January 25, 2016

Brick in the Wall: Considering Other Religions

Today, I was doing my cleaning (because that's what I do--#housespouse) and listening to this past Saturday's Friendly Atheist podcast. It was Episode 91, an interview with Linda Wertheimer. Werthemier is the author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance. The interview focused on why religion should be taught in public schools.

I'm going to share some more of my thoughts on that tomorrow in my Dear Christians post, but for now, I'd like to talk about another thought that the interview triggered for me--my own experiences considering other religions as a Christian.

I've talked before about how restrictive our evangelical fundamentalist independent Baptist point of view was. Some of you may remember me talking about meeting my first Catholic a few months back:

But the real "brick in the wall" of my nonbelief came about a month later. We were talking about church, and she said, "I'm a Catholic." 
I was completely taken aback. We were conservative fundamentalist independent evangelical Baptists, by God, and in the years I attended church before the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, I had heard countless preachers talk about how Catholics were perverting the Word. They worshipped idols, you see, and they were lost, even though they thought they believed in the same God we did. And also, as I've joked before, she only had one head, and I was pretty sure that Catholics had two heads.

I've also talked about not being allowed to do yoga in high school because my mother said it was practicing another religion.

It's probably not surprising, then, that for most of my childhood and adolescence I had very little interaction with other religions, and what I did encounter was heavily filtered through our worldview. In middle school, when many students of my generation were receiving preliminary instruction on world religions in world history classes, I too was receiving instruction--it just focused on, looking back, the overly negative aspects of other religions while playing up the dominance of Christianity (especially our form of Christianity).

For instance, when we studied Hinduism, we focused on temple prostitutes and a missionary who ministered to them and brought them to Christ. When we studied Africa, we focused on aspects of cannibalism in indigenous religions. Taoism was mentioned, but only in reference to, again, missionary work. Even Catholicism was painted as an evil entity eventually overcome by Protestantism. Our history and geography books were filled with stories of missionaries and their exploits, and for a long time, this was the lens that I viewed other religions through.

This led me to an interesting predicament. I've also touched on this briefly while talking about my experience with evolution, but my first instinct wasn't, "These poor souls need saved." Rather, I wondered why they thought the way they did. Why did they believe they were right?

I've been reading Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and Daniel Dennett makes this point that I find especially poignant:

Your religion, you may believe, came into existence when its fundamental truth was revealed by God to somebody, who then passed it along to others. It flourishes today because you and the others of your faith know that it is the truth, and God has blessed you and encouraged you to keep the faith. It is as simple as that, for you. And why do all the other religions exist? If those people are just wrong, why don't their creeds crumble as readily as false ideas about farming or obsolete building practices? (100-101)

So it was, for years, that I wondered why people could believe differently. Our high school was overwhelmingly Christian (shockingly, for me, as I had been told that Christians were a minority), so I didn't really confront other faiths face to face there. But I did explore the topic in world history in a way that was much more neutral than I had ever encountered it before, which only encouraged me to wonder what motivated people who believed differently.

In college, I took my first comparative religions course. It was taught by the wife of an Army chaplain. While we often encounter proselytizing towards our service members, it also true that the chaplaincy has a great range of diversity and focuses (at least in theory) on pluralism. This professor was a shining example of that. While she identified as a Christian, she considered all religions to be a form of getting to the truth. She likened it to Plato's forms. There was a reality, a true truth, if you'll allow the abstraction, and the different religions were all reflecting that truth in different ways. They were the forms, the sensations, that we experienced as mortal, physical beings, while the true form existed in some abstract, but "truer", plane.

Engaging with this material with the guidance of someone who held all religions in equal esteem was pretty significantly different for me. For the first time, I really confronted the idea of truth. How do we know what's true, we were asked.

It confused me more than I would like to admit, then or now. How do we know what's true? I considered my own beliefs, and I found that my justifications often weren't different from other members of my class that believed very different things. I found that they weren't even different from many of the believers we read about in class--not from Taoists, or Shintos, or Hindus. Not from Buddhists and Presbyterians and Mormons and Rastafarians. These people all believed they knew the truth, and their thinking was often very similar to mine.

How do you explain that? I found it difficult to willfully cling to my own beliefs and write this off as simply misguided and mistaken.

Instead, I was pulled from my own staunchly evangelical upbringing to a more common meeting place. As I worked my way further down the path away from childhood religion, this was an important step. It was the step that brought me from the depths into the tidal pool, and made it easier to make the last few steps to the beach.

Prior to this, I'd stumbled towards the shore several times, but I'd always been pulled back. My oldest child's birth sent me fleeing back into the sanctity and security of my church family, where there was a god looking out for this little human that I loved so much and was so terrified I'd fail and be unable to protect and care for. I stumbled out again, just in time for my fiancé to deploy to Afghanistan, sending me skittering back to the church and to a god that I desperately hoped would bring the man I loved home safely.

This class, though, was the end of my advances and retreats. It was a permanent victory in favor of gaining the solid ground and making my way out.

And for that, I suppose, I am eternally grateful to religion...or at least, comparative religion education.

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