect of the Armenian identity? I know, this is an entirely hypothetical situation to which no answer can really be given, but still.

  12. Because for centuries it is the Church that kept them alive. For centuries they were the only Christians surounded by people of other religious beliefs who wanted to assimilate them. They always stood firm and fought to keep their religion and stay alive. This has become engrained in them – I would call a genetic factor. Also, the fact that they were the first to adopt Christianity as a state religion has played a very big part in reinforcing the “genetic factor”.
    I once saw an old passport at an exhibit. It was from the late 1800’s and it was in Turkish. Aside from the usual information such as Name, Height, Colour of eyes, it also stipulated the Religion. And, next to Religion, they had written: Ermeni (meaning Armenian in Turkish). That shows how much religion and cultural/national identification has always been one and the same for Armenians and for those who knew/know them.

  13. Posts about religion or lack of it never fail to spark complex discussions!

    I live in the U.S. and while I have no religion either, I have such a mix of religions in my students: buddhist, muslim, mormon, christian, jewish. None of them bring it up very often, because religion for the most part has come to seem a very private thing here. We do have the evangelical christians who try to “save” everyone, but they’re really not a very large percentage of the population. Just a loud part of the population.

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