Religious Literacy for a Fearful and Violent World

In February, I had the great pleasure of co-presenting a workshop at the DC Interfaith Leaders Summit with Amber Hacker, the Alumni Director for Interfaith Youth Core. In our workshop we encouraged attendees to cultivate a personal theology or ethic for interfaith cooperation, specifically with a focus on public interfaith engagement. Following the workshop, I spent the spring semester discussing related issues with students, and building tools for public interfaith engagement through social justice initiatives. This post has grown out of those conversations and experiences. What continues to emerge is the relationship between personal ethics and religious literacy, the role of ignorance in perpetuating violence, and the need for continual re-commitment on the part of those who are dedicated to using interfaith collaboration as a means to making the world a better place.

Being able to identify something in one’s own religious or ethical tradition that not only allows for but actively encourages interfaith cooperation or community building with others and Others is helpful for grounding one’s commitments as well as inspiring others. We tend to focus on how to engage with others and Others, how to find a common language of compassion and understanding with people with different philosophical or religious orientations than we do. For many, being able to articulate what from within one’s tradition supports interfaith cooperation is necessary to explain to members of their own community or even their own families why interreligious engagement and collaboration is so important. Coming from the Humanist and atheist community, I know this difficulty firsthand.

Many non-religious people believe that religion is harmful to humanity. One of the most common reasons for this view is that much of the world’s violence is instigated along lines of religious difference or is justified by religious belief. This can be traced from our earliest knowledge of ancient history through today’s ongoing struggles against ISIS and other extremist groups using violence and terror to gain power worldwide. Many people see religion as the common denominator and determine that religion must therefore be the root of violence.

As I have worked with students — both religious and non-religious — over the past semester to uncover our own beliefs and responses to religiously motivated violence, I believe ignorance is far more convincing as a root cause of violence. More specifically, ignorance of others and Others, and an inability or aversion to taking on the task of communal responsibility when our community is made up of people who don’t necessarily agree with us. Maybe we don’t take the time to learn about others from others because we are fearful, or because we have been taught their values and ways aren’t as valid as our own, or because we’ve been burned before, or because they don’t want to engage with us. Knowing full well the dangers of grossly oversimplifying the enormous issue of religiously motivated violence, I believe the greatest cause of violence is fear. Fear of being destroyed. Fear of losing power. Fear of never gaining power. Fear of retribution or consequences for our actions. Fear of losing what we have and what we love. Fear causes us to be reactive rather than proactive, and far too often to overreact, thus escalating violence, fueling the fires of distrust and hatred, and engaging in cycles of violence that can last generations or millennia.

Sometimes fear is justified, and we have far too many examples that prove the real and terrifying dangers that face many people around the world on a daily basis. Without belittling those justified fears, we still must address the fact that far too often, fear is made possible only through ignorance. One example is the Shoah, one of the most well known genocides of the twentieth century. Many citizens of early ninetieth century Europe feared the Jewish population because they only heard negative, terrifying, and threatening stories about Jewish people, including the fictional Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which continues to fuel anti-Semitism to this day despite long being proven to be a fabrication). Many non-Jewish Europeans were afraid of what might happen to them if they stood up for their neighbors, or refused to go along with the plans of the rising Nazi regime. It is a short jump from ignorance to fear, and and even shorter one from fear to hatred and violence.

There are also stories of non-Jews living in Europe who knew their Jewish and Roma neighbors, and people who believed in the common humanity of those who were being persecuted and slaughtered. These are people who rescued them, who hid them, who helped them get out of the country, who fought back against the genocide. These are the inspiring stories that demonstrate the powerful, real impact of embracing others.

At one point or another, many of us are told we need to learn to face our fears; to stand up to them. Really, we need to learn to engage our fears. Abraham Lincoln famously said the best way to destroy the enemy was to make them your friend, and I couldn’t agree with him more. Religious Literacy is about more than learning to recite the 8 Fold Path or know the names of the five daily Muslim prayers. Religious Literacy teaches us how to talk about religion in a public way, how to navigate the differences between what I believe and what you believe, and most importantly it teaches us to respect those differences while embracing our shared humanity. Improving our own religious literacy may not make a direct impact on politically radical religious extremists like ISIS or Boko Haram, but it would allow us to better discern where and how their Islamic identity is only one piece of an otherwise politically radical worldview, thereby dispelling fears of Islam broadly. It allows us to say religiously motivated violence is not inevitable; years and generations of violence and dispute is not justification for it to continue. It allows us to see that there are numerous non-religious factors at play in much of the violence deemed religiously motivated which are not being addressed because we are too quick to assume that religious differences are too big, too unwieldy to manage. It encourages us to embrace one another, to cease oppression first on small scales within our own communities, and then branching out into the larger world. It makes it plainly clear that we have far more in common in our shared humanity, hopes, ethics, and even fears than we previously knew. It might be a small step, but one that has enormous impact, and one that we can take right now no matter who or where we are.

This image is used with permission from Wikimedia Commons.


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