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Why do religious differences disturb us so much?


Instead of focusing on differences in religion being a problem, we should focus on us. Why does difference, especially of religion, disturb us so much?

My new book, Religious Diversity—What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity is a Buddhist “theology of religions.” Theologians of religion discuss how members of their own religion should evaluate other religions. To date, Christians have dominated these discussions. As a Buddhist scholar-practitioner who is also a Buddhist critical and constructive thinker, I maintain dual allegiance to the academic study of religion and to traditional Buddhist practices and understandings. I evaluate my tradition critically but also reconstruct it when needed. An example of such work is my well-known book Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (SUNY, 1993).

Varieties of Theology of Religions

Christian theology of religion developed recently, after the breakup of European empires and Vatican II. Christians concluded that other religions were not going to disappear, giving way to universal acceptance of Christianity. How should these other religions be evaluated? The traditional Christian position proclaimed that there was “one true religion” with “no salvation outside the church.” Catholics and Protestants disagreed about which of them was the one true religion, but agreed there could only be one true religion. That exclusivist position is still held by many.

In the mid-twentieth century, German theologian Karl Rahner developed the inclusivist position. He claimed that though Christianity was the only fully adequate religion, members of other religions could find salvation through their own faiths. They might even be called “anonymous Christians.” Other religions would be improved by incorporating more Christian elements, but they were not completely defective.

Later, British philosopher of religion John Hick developed the pluralist position. This position has many variations but they all claim that religions are more similar than different. Their teachings are almost identical and all are grounded in similar religious experiences. Therefore, no religion can claim superior or unique truth.

Even more recently, other theologians suggest withholding all judgments about religions.

What We Need Instead

“Instead of focusing on them, we should focus on us. Instead of asking if they are enough like us to be acceptable, we should ask why difference, especially of religion, disturbs us so much.” These Christian theologies of religion all focus on differences between religions as a problem, preferring agreement or unity to diversity and difference. That is the problem with current theologies of religion. Instead of focusing on them, we should focus on us. Instead of asking if they are enough like us to be acceptable, we should ask why difference, especially of religion, disturbs us so much.

The superficial source of discomfort with diversity is easy to locate. People are initially more comfortable with what is familiar than what is different. Most people prefer local food to foreign cuisine, even though their preferences say nothing about the relative merits of different diets. Most people initially think their culture is “better” than others, which only means that it is easier to be in a more familiar environment than a less familiar one. Living in a foreign environment requires attentiveness and takes more energy than living “at home.” But living at home doesn’t teach us much that we don’t already know. Disliking religious and cultural diversity may be understandable, but in a crowded, globally inter-connected world, it is too dangerous to tolerate. Internal change requires effort and training, but what alternative do we have?

It is clear that the rest of the world is never going to come around to doing things “our way.” Regarding religions, there never has been and never will be agreement about religious ideas or practices. The goal of “one true faith” adhered to by all, is extremely unrealistic. And extremely dangerous. Even within a single religion, rampant sectarianism is normal. This is not surprising. Therefore, it should not be troubling.

Observation demonstrates that in nature, differences are much more prevalent, and much healthier, than sameness. Monocultures, whether of lawns, crops, or forests, are difficult to maintain and more subject to disease than a naturally mixed environment. Ancient monarchies sometimes tried to perpetuate themselves as identically as possible by close intermarriage; the results were disastrous. I found this out for myself with kittens accidentally born of one generation of brother-sister incest. It is not a problem that other people do not look like us, so why do we expect, even demand, that they should think like us? Why do we think they would be much better off if only they thought more like us? Yet many religious leaders throughout history have demanded such conformity, as the history of religious excommunications and warfare demonstrates so poignantly and vividly.

“Religious diversity is not a mistake and never has been.” The primary question regarding religious diversity is “Excuse me but what’s the question? Isn’t religious diversity normal and natural?” Religious diversity is not a mistake and never has been. It is here to stay, and religions have to adjust to that fact, just as they had to adjust to the fact that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. Religions were not harmed in any way by making that adjustment. They will not be harmed by accommodating themselves to the inevitable reality of religious diversity.

In my book, I propose that we need to re-think our assumptions about ourselves and about “the other.” When we have thoroughly assimilated those insights, then we can begin to think about ways that “self” and “other” can interact with more integrity.

Re-thinking “The Other:” Do Others Actually Exist?

The “other” is taken seriously, respected and understood as an equal by those involved in inter-religious dialogue. Splendid as these intentions may be, they hide a serious problem. Such language assumes that “the other” actually is out there, existing independently of the self’s perceptions. This assumption is behind everyday interactions and, to a limited extent, it has some conventional accuracy. Others do appear in our experience, but that does not mean they exist independently of our experience, which results from the interaction of sense organ and sense object. It is illogical to assume that either subject or object exists by itself, in and of itself. Rather, they co-create each other and co-arise together. Assuming independent existence for either ignores how much our impressions of “the other” actually are our own preconceptions and projections, having little to do with “the other” apart from our impressions. Reflection on how easily friends and enemies transform into each other should bring this realization vividly home. Just reflect on a former spouse or lover!

Without reflection on the fact that the other cannot exist truly independent of our own projections, we easily absolutize our version of “the other.” These comments summarize Buddhist teachings on interdependence and emptiness. If only religious leaders would apply these insights to their comments about religious others. How many vilifications of religious others are misguided projections. “They worship the devil! They waste their time meditating! They are nihilists!”

These teachings are very simple and straightforward. But truly integrating them into our consciousness, so that they affect our everyday reactions, takes introspection. They go against the grain of conventional assumptions, as does so much Buddhist wisdom. The question “Do others exist?” which can sound like a stupid question, turns out to have a sophisticated answer. Others do appear in our consciousness but that does not mean that they exist as we imagine them to exist.

Who am I Really? Self as Hybrid Identity

Just as the solidity of “the other” becomes ephemeral upon deeper reflection, so does the purported “self.” This summarizes Buddhism’s famous and enigmatic teachings on egolessness—that a singular, uncaused, unchanging, permanent self-identity cannot be found. We all assume blindly that such a thing exists because it feels so very real.

However, the perpetual challenge of Buddhist teachers is: “find that kind of a Self without mistaking it for something evanescent, ever-changing, unstable, and unreliable.” No one has yet found such a self. Nevertheless, something does appear when we look for the ”Self.” We find multiple identities because we identify with many roles and there are many facets to our lives. But none of these roles or facets of our lives rises to the standard of being a real, truly existing, permanent Self. Like “others,” who seem to be fixed and truly existent but are not, our identities are always in flux. Nevertheless, recognizing the multiplicity of identities we experience can lead to a new realization: “we are all hybrids.”

To flourish with religious diversity, it is not important to use Buddhist terminology. What matters is that when we acknowledge the multiplicity of our identities, we can stop foregrounding our religious identity as our ultimate identity, as if it were our only identity or the only one that matters. It is not. We have many other identities, as family members, members of communal, cultural, or national groups, as workers and professionals, that are important to our lives but have little to do with our religious identities. Many of the people we encounter in living out these other identities will not share our religious identity. But we interact with them in satisfactory ways, nevertheless.

“To learn how to flourish with religious diversity, it is helpful to recognize that religious identity is only one of our myriad, hybrid identities.” We still value our religions but are no longer foregrounding our religious identities in ways that are unrealistic and counter-productive or promote rather than ease social tensions. When we learn to flourish with religious diversity, we can work well with those with whom we have profound religious or political disagreements. We do not have to agree; we only need to be agreeable across religious differences. To learn how to flourish with religious diversity, it is helpful to recognize that religious identity is only one of our myriad, hybrid identities.

What Next? How Interdependent Selves and Others Interact to Promote Flourishing with Religious Diversity

We need to know what about religions is worth disputing. Some people enjoy “arguing about religion” and many a holiday family gathering has been ruined by this useless, counterproductive pastime. People don’t agree about religious ideas and there is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon. Furthermore, given how different people are in temperament and intelligence, there is little reason so assume that they should agree about what constitutes a cogent religious idea. This is especially the case regarding metaphysical and theological truth claims—peoples’ ideas about the nature of ultimate reality, none of which can be proved either rationally or empirically. Such ideas are a matter of preference, and preferences are mysterious and idiosyncratic. Because intellectual truth claims are so prominent in many peoples’ concepts of what religion is about, many are aghast at this suggestion that religious ideas are not worth arguing about. They assume that my position must be one of complete relativity, “Does anything go?” they ask me incredulously.

I am not suggesting that nothing about religions makes any difference. I am arguing that theological beliefs are not the proper place for drawing lines about what matters and what doesn’t.

What matters are the ethical practices a religion instills in its followers and how well they live up to them. It does not harm either oneself or others if theological agreement cannot be found, but ethics make a great deal of difference for both. Regarding ethics, one needs to do more than shrug one’s shoulders and say, “Their values regarding women or various minorities differ from mine,” or “I don’t want to get involved with how they treat other people.” One needs to ask whether an ethic of non-harming is being followed or whether oppression, discrimination, or disparagement are being practiced, often in the name of religion, often justified by religious beliefs that it’s okay to denigrate or oppress those who have the “wrong” religious ideas. The great advantage of regarding theological beliefs as far more relative than ethical practices is that religions themselves show much greater consensus about ethics than about theology. Theistic and non-theistic religions have quite similar ethical guidelines, despite incommensurable theological differences.

Practical Solutions

Greater clarity about the interdependent co-arising of self and other and deeper understanding that neither has ultimate, ontological existence but only relative appearance does a great deal to promote flourishing with religious diversity. How that greater clarity and deeper insight arise? Two disciplines facilitate such insights—one pertaining to one’s own spiritual life and the other to understanding and appreciating those who are religiously different.

For oneself, appropriate spiritual discipline is essential. The outer-directed speed and aggression promoted in our society militate against the insights that help us to flourish with religious diversity.

People need to practice disciplines that promote deep introspection and contemplation, allowing us to weigh and evaluate the norms we are force fed by media and rote learning in our educational institutions, to say nothing of many religious institutions. I believe there are many such disciplines, including even gardening, and they are not necessarily traditionally “religious” or “spiritual.” They all share several characteristics including silence and time alone, as well as time not connected to media. They require much less distraction and not so much physical exertion that the physicality itself distracts from slowly turning options over in one’s mind. They require one to contemplate essential questions slowly rather than settling for the superficial comfort provided by grasping for easy answers and clinging to party lines. Fortunately such disciplines are much more readily available today than they were even ten years ago. They could do much to promote our physical health and mental sanity.

“One should know as much about at least one other religion as about one’s own.”In the inter-connected but religiously diverse planet on which we live, everyone has an ethical obligation to develop appreciative, empathetic understanding of other religions. One should know as much about at least one other religion as about one’s own. It is much more difficult to denigrate and vilify others if one has stood in their shoes and that is quite possible through empathetic study of other religions. Fortunately, the academic study of religion makes that understanding much more possible than it was a generation ago and infinitely more possible than when I was being educated and socialized. Reliable, readable books are readily available. Many media resources promote such understanding. Most universities offer courses on world religions. In the future I hope that many more religious institutions will offer such training for their members.


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