Life in a Multi-generational Poly-religious Family

To attempt to change someone’s opinion is never an easy task. It can be infinitely more challenging to try altering the religious worldviews of an angst-ridden teenager. Such was the difficulty that my elder brother – I call him “大哥” – had faced about a decade ago.

Back then, we were both secondary school students. My elder brother was a born-again Christian, fervent with the belief that the world was facing an unprecedented string of crises, what with natural disasters, sociopolitical turmoil and multiple charlatans claiming to be the reincarnates of Jesus. He wanted his entire family of non-believers – my parents, my two younger brothers and I – to join him for the Sunday service and share his religious beliefs. My dad was too busy trying to earn enough to support his four children and housewife to even think about seeking spiritual fulfillment.

I was, at that time, a nerd consumed with the academic studies of mathematics and physical sciences. Show me proof that Jesus exists, I exclaimed, let me see and I shall believe you. What I wanted was non-biased – preferably tangible – sources explicitly proving that (1) Jesus existed, (2) is benevolent and (3) will walk the earth again. Naturally, my brother was unable to offer evidence beyond the words compiled in the Bible.

It was then that I realised a clash in religious persuasions can cause friction in all other aspects of daily living, like a viral infection spreading through a relationship. Historically, people had fought wars to propagate their religious worldviews and assume ideological dominance. Marx has once described religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”. To him, religion is “the opiate of the masses". Religious beliefs offer an anchor to make sense of the befuddling world and a balm to soothe existential angst. These worldviews can be so addictive that people are willing to go to extreme extents to defend them, be it by shedding blood, committing suicide bombings or leveling World Trade Center towers.

In light of the atrocities that had been carried out due to religious fervour, the conflicts between my elder brother and I are much more benign. Our lived experiences are milder microcosms of the friction that may occur when two parties quibble over ways to view the world. Our relationship had not always been like this though.

When we were much younger, still fresh-faced kids in primary school, our Christian 2nd aunt brought us to a church. After singing hymns and attending Bible studies – it was nice hearing moralistic stories – we would run alongside other children, observing the birds caged in an aviary and stroking the silky fur of house rabbits. Till now, I can remember a few bars of Christian hymns.

My grandma, a staunch believer in a mishmash of folk religions, was livid when she found out that we were brought to the church. What would bury me when I’m gone, she demanded in the Teochew dialect, is it filial of you all to go to the church? The usually serene lady was uncharacteristically worked up and very determined that her grandchildren would not convert. Christianity is a threat to her tightly-held beliefs, especially since it forbids ancestral worship. Had we converted, there would be no one to offer food, fruits and incense to our ancestors and no one to bury her according to the traditional rites when she pass away.

To placate my grandma, my 2nd aunt stopped sneaking my elder brother and I to the Sunday school. When we grew older, my elder brother went with his secondary school friends to church for worshiping God while I stayed at home to revere my textbooks. Gradually, our religious paths forked.

At this point, he was adamant about converting his immediate family members – including me – to Christians. There was a particularly memorable moment of him trying to proselytise, this time over dinner. He listed the virtues of Christianity; having a Saviour to provide divine guidance; a spot guaranteed in the heavens above; a code of ethical conduct to abide by. He even mentioned that most rich people are Christians – perhaps a passing reference to the prosperity gospels? – and asked me to verify this information via the internet.

My response was not flattering and could be construed as being woefully inappropriate.

“Where are your manners?” He spat out.

“Gone with the wind.”

“Come, let’s go outside and talk.” He sounded serious and angry.

“I don’t want to go out with you.” I was defiant and, to be honest, quite scared of him.

The resultant quarrel was so petty that it behooves us to discard the bulk of it and only focus our attention on one verbal attack I had made. In a scathing manner, I accused my elder brother of tearing the family apart by (a) going to the church on Sundays, thus (b) depriving the family of time to bond. This melodramatic remark hurt for it was partially true: our family had indeed stopped going out together on our hitherto regular Sunday outings ever since my elder brother began to go to the church.

A few weeks later, after multiple skirmishes on the same religious topic, my elder brother and I sat down in the living room. We were both tired from quarrelling, worn out from the continual battle of wits and will, fed up with the deliberate cross-talking. Why do you want us to be Christians, I asked. Because you are my family and I don’t want you to go to hell, he answered. There was silence, poignant with unsaid meanings, before we called a truce. He said something I couldn’t forget: “one day, if you become a Christian, I know that you’ll be a good Christian for you defend your beliefs most strongly.”

It isn’t easy for members of a multi-religious family to reconcile their different values, worldviews and feelings. All these were shaped by years of experiences and no one can readily walk away from something that have been honed by personal history and been grounding them for so long. Perhaps this accounts for why certain religions are able to propagate for centuries; it’s because they have tenets that are not only incredibly difficult for their believers to turn away from but also compels them to proactively spread these religions.

Tensions invariably arise when one religious worldview comes into contact with another. In a multi-generational poly-religious family, where members feel obliged to share – perhaps even impose – their religious paradigms on another, there is potential script material for family dramas.

These days, my elder brother and I are more united by a common reluctance to keep subsisting on the vegetarian dinners that my 3rd aunt – she’s a Buddhist – cooks for the entire family. We do not share her religious obligation to consistently eat vegetables, fungi and mock meat for dinners. However, we aren’t the chefs and so, keep such views to ourselves. Through the memories that our religious disputes left behind, we have grown to appreciate that mutual understanding – or at least tolerance – is needed to maintain the harmony of our family. Under the same roof, various religious inclinations – Christianity, Buddhism, atheism and agnosticism – rest, at times peacefully and at others, with greater unease.

We're same same, but different.
Source credit: Sketchuptexture

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