Monday, November 14, 2011

Religion as Culture Vs. Religion as Truth

Back to the moral and religious ambiguities of my Drew class on “Religion, Culture, and Conflict.” The origins of this post are earlier than this class, though: in a conversation with a fellow grad student and colleague at Seton Hall.

A few of us were grabbing some beers at a local bar, The Gaslight I think, and we were discussing our religious backgrounds. One of my fellow students was telling us about how she was raised Christian, but her boyfriend was Jewish. If they ended up getting married, she said, she didn't care how the kids were raised, as long at they were raised within some sort of religious heritage and practice. The comment made me scratch my head, but I didn't know the girl well enough to pursue the topic.

This story came back to me in intense clarity when a guest speaker came to speak to our class a few Mondays ago. He is a Methodist minister originally from Sri Lanka, a primarily Buddhist country. He has worked in conflict resolution around the world (especially in some tough cases in Africa); his specialty is dealing with the religious element of violent conflicts. He has some crazy stories.

He said that step 1 in establishing real religious dialogue is to “completely accept the Otherness of the Other.” While I could accept this statement within a specific interpretative lens, what he meant by this was to accept other religions as having the same value as your own. With my religious background and childhood, this sort of thinking makes no sense. If I accept that Christianity and Islam are equal, aren’t I accepting that both are false, and therefore neither have value? I know I’ve run across this idea many times before, but this speaker, as an intelligent and cogent communicator and thinker, helped me verbalize two very different approaches to religion.

There is the idea of religion as culture, as opposed to religion as truth. In the former version, religion is simply one piece of a culture – perhaps the most important – but it is not concerned, as is the latter version, with whether or not one religion is true and one is not. This is not, as I always assumed, on account of the philosophical problem of trying to find the “true religion.” People with this philosophical religious problem tend to be agnostic. Instead, this perspective views religions in the way that we might view other cultural practices.

For example, is it better to eat at a table or on the ground? Is one true? That’s a silly question to ask. We may say one is more practical, but even that judgment would probably have to do a lot with how we grew up with. Cultural practices and values differ, but except in issues that deal with human dignity and universal values, we don't say one practice is true, while the other is false – and even in issues of human dignity, we probably still wouldn’t use the terms true and false.

Likewise, according to this perspective, it’s silly to call one religion true and one false. As a cultural practice and tradition, we don’t use the labels true and false. Christians shouldn't call Hinduism false since this would amount to us calling a certain eating tradition from another country false.

On the other hand, religion as truth is concerned with, as you might expect, the truth/falseness of a specific religion. We don’t need to label other religions as harmful or dangerous, but we can label them false.

This is a very obvious distinction, and I’m sure I’ve thought about this before. But I suppose it is my religious background that automatically sees the religion as culture perspective as nearly incomprehensible. To be a Christian and not think a Muslim is somehow disordered in his religious thinking is nonsensical. If the Muslim isn’t disordered, then I must be. Or we both are. What I also didn't understand until lately is the sincerity of those who accept this version of religion, a sincerity that exists within an intelligent world. I would have supposed most people to be “hokey” if they didn't care whether or not their religion was true. But this speaker was very “non-hokey.”

From this perspective, you can understand why proselytizing is such a dirty word. It would amount to me going to an African culture and telling them that their language is false and dangerous, and that they need to learn English in order to “be saved.” Besides being silly, if people were to really do this and be serious in their attempt, it could be dangerous.

The problem with this view is that religions, at least the major religions, present themselves solely from the religion as truth perspective. They speak in absolutes. Besides, I would not accept religion if I assigned it to religion as culture. In fact, I would probably mock it the way a lot of scientists and other atheists do. If it were one cultural practice among others, I would probably see it as one that hinders real knowledge and truth. If I went to Mass every week and prayed to a God that I accepted wasn't real, and I did this only because it was part of my cultural heritage, I would take the whole experience as a farce. It would be a big game of pretend; and this is exactly what a lot of people view religion as. I guess I don’t blame them since so many religious people these days are really just asking for it.