Guest Commentary

Nurul Zamzami: A widening view of where morality and religion intersect

AFS/YES student Nurul Zamzami
AFS/YES student Nurul Zamzami

Born and raised in Indonesia, I was used to a religiously homogenous environment. There was not much diversity in my school, since Muslims make up around 90 percent of the population. Although Indonesia is secular, religion has always been a predominant element in decision-making by the government.

Many parents send their children to religious boarding schools. Others send their children to public schools where religious instruction is compulsory, but children study only their own religion. Families regularly attend communal prayers, since observance and piety are considered benchmarks of morality. For years, I believed the notion taught by my teachers: One needs to be religiously observant to lead a good life, and only people who have lived a good life will be eternally rewarded with a heavenly afterlife.

My religious education taught me that one’s religion is either right or wrong. I believed only one religion could be the correct one since it’s impossible for other religions to hold various perceptions of God and also be correct. These teachings have perplexed me. What chance does Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or Confucianism have for being the right religion? What would happen if I were observant of a wrong religion? What chance at the afterlife would I have if I did not live according to the correct religion?

I was raised in an environment that valued piety. I was already overwhelmed by these ideas regarding observance and worried that I was not observant enough. Additionally, the concern that there might be only a slim possibility of finding the correct religion nearly forced me to give up faith altogether.

Before I had the chance to give up, it was time to leave for the United States. For the first time in my life, I live in a relatively diverse community. I stay with the Eisemann-Mark family, and I am discovering more about my own religion as I learn about their Jewish faith. We have long discussions, which have challenged my thinking on religion and have made me look deeper into other religions (specifically Judaism).

I have begun to realize that the point of religion is not merely afterlife. At its best, religion is a way of life. Religion should not demand that people focus on finding “the true God.” Instead, I believe religion should direct people to do good. When I view religion this way, I no longer worry about the right or wrong religion.

The past five months, I have met people who are unaffiliated with religion, yet are no less moral than others who are religious. Religions may teach moral values, but a person does not need religion to be a moral person. Morality and religion simply do not determine each other.

Having been exposed to new religions has made me realize that there is much more to people than their view of God. As a person who was raised in a homogenous community where people try to determine the quality of a person by their observance, I’m glad that I have learned to see beneath all the religious attributes that we portray. What I value in myself and others is no longer observance and piety, but rather sympathy, understanding and respect that we have for one another as fellow human beings. To me, that is all that should matter.

Nurul Zamzami is an Indonesian 2016-2017 AFS/YES student, a U.S. State Department high school exchange program for students from predominantly Muslim countries.