For the convinced atheist it may become painfully awkward to be involved in a religious ritual. It is not a hate or disdain towards religion itself; it’s rather the lack of understanding of the appealing it has on others.
Religion for a convinced atheist is a little bit like “shitty music”. It exists and, inexplicably, some people are into it; some would even spend money in concert tickets or albums or even merchandising.
The atheist doesn’t really fight this, doesn’t hate it, doesn’t care; the atheist doesn’t even consider this “music” (such as whatever teen/latin/summer tune) actual music.
No. The atheist wouldn’t go to a concert and doesn’t really enjoy listening to shitty music on the radio when at a bar or shop, but is not really upset about it either. The atheist is not faced. Really.
But if the atheist – who is a “true musician” or at least a true “connaisseur” – was asked to be a special guest at the stage performance of one of these artists… What would they do? Would they throw a tantrum? Or would they seize this opportunity for personal growth as an experience out of their comfort zone? Would they find out something new about themselves – like maybe… just maybe… they enjoyed it a little this one time? That maybe this is just another valid way to have fun, even though not for everyday?
So when I joined in in a Hindu ritual I was skeptical at first. I didn’t really know what to do, what to expect, why bother doing it at all.
This ritual is the Melukat. The melukat’s purpose is to cleanse and purify body and soul.
[To summarise it in a way the most sceptic of all can understand without raising an eyebrow, this is a ritual in which you jump in a freezing pond with many other people (and fish!) and queue up in order to get to the water fountains, dare to put your head and body under each one of the cold water sources without screaming while rubbing your face and skin and making bows and praying gestures].
Surprisingly enough, this ritual that aims at cleansing and purifying your body and souls leaves you feeling… well exactly that.
So first of all: the rules
One cannot go in wearing a swimming suit. Well you can, but you need to truly cover yourself with a sarong in that case – that is, if you are a woman. Men can be shirtless, women cannot. But they all wear sarongs, which in the case of locals are generally their own, but they also rent out sarongs for the Melukat before going in.
Talking about rules, that are as usual in religion more punitive for women than men: women must wear their hair tied up when entering the temple that the fountains emanate from, and they cannot enter when on their period. To be honest it is also forbidden to climb the volcano while on your period. Or swim at the waterfall, or basically anything – anything fun that is. They can just be discreet about it I guess… how otherwise could they go on with their lives?
Rules rules rules.
Not a big fan of rules, not a big fan of authority, not a big fan of religion. So all of this put together makes a first stressful impression for the atheist who is so convinced of atheism and has never had to question any of this.
Secondly: the true believers
One cannot help feeling a bit like a fraud.
Like in a way this is making fun of the whole thing, like one cannot infiltrate “metaphysical” beliefs. Like infiltrating a culture is not the same as infiltrating a religion.
But somehow one can also find that spirituality, even for the convinced atheist, can be flirted with, somehow.
Thirdly: the surprising relief
Relief because it was not as weird as one thought.
But what do you “pray” for? That’s quite a personal decision.
In my awkwardness I followed the advice I was given to pray for my parents’ health first. Being new at “praying” I decided to wish health, happiness, lightness of heart, forgiveness, strength. At each fountain these wishes became a bit more corporeal, and it felt rather like energy I was sending to those I love and to myself at different moments of my own life.
If this was “praying”, it felt good. Really good. Like meditation, or like a sunny afternoon lying on a hammock with a good book.
Ultimately, the afterthought
A sense of weightlessness takes over every step out of the fountains. One could claim it’s the cold water activating blood circulation – and it might as well be true – but it also felt like something else. It felt like therapy. It felt like stress was left in the water, as if the familiar stress or rush was foreign now.
This flirtation with spirituality, the big unknown, the big taboo for the secular mind, was one big step in understanding why religion plays a big role in society. And although religion keeps looking like the opiate of the masses to the convinced atheist, spirituality could play a more popular role in the inner peace of the individual.
[And this afterthought, of course, could only come by experiencing a polytheistic Eastern religion. I personally couldn’t – and wouldn’t – expect to feel the same thing with any monotheistic religion].