On Religion as it is Essential to Human Society

Managing Director’s Note: beginning in the Spring of 2013, all Contributing Scholars will answer the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions?

Religion is and has always been an essential element of human society. Our beliefs about why we are here and how we are here affect every relationship we have, from how we engage strangers on the street to approaches to international diplomacy. Religion and the questions religion attempts to answer are at the core of what makes us human. Even those of us who reject a belief in God cannot escape the importance of our philosophical perspective on the rest of our lives, and we certainly cannot ignore the importance that religion holds for others. There is no part of our being that is more relevant to our engagement with the world than how we understand our place in it. In order to truly understand the lives and behaviors of people who are different from us, we must first respect them and their beliefs. Through forging relationships across the boundaries of religion, we reach out and demonstrate respect for another’s core being while opening ourselves up to learning something new about the human experience.

Today’s technology and tools of warfare have raised the stakes of interfaith relationships immeasurably. We have watched it play out time and time again: ignorance and bigotry lead to fear, and fear leads to violence, even genocide. If we really want to embrace the people of the world, we have to understand them, and we have to learn as much as we can. We can accomplish much more in friendship and love than in fear and ignorance. Religious organizations (including secular humanist groups) have historically been known for implementing community service efforts, foreign aid, and philanthropy – they have shown us countless ways of reaching out to the weak and unprotected. I can only imagine what we could accomplish if we banded together.

At my campus ministries job at a major university, my goal is to increase multifaith education and understanding among my students and our community. This means actively working to create space that is safe and affirming, practicing radical hospitality, and always attempting to meet students where they are and offering them what I can, while challenging any preconceived notions they may hold of “the other”. People of diverse faiths can learn to recognize their common ground, and from there move on to respecting and learning about one another’s traditions, beliefs, hopes, fears, and worldviews. My hope is that with the increasing presence of atheists, humanists, and other secularists in these conversations, we will begin to realize that our universal common ground is our shared humanity.

We are all here right now, and that should be enough to demand our mutual respect and our desire to understand one another as fully as possible. Whether or not one believes in an afterlife or a greater spiritual purpose, we can all agree that we share this time in the present.

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