Post No.: 0791
According to a British Victorian colonial conception of religion anyway – the 5 main ‘world religions’ are Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.
But each of these religions aren’t monolithic entities. There can be quite a lot of internal diversity within each of them because of the different sects, denominations or strands, and even individual personal takes on them. Thus naïve assumptions (positive or negative) regarding, say, ‘all Muslims’ or ‘all Christians’ are inappropriate, never mind assumptions regarding ‘all religious people’ or ‘all non-religious people’ as a whole. For being cultural memes, religions are dynamic and continually evolve too.
Religions also encompass many aspects of human culture and behaviour. Where we live in the world still has a major influence on our religious activity. Religion shapes our individual identity, as well as influences legal systems across the world (and this doesn’t always mean as directly as something like Sharia law in Islam). It influences many of our traditions, even in secular societies. Politics and religion go paw-in-paw more than we realise or admit. The electorate frequently vote according to their personal religious convictions, or according to the traditional cultural norms that have been historically shaped by religions. Religions inspire some of the highest moral ideals and behaviour; yet are also implicated in some of the worst incidences of intolerance and violence.
We must consider to what extent religion is about private beliefs, and to what extent it is about behaviours and practices at the public or community level? Many jobs require us to act as if we are not religious if we are e.g. police officers, schoolteachers and social workers. We must act professionally with a diverse public and within the legal framework of the country we’re in. Perhaps it’s right that we mustn’t favour one religion over another. These contexts present some of the more explicit examples of where religious literacy (as opposed to naivety) helps us to navigate these interactions and relationships with greater fluency, confidence and respect – but really every good citizen needs better religious literacy in this multicultural and diverse world. Woof!
Global brands increasingly seek to improve their religious literacy in order to market themselves as sensitive to a broad range of cultures, just from a pure profit point of view. Through the school environment, many parents will meet children of immigrants who may have quite different beliefs and customs to those of the culture where they now live. We need to be respectful of local religious, cultural beliefs if we work abroad. We shouldn’t impose our own norms (e.g. related to dress and modesty) as a guest in another country – similar to how many of us wouldn’t like guests to impose their, particularly strong or moral (those that will not be tolerated if violated), norms in our home country. For instance, calls for prayers punctuate the workday in certain countries, even if you work in a hospital and things are critical 24/7.
So religious literacy will help us to communicate better with those from other cultures, and will help us to peacefully integrate different religious communities into civil society. There are however situations where we might want to question certain practices, like unequal educational opportunities for girls or the stoning of women accused of infidelity. But even here – by emphasising principles – knowing that someone has religious beliefs that are different to our own can be the start of a more productive open-ended conversation than a clash of defensive or aggressive stances.
Religious literacy may also help us to see how our own beliefs are enacted e.g. through which holidays we celebrate, our food and dress regulations, etc., even though we might not be consciously making those decisions. By learning about other viewpoints and experiences, we can be more culturally aware and responsive.
Encountering those with a different culture to ours may even challenge our own beliefs, practices, values and assumptions; which can be uncomfortable yet edifying. Well we shouldn’t assume our own worldviews are objective or are always correct, which in turn means understanding that it might be us who needs to change our minds about our religiosity or lack thereof.
But whereas some view ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ as a progressive movement towards peace and harmony – others view the plurality of religions, cultures and ethnicities as a major source of tensions and violence hence the mixing doesn’t work.
Sometimes it’s like people with different religious beliefs are inhabiting different worlds, like regarding medical treatment (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses can be viewed as callous for rejecting blood transfusions for themselves or, even more unconscionably, family members like their children, whereas they see their rules regarding this matter as divinely decreed); the respect of corpses (e.g. whether deceased bodies can be used for scientific experiments to further research that could save future lives, or would this be profoundly wrong and the only respectful thing permissible is either burial or cremation); or sacred lands (e.g. building upon, or extracting minerals from, lands or mountains that are considered sacred to some).
Taking the Jehovah’s Witnesses example above – such issues are complex. A child’s psychological and physical welfare may be considered paramount, and should override any religious beliefs of any adult, when it comes to considering the options for life support for that child. Yet, if the most moral outcome is the outcome that produces the least ‘unnecessary harm’, then the parents and other family members may themselves experience significant psychological harm for letting their child down due to having their religious beliefs muzzled; and their harm may last for longer? A child raised as a Jehovah’s Witness may him/herself grow up to feel that he/she had broken a divine rule, and thus experience immense lasting psychological harm him/herself, for being given a blood transfusion? (This does pose the question – do parents truly educate their children or indoctrinate them into the parents’ way of thinking?)
So if the courts override a parent’s religious wishes for their own child, for the sake of doing what the courts decide is best for that child’s welfare, this may produce unintended consequences. This could either mean continuing life support, as in this case with blood transfusions; or ending intrusive life support for a desperately ill child because there’s no reasonable chance of recovery but a distinct possibility of prolonged suffering. (We must also consider the opportunity costs i.e. the limited public hospital resources being spent on that child could be better spent on trying to save the life of someone else?)
So if everyone inhabits a different world according to everyone’s own religious beliefs, then what harms do those of us who live outside the world that another person inhabits cause when we impose our values onto them?
This highlights how important education and understanding is – if we don’t truly understand the beliefs of others, it’s easier to be dismissive of them. And from this, intolerance and hatred are often born. The clashing understandings of the world can cause great harm, hence the need for greater religious literacy for all.
Researching religions can be tricky though. What we find on the web can depend on how we phrase our searches or choose which sites we click on e.g. an official site for a religion will likely only present the positive side of it, whilst searching for a group’s name along with the word ‘cult’ will likely only present the negative side of it without any understanding of why the religion is attractive to its members. So always consider the possible bias of a source, as well as your own biases.
Records of registration of business or charity status, school inspections and annual reports are some places to check if you want to dig deeper. You could also of course ask people about their experiences too. However, the trickiest part isn’t finding trustworthy information sources, or people with different religious affiliations to us, but wanting to find and properly listen to them in the first place!
Religious, pantheist, spiritual, ietsist, non-religious, non-theist, strong or weak atheist, explicit or implicit atheist, agnostic, ignostic, apatheist, sceptic, secular, humanist or whatever label(s) you choose for yourself – we’ve got to learn to coexist peacefully. (Post No.: 0571 investigated some possible reasons why some people are religious or non-religious, spiritual or non-spiritual, theist or atheist.) Such beliefs of ours may pertain to strong or moral evaluations that we consider categorically non-negotiable, yet we do need to be somewhat open-minded and tolerant of another individual’s belief system – as long as they are peaceful as an individual – instead of holding an attitude of ‘our way is the only way’. We can challenge specific points of disagreement with others yet we don’t need to proselytise or radicalise others into our particular religious or non-religious stance.
And you don’t have to follow a religion to study religion. One can study subjects ranging from physics to philosophy, and the so-called ‘hard sciences’ to the ‘soft sciences’. As you may have regularly witnessed or been a participant of – in a disagreement, you typically get one person who only sees things from one angle and another person who only sees things from another angle and they butt heads and can’t ever find agreement. But when you educationally take on all angles by yourself, you’ve got to find a way to agree with yourself! Such conundrums are occasionally wrestled with in this blog. But I have found a way to have peace with and furry tolerance for almost all sides, for better understanding all sides.
For example, I personally need evidence to believe in something – I cannot just have faith in something. There are hazards to blind faith. Yet I understand the psychological value of religious or spiritual beliefs for those who believe in them, hence I am tolerant of those with such different beliefs to mine.
So religious literacy will hopefully help you to feel more informed and empowered to engage positively with a variety of different faiths and worldviews. Examining the diversity of this world with religious literacy rather than assumptions or naivety could also help you to make more reflective decisions about your own beliefs, practices and values.
Woof! You can share what you think about the need for everybody to improve their religious literacy by replying to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below.