“Do you believe in God?”

Crouched on the ground, dirt staining the tips of our fingers, our group of international and local Malawian volunteers plucked small green weeds from the tree nursery at the youth centre.  As we worked, the conversation turned briefly to religion. “Sasha, do you believe in God?” one of the Malawian volunteers asked me without preamble.

I had to stop my weeding for a moment. “That’s a big question,” I told her.

And it is—at home. In fact, in Canada we tend to think that’s one of the biggest questions to ask someone. Unless you’re very close to a person or there is a specific reason that you need to know their religious beliefs, it might be considered rude for one Canadian to ask another so directly about their thoughts on a higher power. Religion is often considered a pretty personal and therefore private subject.

But in other parts of the world, religion is a far more prominent feature of public life than it is in Canada. In some places where there is little or no social safety net provided by the government, religious groups step up to fill in the gap by providing health care or educational services. In some countries, religion can be a clear marker of identity that bind communities together (and sometimes, more dangerously, set one group apart from another). And so to ask someone, “What is your religion?” or even, “Do you believe in God?” is perhaps less unusual; perhaps it’s more an attempt to place the person in question within the societal landscape. For example, in Malawi, nearly everyone has a religion. Some 75-80% of Malawians are Christian, about 15-20% are Muslim, and the remainder belong to other religions or have traditional beliefs. (Relations between different religious groups have been peaceful throughout Malawi’s history.)

I was caught a bit off guard, but I wasn’t offended by the volunteer’s question. I’ve had similar conversations back home with Muslim and Christian friends from eastern and southern Africa in which I am asked about my religious beliefs, and I actually appreciate the directness. Religion, politics, philosophy, love—are these not some of the most fascinating aspects of human existence? Why not talk about these subjects instead of our endless Canadian fascination with the weather?

Back in the garden amidst the weeds, I decided to answer honestly, even though sometimes it can be a bit awkward to admit one is not religious in a group of religious people. “I’m not sure,” I answered the volunteer. The Malawians chuckled a bit. Ah, another spiritually confused Westerner. “I’m not religious, but I’m interested in learning about religion,” I told them. And it’s true—for my own cultural education, I’m hoping I can attend a Malawian church service while I’m here.

“So maybe you will become religious in the future,” suggested another volunteer.

Now it was my turn to chuckle. “Well, maybe not,” I said.

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