A reason to read into religion

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • March 23, 2016

We simplify religion, distilling it down to a toxic stereotype.
We simplify religion, distilling it down to a toxic stereotype.

“Are you religious?”

“No,” I respond.

“Why?”

I’ve had this conversation several times over the past few years—recently while driving around Los Angeles with a friend, in January while baking with my Catholic grandmother, and about a year ago with a Christian pastor in Ohio after a family member’s funeral. My response fluctuates—like fruit through the seasons, sometimes I feel more sweetly towards spirituality, other times, I’m bitter. I can’t yet articulate why I’m not religious, but I don’t think this is as important as my desire to know and talk about religion. 

Like most of my American peers, I’m not religious and I don’t know a lot about it. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religions Landscape Study, only 41 percent of millennials say religion is very important in their lives, compared to the 58 percent of baby boomers. The same study reports 27 percent of our peers attend services weekly or more, compared to the older demographic’s 38 percent. But what’s more startling is that we’re largely misinformed and ignorant of fundamental facts about faiths. In the Pew Research Forum’s religious knowledge survey conducted in 2010, the average responder answered a little more than half of the questions about religious facts (like prominent figures and practices of the world’s major religions) correctly. The consequence of this, I believe, is that we harbor misconceptions about the religious and their faiths, and this lack of understanding, and fear even, is a catalyst for intolerance, prejudice, and violence.

Recently, we’ve seen perhaps the most intense debate on religious violence in America since 9/11. Following the attacks in Paris that left 130 dead, presidential candidates disputed allowing Syrian refugees into America. A few weeks later, a gunman opened fire at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three. Shortly after, a radicalized husband and wife carried out the mass shooting in San Bernardino that left four dead (Donald Trump subsequently called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.). On Tuesday, ISIS bombed a Brussels airport and metro station, killing dozens.

The global community mourns the lives lost in these recent attacks because what’s happened is tragic. But what’s additionally horrific is the storm of anti-faith, and particularly anti-Muslim sentiments these tragedies fuel. Islam, a religion nearly a quarter of the world practices, is deeply misunderstood and this lack of understanding often manifests as oppression.

Extremism is exactly that—it’s extreme. We pay attention to these violent individuals because they’re sensationalized, and as a result, we simplify a religion, distilling it down to a toxic stereotype. I speculate that perhaps this violence committed by religious extremists is borne out of oppression, as the scholar of religion and ethics Jeffrey Stout essentially predicts in his work “Religious Reason in Political Argument.”

Stout argues that religious diversity—similarly to diversities of identity like race, gender, or class—creates tumultuous rifts in societies and has throughout history. And according to Stout’s rather prophetic text, it’s highly possible this violence stems from the unwillingness of citizens in pluralistic societies, like America’s, to hear out, tolerate, and consider certain religious voices. We shut these voices out, and this contradicts the very core of democracy. This is why I’m arguing for our increased education and understanding of all major world religions. 

The right to free expression of religion is morally underwritten not only by the value we assign to freedom of religion, but also the value we assign to free expression, as outlined in the constitutions. In America, our separation of church and state is that we have the right to practice a religion, or not practice a religion, provided we don’t cause harm or interfere in others’ rights. Sounds simple enough. This separation of church and state allows for peaceful coexistence of pluralistic societies, but the moment one bleeds into the other, as they inevitably do, our systems get messy.

Democracies innately provide for pluralism, for differences, because of this supposed separation of church and state. Separation, however, doesn’t mean silencing religious voices that fall outside of our nation’s dominant faiths. Ultimately, if we ban the religious vocabularies of American citizens, we silence a group of people, rejecting their identities and stories. This oppression alienates a community and promotes intolerance, which amounts to anger and violence as we’ve witnessed.

This theory Stout puts forth begs for society to be more tolerant, and to create a more inclusive standard for religious people. It begs for respect. The first step toward respect is to learn. We should teach about religion in a secular manner in public spaces. I imagine students learning about the histories of Hinduism or Mother Theresa’s activism—theology is too prominent a part of our neighbor’s vocabularies and the daily discourse of our politics, art, literature, and communities to overlook when educating our country. And besides, we should be curious about our peers’ religions. Too often, and especially in homogenous communities like Emerson, we find ourselves in a state of mental masturbation—contentedly revelling in our like-mindedness, but never discovering others. Talking about religions that are not our own will challenge us, and it will improve our democratic discourse.

So here’s the token I leave you with—it’s not important that we’re not religious, but rather that we’re educated about religion, especially in our increasingly diverse nation. Because if we are knowledgeable, we’re more likely to understand each other.