Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Religious Diversity Calls for Religious Literacy

As the 113th Congress was being sworn in, media were covering not only the many problems this legislative body will face in the coming days, but also the new religious diversity that sets this Congress apart from others. Indeed, much has been made, and rightly so, about the swearing in of Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu elected to Congress, and her use of the sacred text of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, during the taking of her oath.

While the percentage of those legislators from various religions other than Protestant and Catholic Christianity and Judaism still fall below the percentage of adherents to those minority faiths in the general population, the religious diversity of this new Congress reflects the value of religious freedom that America claims to honor. One no longer needs to be of a particular religious persuasion, or any religious persuasion for that matter, to be elected to Congress.

But such diversity, even though still small, offers a great opportunity to people of all faiths or no faith at all to become more knowledgeable about the different religions that exist in our world. Indeed, while many people claim to be very religious, it seems, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, that many Americans are vastly illiterate when it comes to knowing about their own religion as well as the religion of others. (Take the short Pew Forum Religion Quiz here.)

Only in the recent past, however, have we come to grips with the reality that religion is a major factor in world affairs. For the most part, until perhaps the tragic events of September 11, 2001, we have ignored or downplayed religion as a powerful force.

For sure, the cause of international conflicts cannot be boiled down only to religious ideologies, for there are economic, political, and social issues that contribute to these conflicts as well. But now that we are acknowledging that religion is important to world affairs, and that religion will not simply go away, how are we to respond?

First, we should respond by increasing our literacy about our own faith tradition as well as the religion of others. Churches need to take seriously the old-school idea of religious education. We have reduced such times of education to teaching about spirituality and personal relationships with God, which surely have their place.

But we are failing to teach Christian theology and practice with any depth except when it relates to personal spirituality. Basic biblical and theological knowledge is a must for maintaining the Christian tradition, and specific church traditions ought to be educating the faithful about their beliefs, traditions, and practices.

Moreover, gaining a basic knowledge of other world religions can help us make some sense of world events and history. Such education about other religions will also avoid stereotypes and untruths about other religions that can only lead to a dehumanizing of adherents of that religion.

While some churches offer classes about world religions, these often only serve as a pretext for evangelism, and time is usually spent finding problems within a particular religion in order to win an apologetic argument with an adherent of that religion. We need to see the intrinsic value of learning about other religions for the purpose of being better informed world citizens.

Second, we need to gain an appreciation of the truth value of all religions. All the great world religions search for ultimate reality and for how we are to live as humans. While the various religions may have their specific way to seek this ultimacy, whether through the belief in a personal deity or not, no one religion can logically gain the upper hand of truth over the others.
There does not exist a completely logical religion that stands up to every philosophical or scientific critique. This does not mean that to be true religious beliefs must answer all the questions that philosophical inquiry or the social and natural sciences throw at it, for beliefs cannot be proven or disproven. But it does mean that while religion can and does acknowledge the existence of that which is ultimate, religions are human interpretations, and therefore, they are flawed. 

Finally, through education about our own faith traditions and the religious traditions of others, we can reach a place where we can acknowledge the similarities as well as the differences between various religions.

At their cores, all religions seek for the common good of humanity. While small groups of extremists from every religion manifest their religious beliefs through hate and violence and make outsiders think ill of those religions, every faith has a center from which it seeks the common good.

Keeping interfaith dialogue focused on the common good, while at the same time having open and honest discussions about religious differences can help us balance the truth and value of our own religious faith while at the same time acknowledging the truth and value of the faith of another.

But at a more practical level, there are few actions we can take to make ourselves more religiously literate, and therefore, more open to the value of other religions, and especially the people who practice them. Here are a few things we can do.

Take a college course on world religions. If you live close to an academic institution, consider taking a semester long course on world religions. These courses are generally introductory courses that survey the major histories, teachings, and practices of the major world religions, but they generally don’t require much in the way of prior knowledge. You may also be able to utilize ITunesU and the courses offered there.

Read quality books written by scholars who are practitioners of specific faiths. Scholars who practice specific religions will, in most cases, offer good analyses of their specific religion, but they will do so with critical thinking. Stay away from apologetic books that misrepresent particular religions.

Get involved in interfaith dialogue and work. In many places, particularly in larger areas, interfaith groups have been formed so that those from different religions can worked alongside one another to address local as well as national and global issues. These groups not only present the opportunity to serve others, but they also offer occasions for dialogue that is both honest and respectful.

Visit places of worship. Most, if not all, places of worship in the United States are open to visitors. Contact the place of worship and see about visiting and perhaps bring a group. Each semester, I take my world religions class to a synagogue and a mosque, and the students find this to be the best part of the class.
Build relationships with people from other religious traditions. Nothing helps dispel misinformation than getting know someone who practices a different religion. Not only will these relationships correct stereotypes, they will also help you see that not all people of a particular religion think alike.

There will always exist those who refuse to acknowledge that America is becoming more religiously diverse and many of those will refuse to see the value in such religious diversity. In fact, many work to prevent such diversity. But the reality is that we have an opportunity not only to embrace a more religiously diverse society, but also the chance to learn from others and grow together in community as we work toward the common good.

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