On Religion

My opinions about religions offend everyone.  Well, I’m exaggerating.  Let me be more specific: my opinions about the relationship between different religious traditions tend to unsettle the majority of people, both religious and nonreligious, that I chat with.

One type of person is usually offended as soon as I mention that I think different religious traditions have significant similarities; that there are real areas of overlap that should be acknowledged and affirmed.  Often I’m immediately thought to be an uncritical religious pluralist who thinks all religions are entirely and essentially the same, and that they are equally effective paths to reaching the divine.  I’m given the impression that I must be the sort of person that thoughtlessly equates Pentecostalism with Buddhism, and Catholicism with Satanism.  What I need is a healthy helping of the rule of non-contradiction, of course.

Another type of person is usually offended as soon as I mention that I think different religious traditions have significant differences; that there are real points of distinction should be acknowledged and affirmed.  I’m immediately thought to be an ignorant fundamentalist, a narrow-minded exclusivist who thinks all religions are entirely and essentially different—at least different from the tradition that I have embraced!  I must think that people who follow my religion have exclusive access to God’s presence, and everyone else is totally isolated and disconnected from God.  My views may even be potentially dangerous since such religious exclusivism can create serious conflict.

Neither of these partisan pigeonholes come remotely close to representing my opinions about the relationship between religions.  This is because I think there are significant similarities and significant differences among the major religious traditions.  This doesn’t strike me as a novel or inconsistent opinion to hold, yet it does nonetheless confound many of people that I delve into the matter with on frequent occasion.  Affirming both seems to me to be the most honest, sensible thing to do though.  Sure, it’s general affirmation that can be detailed in various ways (and something I intend to explore further in future reflections).  But it’s an important truth to begin with that avoids overly simplified extremes.

Unfortunately, like many controversial issues these days, most opinions concerning the relationship between religions have become extremely polarized.  Discussions have consequently become extremely heated, that is if they are not shutdown before they begin.  And for myself, occupying a position between the poles means that I’m treated with suspicion at best or contempt at worst by people from both sides.

We are collectively more aware of our plurality now in the 21st century.  We are aware that we will encounter people who have embraced different religions and people who have not embraced any religion in our increasingly diverse communities.  Personally, I think our diversity is a good thing, something that can be a source of enrichment instead of division if we allow it to be.  My main hope is that the divide between the so-called ‘pluralists’ and ‘exclusivists’ will shrink in the years to come.  I hope that conversations on the matter will increasingly press further and expand beyond the two partisan positions that commonly dominate the field of discussion.  Hopefully the polarized, often heated treatment of the matter is just a growing pain in a process that will lead to more nuanced, respectful dialogue.  May we all have the courage to converse with each other out of an attitude of genuine curiosity and acceptance, knowing that accepting one another need not require us to always agree with one another.

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