13 June 2012

Belief in everyone

How much do most of us really know about other people's beliefs? How often do we generalize, stereotype and hold prejudices against certain groups of people for the things the believe, or don't believe in (or that we think they believe)?

If you ask me, too often. And it's sad.

On the blog FIXES from the New York Times, David Bornstein dedicated the latest article to an organization working to improve interfaith relations and dialogue. The Interfaith Youth Corps (IFYC) works with college students to "develop greater respect, comfort and appreciation for one another and their traditions." Bornstein, and the founders of IFYC, believe that in the United States we have embraced many forms of diversity and multiculturalism--we talk freely about race, sexual orientation, gender and ethnicity--but talking about people's cherished believes is still a sticking point. It's heated, taboo and often conversation on faith lacks real understanding, openness and respect.

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as most of you probably know). A Mormon. And that does define certain aspects of my life, my character and my worldviews. But I am still a unique person with a personal set of values and experiences and ideas, some of which relate to my religion and some of which do not. Like most people.

The thing is, when I know someone personally I usually have no problem with him or her and others don't seem to have a problem with me either, whatever our differences in faith (and other beliefs for that matter). On a personal and individual basis it doesn't seem like much of a problem to talk to, relate to or even have close relationships and friendships with people who believe differently. I have rarely experienced prejudice, intolerance or unkindness directly (though that is not true for all people, unfortunately). In my experiences, most people are able to talk to and respect individuals, but then can easily turn around and speak about other faiths, religious practices and beliefs in derogatory, limited and sometimes quite ignorant ways.

Where I see this most blatantly, is in the media (though among peers, coworkers, students, etc it happens too). In politics, of course, but also in TV shows and movies, religion and religious people are usually presented in very stereotypical ways. As a group of semi-ubiquitous characters with the occasional distressed questioner/doubter/outsider. But the reality isn't that way. As Bornstein says, "The worst thing society can do is to continue what it’s doing today: allowing attitudes to be shaped by the shrillest voices, the voices of intolerance, political expedience and xenophobia. 'If we don’t talk openly about faith and bring people from different traditions together, we forfeit the conversation to people who are happy to build barriers.'”

Reading about IFYC, I love the idea. It is true that we are only going continue increasing in diversity and we need to know how to deal with that. David D. Putnam, a political scientist who studies diversity and community, says it clearly: “It’s not just the presence of diversity in your neighborhood [that is important]. You’ve got to actually be doing things with other people in which you have a personal attachment. Diversity is hard, not easy.”

So IFYC helps push this  along by starting interfaith service projects, discussions and activities based on common values. As one Muslim student from Georgetown University explained, "Interfaith work isn’t about watering down our religion and coming to some consensus about things. . . . It’s about building relationships so we can together serve others.”

In the world we live in today, it is important to recognize that no one person, group or religion can succeed alone. If we want to make better communities, nations and ultimately a better world it means working together. And that has nothing to do with being in agreement, whether it is religion, politics or otherwise. There will always be differences. Always. It means knowing how to understand, respect and work with others in productive ways. It means being open to new ideas and it means knowing how to see people as individuals with value, no matter what their background.

One student said,  “it’s important to remind [students] that they don’t have to speak for their whole religion. They’re just there to talk about their faith or beliefs in a personal way.” What more can any of us do? What more can we expect from our neighbors and friends and acquaintances? And why don't we do more of that?

Recently I met a girl, a friend of a friend, while on a trip. She and I started a conversation in which we talked a little about our religious beliefs. She's Catholic and, as I said, I'm Mormon. We talked about things that were important to us about our faiths. We discussed why we choose to practice our religions. In all, it was a wonderful experience for me and I gained a great deal of respect for her and her personal faith. One thing she said to me, as we were talking, that stood out then and even more now, was, "Why is it so hard to talk about religion?" She said it was often uncomfortable to discuss faith among friends and acquaintances, and I have to say, I agree with her. And it shouldn't be that way.

If we want to gain greater love and respect for others, we have to be willing to share as well as to listen. And do so with openness and respect. As I said before, in my experience when religion is brought up I have rarely, if ever, had a negative experience. But it is true that it is often a topic we tiptoe around. Lets not! For most of us, our faith (whatever form it takes) is important to us, and there is nothing wrong with talking about it!

Interfaith travel... you've gotta try it! :)

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