Religion is said to be under attack from many sources. And there is some truth to this. We are indeed becoming a more secular society, such that the largest religious preference is “none” or “spiritual, but not religious.” And a growing number of those who are non-religious do indeed have very negative attitudes toward religious people, thinking that religion itself is a source of violence, war, and perpetual animosities. Take a look at the blogs on nearly any article about religion on the internet, and you will see this disdain against religion.
In a society that claims to be tolerant and pluralistic, this is particularly sad. It is also ironic that those who condemn religions for being judgmental are often those most intolerant of those who are religious. And a closer look at some of those bloggers who make their claims against the religious on “intellectual” grounds have not really investigated the values and teachings of the founders of these religions, but have inaccurately judged religions on the basis of their most hypocritical advocates and distorters, as well as the most controversial of scriptures.
I have no doubt that the extent of this anti-religious sentiment and secularization has diminished the numbers of those who worship and profess a religious faith. But I uphold anyone’s right to espouse their views, distorted as they may be at times, as a necessary element to genuine dialogue. Sure there are going to be those who are “against” religion that don’t really have a genuine understanding of the faiths they criticize; but it really is up to us of those faiths to engage in constructive conversation with them so as to better educate them about the value of our faith rather than letting them see only the elements of our faith that happen to make the news most often – viz., the things most of us despise within the faith.
But the damage to religion that is most concerning to me as a member of the “faithful” is that which is caused from within. We are often our own worst enemy. We become so zealous at defending our faith that we end up losing our faith. In trying to protect ourselves from our enemies we forget and forego the values to which we attest.
Though we say we want peace, we are willing to kill and commit other acts of violence. Though we say we value love, we speak towards our enemies with words that inspire hatred and justify actions of injury — even torture. Though we say we honor forgiveness, we instead hold grudges and seek vengeance. This is not what our founders taught.
Yet we often do not judge ourselves and our own thoughts and actions by their teachings, but by our own fears. Even when we know what they proclaimed and set before us as moral, spiritual, and ethical ideals, we explain our waywardness as justifiable based on our own self-interests. We know that no major religion, at least not in its founders, justified self-interest over doing the good and right thing. They rather spoke of self-sacrifice on the behalf of a more noble and righteous cause rather than the comforts and luxuries of wealth and influence. They taught about reconciliation with our enemies, not safety and security from them. This is what we don’t like to admit about our own values. We are idolatrous – placing human values above divine values. We are hypocritical – saying we value one thing in theory, but actually living by other values in actuality. By our actions and practices, we promote practicality rather than peace, laud lifestyle over love, and forego forgiveness for fatwas.
Many within religion may wish to point the finger at atheists, as well as those of other religious backgrounds, as being the perceived threat to their own faith. But the greatest danger is not those who have a different set of values and beliefs, but those who claim to have the same beliefs yet pervert their own religion by the violence of retributive patriotism, the bigotry of myopic nationalism, and the egoism of economic profiteering.
ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorists who claim identity with Islam are no more true Muslims than self-righteous murderers of abortion doctors, greed-centered corporate oppressors, or revenge-seeking patriots are true Christians or Jews. Whenever we disrespect another people’s faith by assuming that those who perpetuate violence and injustice in the name of their religion are the true disciples of that faith, we not only attest to our ignorance of what the progenitors of those faiths valued (things like peace, love, forgiveness, etc.), but we further the cycle of prejudice, hatred, and violence that keep us forever fighting with one another.
We are better than this. All of us. We have access to learning about the faiths of others, and of discerning through interfaith dialogue that not everyone who claims to be a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu, or an adherent of any other faith is actually a good representative of that religion. We can read about the originators and holy ones of these faiths and distinguish the contrasts between what they themselves avowed and practiced and how those who are willing to injure others in their name have distorted and perverted their message.
This we need to do. In the face of horrible beheadings by ISIS and equally appalling of murders of three Muslims in North Carolina, we need to commit ourselves to stop spreading the prejudice and hatred and start living by the values we all most uphold in the deepest part of our souls and hearts. We need to grow in knowledge and understanding of one another, as well as in mercy and compassion. We need to speak up when a friend or a family member, or one of our own faith, speaks in ways that promotes division rather than healing and reconciliation. We all need to take responsibility in doing this, for it will not happen without each one of us committing to making a world a more loving and peaceful place.
We need to talk with one another when we hear things that sound horrible about another’s faith. We are accomplices in the spreading of prejudice and hatred so long as we do not find out the truth and speak against those who would defame the faith of others. Credulity and silence will be our undoing if we do not learn how to engage in cooperative and illuminating conversation that distills the hidden agendas and the outright discriminations of those who would verbally attack or violently assault others’ faiths and value systems.
Silence is also no longer an option when “one of ours” commits a heinous act. I am horrified by Christians who speak as if they are Christians when they kill, torture, oppress, or perpetuate ignorance, intolerance, and hatred. I’m appalled when they justify their actions in the name of the faith that has taught me to be loving, forgiving, compassionate, kind, generous, and patient with all peoples – even my enemies. Granted, I myself fail in living up to the high standards of my own faith (especially towards those within my own faith who distort its values). But no longer can I sit back and remain silent while others, claiming to be adherents of my own faith, do more damage to my faith by their words and behaviors than any outward opponent could ever achieve. For it is those perverters of my faith who give my faith a bad name. And so it is with the faithful of other religions too. They are also appalled. But we all need to speak up. Our silence will only make matters worse.
But in speaking, we must do so with peacefulness; not impatience, disrespectfulness, distrust, intolerance, anger, or malice. Peacefulness is really just respectfulness, kindness, empathy, trustingness, compassion, forgiveness, non-violence, and reconciliation in action. It means we are unwilling to injure or oppress another, even though they have acted that way themselves. It means we’d rather rehabilitate those who’ve committed wrong-doing rather than kill or isolate them forever with imprisonment. It means we are to look for the dignity and goodness in each person, especially in those for whom it is so hard to see, if we are to testify to our own dignity and goodness. It means we must live by our most virtuous and praiseworthy values no matter the consequences. It means taking the hardest road, not the easier ones. Peacefulness, as many faith leaders and also human rights leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. have exemplified and given their lives for, is the most difficult of paths. This undoubtedly is why so few have taken it. But it is also why we all need to walk it together, no matter our religious, spiritual, intellectual, ethnic, or national persuasion.
If we are going to do something about the attacks on our faith and/or our values, we first need to see how we are the worst of those attackers when we do not both espouse and practice the highest ideals of that faith as we engage in constructive and healing conversation with our neighbors near and far. If we say we want peace, we have to commit to being peacemakers. I’m reminded of the words of one of my favorite hymns: “Let there be peace on earth; and let it begin with me.”