"There is only one truth, only men describe it in different ways."
- From the Hindu holy book, Rig-Veda
I’m a Protestant Christian who attends a Catholic Bible study, and for the most part, it’s just like any other Bible study I’ve attended. It happens every other week, and on their off weeks, they have a prayer meeting, which I have never attended. I went for the first time, and didn’t realize until I got there that they’d be praying the Rosary, because duh, they’re Catholic. Out of respectfulness, I prayed the Rosary, too. I was instantly reminded of when I was a child and sat in on my neighbor who held similar prayer meetings. I remember listening to the repetitive phrases in Spanish, which I didn’t understand, and thinking that it was very long and boring. Well, as an adults, my sentiments haven’t changed much.
I didn’t know how to pray the Rosary, so I was given a little pamphlet that helped guide it along. At the end, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know how to pray it, and that was kind of comforting. There were a lot of prayers on the pamphlet and they switched around in a pattern. I at least knew the “Our Father” by heart, because Protestants are taught that one too. But, as a non-Catholic, I opted out of all the “Hail Mary’s,” which was the most repeated phrase. This struck me, and I was glad we had time to discuss the Rosary afterward.
During our conversation after prayer, someone else asked why Catholics pray the Rosary. There was a seminarian and a nun there to answer. Then, I had the opportunity to ask some questions as the only non-Catholic in the group. In all honesty, they were saying things I just thought were completely wrong in regards to their views on Mary. Views on Mary and the saints are what Protestants and Catholics differ the most on. I had a very strong desire to tell them they were wrong and argue my points, which I knew I could argue well, but I had to check myself. I chose to come to this group knowing my beliefs were slightly different, so I had no right to tell them they were wrong for believing what they did. Instead, I asked them about their beliefs and why they are that way. Even in their responses, I still wanted to tell them they were wrong, but I also understood a little more where they were coming from. To me, it seems like Mary is made into an idol, but they see her as a messenger to God and Jesus. I’m also aware that other religions think it’s wrong for Protestants to have symbols such as the cross or a dove, because to outsiders those are seen as idols, too.
The whole of the conversation was enlightening, especially since I had tried to write about religious tolerance a week ago, but couldn’t find the right things to say. I’m pretty sure that religious tolerance is something that most people like the idea of, but find it hard to practice. The website Religioustolerance.org has been very informative and helpful in defining conflicting views on the subject. In America, we have the right to religious freedom, which the site defines as, “being able to freely hold different religious beliefs, assemble with fellow believers, proselytize others, engage in inter-faith and intra-faith cooperation, etc.” Essentially, we can believe and practice whatever we want. The government cannot infringe on this right, and instead should be helping to promote the exercise of this right. Most people have no quarrel with religious freedom, because it’s what allows every individual person to believe what they want.
Since everyone can believe and practice differently, everyone does, which creates conflict. So, the site defines religious tolerance as, “to allow followers of other religions to follow their spiritual beliefs and practices without being oppressed or discriminated against.” Let everyone believe what they want, and don’t treat them differently for their beliefs.
The people who have trouble with religious tolerance tend to think it means “accepting all religious faiths as being equally true.” Anyone of strong faith believes their own faith to be the only true and right one, so this definition is in direct contradiction of their belief. But that’s not what religious tolerance means. In fact the site has a list of what religious tolerance is not:
- Believing that all religions are the same.
- Believing that all sets of religious beliefs are equally true.
- Believing that all faiths are equally beneficial and equally harmless to society.
- Believing that all religious groups are equally beneficial and equally harmless to their followers.
- Refraining from criticizing religious practices of others.
- Refraining from talking about your beliefs to others.
- Ignoring your own religious ideas.
There are in fact religions and religious practices that are harmful to its followers, and those should be spoken and acted against in a peaceful manner. But really, the main goal of religious tolerance is to promote peace, and rid the world of violence and hatred based on differences. The problem – how do you maintain your own beliefs without infringing on others and not causing more dissention between different faith groups? It’s a colossal task, and the struggle of many religious people. It’s so much easier to be separated by differences than it is to come together for similarities.
Religioustolerance.org states that there are 35,000 Christian denominations around the world. The site includes anyone who considers themselves a Christian “from the Southern Baptists to Mormons, from the Roman Catholic Church to Jehovah's Witnesses, from the Christian Scientists to progressive Christianity.” All these sects believe in God, but vary in doctrine, worship style, or minor beliefs. Even they all share a similarity, because of their differences, some people express a lot anger and hatred toward other groups. It's difficult for religions that have similarities to come together peacefully, so it can be even harder when different faiths share very few of the same beliefs.
In the many discussions I’ve had with my writing buddy, the topic of Christianity comes up a lot, because we’re both Protestant Christians. Even between the two of us, our views sometimes vary greatly. My friend gets fired up pretty easily, while I try to remain more passive (she calls me stoic) and try to think before I speak. So, when talking about “bad Christians” or other “Christian religions,” she gets pretty mad because of how wrong their beliefs are. Surprisingly, during that prayer meeting, I found myself fighting feelings of anger because of how wrong I thought everyone else was.
I think it’s interesting that one of our first reactions to difference is anger or hatred. Chemically speaking, anger, like any other emotion, forms in the amygdala, which identifies threats and sends out an alarm that leads us to take action to protect ourselves. Because of this natural defense mechanism, the amygdala reacts before the cortex, which assesses thought and judgment, can check it. So, in other words, anger is a quick instinctual reaction. What’s interesting is that anger usually responds to threats, which means that we find differences threatening to our well-being.
What’s so threatening about a different belief, or even the belief that someone else is wrong about something? I have a few ideas. One is that if we believe our religion is true, and someone else believes their religion is also true, we fear being the one who is wrong. When that fear creeps in, it makes us defensive, because those who are devout base their whole lives around their ideologies.
Conversely, as a Christian I know that the main reason we want to convert the world is because we truly believe we have the right religion. So, we think it’s our duty to make sure everyone else follows the right religion. It’s what we are called to do. We believe that following Christ is the right way to live, which leads to a moral obligation to lead others to live the right way. Sadly, for too many religions this has included forcing others to follow the “right and true religion.”
Which leads to the other threat, which is the fear that our religious freedom could be taken away by another religious group. So, of course it is threatening to hear someone preach something you don’t believe in, because you fear it may infringe on your religious freedom.
We are also threatened when we think another religious belief is in direct contradiction with our own. This is usually on some moral ground, and applies to the non-religious as well. If I think murder is wrong, which is line with my religion, then any religion or non-believer that allows the practice of murder in any form – abortion, killing non-believers, infanticide – would be going against what I believe. Even in less extreme cases, such as lying, if one religion teaches lying is always wrong, and another says it is acceptable in certain situations, there is also a conflict of morals. We don’t want the wrong things to be taught to others, because if they are led astray, it can affect more than just them.
Religious people are often taught contradictory things about sin and sinners. I heard this phrase a lot in college, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” It’s natural for anyone, whether religious, atheist, or agnostic, to dislike or hate people who do “wrong” things. We have a justice system for things we find morally unacceptable. I think religious people take it up a notch and have the tendency to try to stay far away from sin (because what if they get led astray?) by judging those who do sinful things.
There are probably many more possible threats, but these are the reasons that people react angrily toward different beliefs. But as mentioned earlier, anger is a reaction without thought or proper judgment. The biggest fuel to this kind of anger is ignorance. Why would any religion know about anyone else’s view?
It is asking a lot of people to learn about a religion that has nothing to do with them. But how can you hate something you don’t understand? If you’re going to hate it, isn’t it beneficial to fully understand what you’re hating? Personally, if I don’t know enough about a religion, I choose to not have any ill feelings towards it. And really, I only know enough about Catholicism and Christianity to know how I feel about each. Even then, there are still aspects of both I don’t understand. Even if you don’t care to learn about another religion, then at least properly learn about your own. I honestly believe the biggest reason for religious conflict is people not knowing enough about their own religion and practicing it the right way.
So, I guess that brings us to the fine line between practicing your own religion and respecting another. What do you do when beliefs and practices conflict? The very simple answer is to be open-minded, but that’s not easy or applicable for everyone in every situation. People who have strong convictions believe this is right, that is wrong, end of story. If you see the world in black and white, it’ll be very hard to see it any other way.
If you are willing to keep an open mind, then the next thing to do is ask a lot of questions. Not just one, or a few, but a lot. It’s important to try to understand differences and the different points of view other people are coming from. For example, in college I learned of a group in Alaska that practiced infanticide, which on the surface just seems barbaric. But, when we learned more about it, we learned that their resources are very limited, so if they allow all of the babies to live past infancy, then everyone else will have less to eat, which could result in a lot more deaths. So, they had to sacrifice a few babies to save an entire village, and the task did not come lightly to them. Does it make it right? Of course not, because at the least, we can view it as less barbaric. It’s a grey area that isn’t black and white.
When you have asked a lot of questions about another person’s beliefs, then ask questions of your religion and set of beliefs to find the best way to respond to differences. As for my religion, in Acts 17, Paul is a good example. He is going from city to city preaching the Good News. He comes to Athens, which was a place of learning that accepted many different gods and had many idols. In every city, Paul would preach in the Synagogue, but here, he also spoke in the marketplace where a group of philosophers heard him and invited him to one of their meetings where they asked about his teachings. I like Paul’s answer, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23 NIV). Paul didn’t condemn them for their idols and different beliefs, and tell them they were wrong. Nor was he angry with them or hated them. Instead, he noticed how religious they were, which he presents as a good thing, and then continued from that point.
He did something else that brings me to the last response to religious differences. He performed his religious duty by proclaiming the Good News, which was what he was tasked to do. Noteworthy is that in a city of such differences, he spoke in a public place where anyone would be free to listen or ignore, and then spoke where he was invited. In today’s diverse world, I’d say only after you have assessed both your own and another’s point of view, then you can do whatever you feel is your spiritual duty without hatred or anger. The without anger or hatred is the important part. You most likely won’t change your mind about the topic or situation, but understanding softens the heart. If you really understand your own view as well as the other, then it’s a lot easier to speak less offensively, and act more kindly.
At that prayer meeting, I prayed the Rosary out of respect, but opted out of reciting the the “Hail Mary’s.” Then, to discover more about this prayer, I took the time to examine the Hail Mary prayer. Afterward, I asked questions. While asking questions, I also shared what I was taught. At the conclusion of the meeting, my friend offered me the pamphlet with the prayers to the Rosary to keep, but I declined. I had learned what I needed and now know I don’t want to pray the Rosary ever again. It is not in line with my beliefs. Reflecting on the meeting afterward, I had to remind myself of our similarities. In the group of Catholics, I reminded myself that we are more similar than different, and even our different beliefs are stemmed from the same origins and serve similar purposes.
I also thought about if the situation was reversed. If it was a Protestant Christian meeting with one Catholic person, would I be entitled to tell that one person his or her beliefs were wrong? No. I would hope that person would be open to our different point of views just as I’d tried to be open to theirs. We’re both entitled to believe what we want and remain respectful of each other.
It’s really easy to hate something you don’t understand. The problem is that most people don’t bother taking the time to learn and understand. As one small last note, it got brought up to me that anger can be the appropriate response. Religious or not, when something bad happens, we get angry, and we have the right to be. It’s a righteous rage that we are completely allowed to experience. Though I may seem to be contradicting myself, anger can be an appropriate response to religious differences, but only if it is checked with understanding and doesn’t affect how you treat others. You can be angry at something rather than expressing anger toward someone. You can get upset, happy, conflicted, doubt, question, feel and think whatever you want. Just don’t impose your feelings on someone else. This is religious tolerance – practicing your own rights without infringing or harming another’s.
"I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them. Whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become Hindu. But our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian."
- Mahatma Ghandi