That’s how Madonna captioned an Insta story of her kissing Britney Spears at the 2003 MTV VMAs—and paired it with a shot of gay black singer Lil Nas X recently kissing one of his backup dancers at the BET awards (see Insta screenshot here). And now everyone wants to cancel her ‘gay icon’ card for that single #hashtag. The reason: Straight white women acting out a lesbian fantasy isn’t exactly revolutionary or brave—which may explain why a far more courageous Lil Nas is dealing with homophobic backlash.
An eye-opening survey of Indians
The TLDR: A significant survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals a citizenry deeply wedded to both faith and religious tolerance. But that liberal worldview is marred by hard lines of religious difference which breed segregation and suspicion. And yes, there is a clear North-South divide.
About that survey…
Titled ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’, the survey conducted 30,000 face-to-face interviews of adults in 17 languages between late 2019 and early 2020. The sample ranged across 26 states and 3 union territories—and included 22,975 Hindus, 3,336 Muslims, 1,782 Sikhs, 1,011 Christians, 719 Buddhists and 109 Jains.
Point to note: India is home to the majority of the world’s Hindus (615.59 million), Jains (3.3 million) and Sikhs (14.42 million)—and also to one of the world’s largest Muslim population (97.69 million) and to millions of Christians (18.51 million) and Buddhists (5.65 million).
Religion really, really matters
We are a deeply religious nation. Of those surveyed, 84% of all Indians firmly believe that religion plays an important part in their life—and 94% are proud to be members of their faith. At 77%, Christians are most likely to pray every day—compared to 45% of Sikhs and 38% of Buddhists. That said, nearly all Indians say they believe in God (97%), and roughly 80% of people in most religious groups say they are absolutely certain that God exists.
The least religious: South India, where only 69% consider religion to be important and only 37% pray every day.
“Despite rapid economic growth, India’s population so far shows few, if any, signs of losing its religion… And religion is prominent in the lives of Indians regardless of their socioeconomic status. Generally, across the country, there is little difference in personal religious observance between urban and rural residents or between those who are college educated versus those who are not.”
Point to note: A YouGov survey from 2019 shows some generational differences. Young urban millennials (58%) and Gen Z kids (53%) are least likely to consider religion as important. Then again, around the world, people tend to become more religious as they age.
“Nearly three-quarters of Hindus (72%) in India say a person cannot be Hindu if they eat beef. That is larger than the shares of Hindus who say a person cannot be Hindu if they do not believe in God (49%) or never go to a temple (48%). Similarly, three-quarters of Indian Muslims (77%) say that a person cannot be Muslim if they eat pork, which is greater than the share who say a person cannot be Muslim if they do not believe in God (60%) or never attend mosque (61%).”
Religion as difference: But that deep faith also creates clear lines of separation: 66% of Hindus see themselves as different from Muslims—and 64% of Muslims reciprocate that sentiment. OTOH, about half of Sikhs say they have a lot in common with Hindus. But only 20% of Hindus feel the same way about Sikhs. Of the lot, Jains most keenly feel that they are different from all others—except, of course, for Hindus.
Point to note: A 2017 Ipsos survey showed that 70% of Indian believe that religion defines them as a person. More interestingly, a whopping 46% agreed with this statement: “I lose respect for a person when I find out they are not religious.”
“Across the country, most people (84%) say that to be ‘truly Indian,’ it is very important to respect all religions. Indians also are united in the view that respecting other religions is a very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community (80%). People in all six major religious groups overwhelmingly say they are very free to practice their faiths, and most say that people of other faiths also are very free to practice their own religion.”
And despite the previous data about hard lines of separation, there are heart-warming stats about the syncretic nature of our beliefs:
“Not only do a majority of Hindus in India (77%) believe in karma, but an identical percentage of Muslims do, too. A third of Christians in India (32%) – together with 81% of Hindus – say they believe in the purifying power of the Ganges River, a central belief in Hinduism. In Northern India, 12% of Hindus and 10% of Sikhs, along with 37% of Muslims, identity with Sufism, a mystical tradition most closely associated with Islam.”
Point to note: In a 2019 Lokniti survey, 76.2% of respondents agreed that India belongs equally to citizens of all religions. So secularism isn’t exactly dead—contrary to what we may see or read in the news.
A counter-intuitive fact: Now, 53% of all Indians believe that our diversity benefits the country—compared to 24% who think it is harmful. But here’s what’s fascinating:
“Even though Hindu BJP voters who link national identity with religion and language are more inclined to support a religiously segregated India, they also are more likely than other Hindu voters to express positive opinions about India’s religious diversity. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of this group… say religious diversity benefits India, compared with about half (47%) of other Hindu voters.”
An important reminder: We seem to prize religious freedom above all others. In a previous Pew survey, 78% of Indians placed freedom to practice one’s faith at the very top of their list—compared to a dismal 32% who valued freedom of speech. This may explain why we are so quick to both be offended and ban anything that offends anyone.
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