Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.
Growing up I had a pretty negative attitude towards religion. I held the belief that all religions were basically the same and that to believe in them was stupid. I strongly declared myself an atheist as soon as I knew what the word meant. I grew in Canada and went to a secular private school, but we often said a prayer at lunch. I was offended by this and refused to say it. A classmate of mine made fun of me for believing in the big bang and told me I was going to hell. I was offended again. What if I had laughed at her beliefs? Surely I would have been in trouble. It felt like a double standard.
The problem was, this girl was a friend of mine. A close friend. I didn’t understand how she could think these things about me.
When I got to college and was coming out as queer, I found myself again at odds with those who were religious. I had people I was close to tell me I was going to hell again for not believing in God. And it bothered me. Which didn’t make much sense to me since I didn’t believe in hell anyway. Why was I so offended by a punishment I didn’t think would happen.
It was eventually through an interfaith relationship I had with a Mormon student that I was compelled to find a religious community and landed on the doorstep of a Unitarian Universalist church. As a Unitarian Universalist I could keep my beliefs about (the non-existence) of God, but I also felt myself open up to the idea that maybe other beliefs weren’t so bad. I also quickly learned about the the history of Universalism, or the belief in universal salvation.
Over the past ten years I have continued to identify as a Unitarian Universalist, and though a lot of my theology has changed, I still find myself impressed by the power of interfaith relationships. I have found that even as a Unitarian Universalist I am less open to those transformative relationships when the other person doesn’t share my fundamental beliefs about hell, that is, that it does not exist. I have struggled deeply with this question in regards to interfaith work. But my past has shown me that conversation and deep interfaith relationships have the power to change me in ways no other has.
As I completed my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston this past summer, I was stuck by how many atheists or non-religious patients and their families were hesitant to talk with a chaplain. That would have been me in high school and college. As a Unitarian Universalist with atheists roots, I want to reach out to those who haven’t been traditionally reached in interfaith circles. Only through relationship do we have the power to transform.