Dating while religious and listening to #GoodMuslimBadMuslim

I just started listening to the podcast #GoodMuslimBadMuslim.  It's a fantastic podcast that I highly recommend, full of discussions of what it means to be Muslim, what is a "good" or a "bad" Muslim, what it's like to live as a Muslim in America right now, and just plain what it means to be good or bad in general.

Here is how they describe themselves:
To the Muslim community, we are "bad" Muslims - we listen to music, we don't pray regularly, we date or get married to white men (Zahra), identify as punks and radicals (Taz), we perform and share our lives with comedy and writing. So we are bad. So so bad.

To non-Muslims, we are "good" - we don't drink, we don't do drugs, we are not criminals, we are social justice activists and community leaders. We are successful, published, accomplished.
I love this description!  I often attempted to make similar explanations of my Mennonite-ness, except Taz and Zahra, as successful, published, and accomplished community leaders, do a way better job than me at breaking it down.

In a time when assumptions about who Muslims are and what they do are so widespread and contentious, it would behoove us all to listen to this podcast as one of many voices helping us understand the multiple identities and lifestyles that make up the Muslim faith.

I started by listening to the episode Muslim-ish.  I learned about experiences of surveillance, that Richard Dawkins (who I already had decided was a general pompous jerk) is a racist and sexist, that Janet Jackson is now Muslim, and that nobody takes Eid into account when planning events.

At one point, one of the women (I'm pretty sure it was Zahra) talks about having gone on a date with a white guy, and how frustrating it was for her to once again be asked the question "how Muslim are you?" 

In their discussion of that question there is one misunderstanding that comes up: that a Christian or a Jewish person would never get asked how Christian or Jewish they are.

As someone with a Christian background, I can tell you that I think some version of this question has come up with every person I have dated.

Why?  A religious label doesn't actually tell you much about what a person truly believes or how they live their life.  I am Mennonite and I can bet you that 90% of the things you think that means in terms of my beliefs and lifestyle are not quite accurate.  I went on a date once with a guy who identified himself as Anglican and went on to describe all religious people as lunatics.  Even being an atheist can mean totally different things to different people.

Whether you're dating to have some sexy fun with a cool person or to find love and marriage, you need to know more than the label a person gives their belief system to know how these activities might work out for you.

When we ask how religious our date is, of course, we really want to know some combination of a whole bunch of questions including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Will you have sex with me before we are married/will you expect me to have sex with you before we get married?
  • What about kissing and other sexy activities?
  • What about living together before marriage or even getting married at all?
  • What are the most important things in your life?
  • Do you follow your faith's dietary restrictions?  How strictly?
  • Do you go to church or temple all the time or just sometimes or not at all?  Do you want me to go to?  What if I go to a different church or temple?
  • Can we talk about faith or does that scare you?
  • Does your religious faith influence every part of your life, or is it just a name you use to describe your basic life philosophy?
  • Will you want to raise your children with this religion?
  • Does your family do any prayers or songs before meals that I'm not going to understand?
  • For your religion, are you super conservative or super liberal?
  • Do you have to marry someone who shares your beliefs?  If we don't share the same beliefs is this limited to being a fling?  (The fling question ties back to the sexy behaviour questions.)
  • Do you think that men and women are equal in an actually visible way?
  • Will you try to convert me?  Can I talk about my beliefs without you thinking I'm going to convert you?  Will you convert?

The trick here comes from the amount of knowledge a person has of your religion coming into the conversation.  If you share a religious background, you don't necessarily need to ask the broad, awkward "how [insert religion] are you?" question because you know the lingo and can ask more specific and nuanced questions.  You can ask about their sect or denomination, how they observe holidays, and where they attend temple or church.  With your keen insider knowledge you will glean a lot of useful information from those questions, because you know what those things all mean.

What if you are coming with little to no knowledge of the religion?  Without background knowledge, you probably don't even know where to start.  You're not going to blatantly ask all the real questions running through your mind because everyone tries to act all cool on first dates and it's apparently uncool to just ask straightforward questions.

Thus, the broad, inelegant question emerges: "how Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Buddhist/Hindu/Sikh are you?"

It is totally awkward.  The person asking it probably feels awkward because they know they are not quite getting the question right, and they feel kind of embarrassed and exposed for not knowing enough about your religion to ask a better question.

The person answering feels awkward because they suddenly have to evaluate and rate their personal beliefs against where they think a general perception of their religion lies.  It can be really hard to articulate beliefs, especially when it has become suddenly clear that the person your talking to has no frame of reference to understand yours.

Personally, I just wish people would get over this idea of being "cool" on dates and would just ask the real questions they want answers to.  This was always my shortfall in dating: I would just ask straightforward questions and give straightforward answers.  A lot of people don't like this.

It is likely that the "how religious are you?" question is way more loaded for Zahra and Taz than it is for me.  While no one seems to know or understand what a Mennonite is, Christianity is basically the default religion of North America and so even if I don't fit into mainline Christian faith, most people I encounter have a basic idea of where to begin talking about it.  The default understanding of what being a Muslim means is very different, and so they are dealing with a whole different set of assumptions when these questions come up.

Okay, so let's say you're on a date.  If you are trying to play the game where you pretend you don't actually want the things that you want and thus can't bring up questions about sex, marriage, babies, or gender roles, then let's rephrase the awkward question.  Instead of "how [insert religion] are you?" try asking "what does being [insert religion] mean to you?", "what does your faith look like?", or even "how do you practice your faith?"

I can't speak for Zahra and Taz, or for any other person with some religious attachment, but for me, this is a much better question.  It still might be a bit awkward, but it lets me articulate what I believe without having to try to measure it against some imaginary 1-10 scale of frightening-zealot to reluctant-holiday-observer.

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