Recently, I’ve been on the receiving end of more derision and contempt from people of other faiths than usual. Some of it has been nutty stuff from strangers on social media. But some of it has been in conversations with people I know. Then of course there is the occasional cynical blast from pop atheists at believers in general. Las Vegas recently hosted the atheist equivalent of a revival with Dawkins and friends. So derision is probably in the air.
Naturally, I dislike being called a “weak minded Jesus freak,” “liar,” “fraud,” “spiritual profiteer,” etc. But those open hostilities and are not the main thing that gets to me. It’s when saner people recite a parody of Christian belief in a contemptuous tone, suggesting we believe something so ridiculous and are therefore flawed for our faith. That is harder. I don’t know what to do with it. Their derision closes a door to explaining what we really believe. It is too personal a dismissal to leave room for a conversation. And I think: I do not and would not express contempt for other faith traditions, even the ones with which I disagree most ardently. I know that faiths (including the secularist faiths that deny that they are faiths) are attempts to make sense out of the very challenging and often painful conundrum of life. I know that people’s faiths have been hard won, that they are the life ropes of those clinging to them, and that they are intrinsically delicate and sensitive. As a matter of kindness – as well as an acknowledgment that I do not know enough to judge – I would not ridicule someone’s faith. I want a similar respect in return.
But there are two things that complicate my position. First, even here in Nevada, I sometimes see Christian dogmatism shouted at people in painfully troubling ways. A billboard threatens, “Jesus: it’s Hell Without Him.” I cringe knowing that the secular world will attribute that coercive rhetoric to us. It must be similar when a devout Muslim hears of an act of terrorism by an Islamic fundamentalist. Those pouring contempt on my faith think they are just shooting back.
The second complication is that there is a lot of bad religion about. And bad religion really does need to be called out and named as such to keep it from doing harm. So, if I am so committed to respecting the faith of others, what do I mean by “bad religion?” Just this: religion is a blend of intuitions, feelings, rituals, metaphors, hopes, memories, and aspirations all of which point toward eternity, which is ultimately beyond our comprehension. As St. Augustine said, “If you understand it, it isn’t God.” As Evelyn Underhill said, “A God small enough to be understood would not be big enough to be worshiped.” Religion does not have so many answers as hopes, and a boldness to trust. Even Zen Buddhists must trust their tradition’s process to devote hours upon hours sitting motionless watching their breath, a process that will utterly waste their lives if it is wrong, but may lead to enlightenment if it is right. Even in Zen, it is a matter of trust. So religions cannot be judged as factually right or wrong.
There are different criteria for assessing faith, moral/ascetic criteria. We judge a religion by its effects. “By their fruits you shall know them.” Matthew 7: 16-20. Do the practitioners of a religion become kinder, more generous, more patient? Do they become calmer, wiser, gentler? Or does the religion produce hatred, bigotry, rigidity, anxiety, fear, loathing, contempt? Does a particular religion make people better or worse? First, we ask those questions. Then we look at what is going on in the religion that tends toward good and what tends toward evil.
When applying moral/ascetic criteria to assess good and bad religion, the first thing that becomes apparent is that no religious tradition is all good. Probably none are all bad either. There is a good strain of Christianity that stands for justice and mercy; and there is a bad strain that is coercive and imperialistic. The same is true of Islam, Judaism, etc. I once received a tirade against the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) contrasting us with Buddhism, which is so peaceful, tolerant, and accepting of all others. Well certainly there is a gentle tolerant strain of Buddhism but there is also a violent dogmatic strain. Consider anti-Islamic violence by Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. http://shambhalasun.com/news/?s=burma+muslims&cat=1 (Note: Shambhala Sun is a voice of a Buddhism I respect deeply.) At least among the name brand world religions, we all have our share in sin.
Within Christianity, we cannot divide the good and the bad according to denominations. We Anglicans pride ourselves on tolerance to point that people wonder if we actually stand for anything. But back when we wielded the power of the state, we did so as tyrannically as Iran. Ask the Puritans we persecuted. Ask good people like Roger Williams who fled to America to escape our oppression. Even on this continent, we did not treat the Baptists very well in colonial Virginia.
But religions do make people better. Religions do offer interpretations of life that comfort, empower, and inspire us to worthier lives. Our various faiths call us to make peace, feed the hungry, tend the sick, befriend the lonely.
What’s the difference? There are portrayals of the Ultimate Source, Value, and Destiny of Reality (“God” in our parlance) that make us better. To say “God is love” is one such proposition that makes us better. They contrast with images of God the vengeful, God the puppet master, God the wrathful judge, etc. There are stories of mercy and stories of cruelty, visions for a future of harmony and visions of cosmic retribution. All of our religions have within them the way of life and the way of death. Deuteronomy 30: 15-20.
So if there is good and bad religion in the world, how are we to speak to others about their faith? How are we to tell them about our own? I suggest we go back to the beginning, remembering that faith is a matter of trusting the mystery, and that reverence is admitting how little we know about the things that ultimately matter. So we should speak honestly but softly, never dogmatically. We should carefully examine our own hearts and our own religious practices and beliefs to sift the good from the bad. The purification of our own faith should come before we go about correcting the faith of others. Matthew 7: 3-5.
When we speak to others about their faith, it is better to assume a posture of curiosity rather than judgment. We are more likely to learn something by asking sincere questions than by condemning. We are actually more likely to help our sister or brother purify her or his faith if we ask questions rather than attacking. We learn more interesting, reliable, and important things by asking the stories of how people came to their faith and what their faith means to them, how it functions in their lives, rather than quizzing them about fine points of doctrine.
If our faith is rooted in good religion, it will not need to condemn. It will be capable of honoring truth in whatever form it manifests, enjoying beauty in all its expressions, and honoring good whoever is doing it.