Commentary  Clash of civilizations

Learning about the diversity of belief in a globalized world

I was raised with a very Catholic upbringing in a more or less homogeneous community in the Middle East. I believed throughout the whole of my childhood that a religious person was a good person and a good person was a religious person.

My first contact with an atheist person was at the age of 12, when my day camp counsellor told me in private that she did not worship God. My first reaction was shock, which slowly transformed itself into an internal conflict. How could this young woman whom I liked and even looked up to be a non-believer? For a time I went through a phase of denial about it, and then eventually came to terms with my inner struggle to comprehend this seemingly blatant contradiction by attributing her atheism with the fact that she was French: a foreigner from the land of bohemians where the rules of morality that I had been taught simply did not apply.

The drastic and sudden change in my life happened when I moved to Canada and started to encounter colleagues, classmates, and teachers who completely reworked my perspective on religion. Firstly, the girl sitting next to me in English class at CEGEP turned to me one day and casually asked me if I believed in God. Again, I was flabbergasted, except this time I tried not to show it. I pretended to ponder the question for a few seconds before responding in the affirmative.

A few weeks later I was introduced to a Jewish girl who I clicked with immediately. She was the very first Jewish person I had ever had personal contact with, and happily I felt the hesitant and ill-defined prejudice that had been instilled in me dissolve. For the next few months, I started coming to terms with the idea that believing in God was a choice. Pretty soon I came to the realization that atheists were perfectly capable of being good people too. Eventually, I decided that I liked the moral criteria of atheists better than those of traditional (monotheistic) religious groups. My outlook toward religion turned into one of cynicism bordering on self-congratulatory haughtiness.

Recently, however, I have met people who are religious and believing, yet who behave in ways that I thought were contradictory with what is typically associated with devout faith. I have also encountered people who behaved in what I assumed were religiously-adherent ways, yet did not believe in God. I have also, on a couple of occasions, found myself having a debate with somebody coming from a certain religious background, where I was the one siding with the standpoint that their religion holds, instead of the other way around.

These exchanges, along with my personal readings and reflections, have allowed me to come to a very passive view of religion, where I do not feel the need to categorize myself as either religious or non-religious: I choose simply to be good.

The two concepts – being good and being religious – are not interdependent. I also find myself identifying with almost any religious school, which has made me think that if I can identify with bits and pieces of different religions and philosophies, then certainly I was not the only person to do so, and therefore an infinite number of religious combinations and permutations exist. It is extremely reductionist to group people into predetermined sets of philosophies and beliefs. A more accurate way of assaying a person is by understanding their philosophies, not by knowing the name of the religious group to which they belong.

Mays Chami is a U3 Chemical Engineering student. You can reach her at