Archive for Saturday, January 16, 2010

How important is it to have a working knowledge of other religions?

January 16, 2010


Getting to know others is best way to learn faiths

The Rev. Andrew Mitchell, Stull United Methodist Church, 1596 E. 250 Road:

In late 2008, the results of a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed most American Christians think at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to salvation. Only 29 percent of Americans affiliated with a particular religion agreed with the position “my religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.” Sixty-five percent believe “many religions can lead to eternal life.”

Some will say, “believing this doesn’t make it true.” True, but perhaps such results tell us that an ultimate desire to love and understand others instinctively trumps our tendency to make ultimate judgments about others’ destiny. Or maybe it shows that persons of faith intuitively know that God and God’s purposes are bigger than the human mind can comprehend — that while maybe not all religious practices are legitimate, many walk paths where God’s grace is found.

That sounds rather optimistic. My guess? In a diverse society most Americans have had friendships or working relationships with persons of a different faith; we either don’t want to see our friend or associate absent from an afterlife with us, or we have witnessed positive character traits that have been shaped by their practice of faith.

Religion is obviously complex. It’s hard enough to become an expert in one’s own faith tradition, let alone becoming familiar with others. Most people, however, aren’t seeking expertise but understanding.

To fear examining other faiths is to fear other people. In the context of my religious practice as a Christian, such fear would negate an important principle of my faith — “love your neighbor as yourself.”

If we don’t engage first-hand other persons, we fail to love them fully — especially if we are swayed by one-way conversations of hearsay. Burst the bubble of stereotypes — the best way to learn about other faiths is by getting to know persons of neighboring faiths.

— Send e-mail to Andrew Mitchell at

Understanding religions is not easy to generalize

Robert Minor, professor of religion, Kansas University:

Whether you think all religions are right, no religions are right, or only your religion is right, history, politics and social institutions locally and around the world are often understood better when the religious views they interact with are examined.

Predictions in past centuries of the end of religion have the same accuracy as those that forecasted the end of the world. Religions are still here and still a part of people’s lives for better or worse.

What makes a working knowledge of the understanding of religion difficult is that there is no such thing as religion in general. It’s always religion as understood, expressed and applied by someone or some group of believers.

That means generalizations about religion, or even one of the so-called major religions, will almost always fail us when we apply them to individuals. A generalization about Buddhism, for example, will probably be irrelevant for most Buddhists.

The search to understand the religions of other people is therefore lifelong questioning and listening. It involves asking people what they believe, why they do what they do, and what they mean when they talk about their faith.

When we settle for stereotypes about what Islam, Hinduism or Christianity is, we will not understand what is motivating people. We will misunderstand and, thus, not be effective in a world that is more globally present and more locally diverse.

And the misunderstandings about religious people are alive and well. I cringe regularly when I hear our media repeat them. I dread the harm they perpetuate and how it continues to hurt real people.

I’m disappointed about how people would rather not spend the time it takes to understand the religions of others, but maintain prejudices (good or bad) that are certain not to challenge their own beliefs about reality.

— Send e-mail to Robert Minor at


Fred Whitehead Jr. 8 years, 3 months ago

This us a oretty good article and I was glad to see it. I am not a particularly religious person, although I have participated to some degree in protestant religious practice in several denominations. What has always concerned me was the justification that some people seem to get in dismissing other people because of their religious beliefs. When I was in high school, I had a girlfriend named Dorothy who was Catholic and I was Protestant. She would go with me to youth group meetings at my church, but then had to go to the priest and "confess". I must admit I am not very versed on this confession process, not having grown up in that faith, but it sort of confused and concerned me. We are still good friends although she lives in California now, and we make friendly barbs with each other about each others "religiousity". Several friends I work with are Catholic and we regularly will joke with each other about our religions, but no one disrespects anyone else because of this difference of faith. Perhaps that is the way it should be. The Divine Creator of the universe did not create all the varied religious approaches, they are all the creation of the minds of men, but I think that the Divine Creator is well aware of the state of our beings and our desires. We should all be aware of the need to repect all of his creations, or if you will "all of God's Childern".

jonas_opines 8 years, 3 months ago

Good answers to an actually interesting faith forum question.

anon1958 8 years, 3 months ago

"The search to understand the religions of other people is therefore lifelong questioning and listening. It involves asking people what they believe, why they do what they do, and what they mean when they talk about their faith."

This approach will help you understand your friends but it will definitely not provide with you with much of an understanding about their religion or the common threads of belief that divide or subdivide any religion larger than a small cult.

The first reason why talking to your friends will not inform you much beyond their personal beliefs is the undisputed fact that most people do not have a deep understanding of their own religion. This is especially true among among Christians. The overwhelming majority of American Christians have a really pitiful knowledge of their Holy Bible and virtually no knowledge of how various writings became canonical.

Fundamentalist Christians that believe in the literal truth of the Bible, interestingly, have the most shallow knowledge of the history of the Bible as well as the weakest understanding of the King James Bible as a whole.

Developing a good understanding of other religions as well as increasing the understanding of your own religion is not nearly as difficult as presented in this article. However it requires taking the time to read and going to the trouble of identifying what to read and dealing with the particular slant an author is trying to advocate.

It is really quite impossible to understand the major contemporary religions such as Hindu, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism unless you also study the history of these belief systems. All of these religions have major differences between sects that ultimately have a human origin that is rooted in social and political events of the day.

Regardless of your own belief system the study of the history of religion is a fascinating and rewarding topic. As a Christian you could start off with a small piece say a book about the Cathar movement or go for a broader perspective by reading Wil Durant's "Age of Faith" and "The Reformation". The Durant books are definitely not up to date but they are very readable, semi-neutral viewpoint and inexpensive and easy to find second hand. Lawrence native and scholar Bart Ehrman has published numerous books about Christianity written for a lay audience. "Jesus Interrupted" and "Misquoting Jesus" are two recent ones.

The books mentioned here are not meant as any kind of a reading list just one suggestion on how to get started. You need to find your own way based on your interests but if you put the time in and avoid books that are obviously meant only to proselytize for or against a particular belief system you will be richly rewarded.

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