Faithful Conversations

This column was published on UPI’s on October 30, 2006. It also headlined the UPI webpage’s religion section that day.

Americans have a problem when we talk about religion. Most of us think we’re more knowledgeable than actually we are, and, as a result, the plague of stereotypes traps us in our ignorance and foments enmity between religious communities.

Allow me to illustrate the American attachment to religious stereotypes by inviting you, esteemed reader, to play a game of “Religion Trivia:”

Name the major world religion whose adherents recently murdered two erstwhile co-religionists who had converted to another faith. Here’s a hint: a passage from one of this religion’s sacred texts reads as follows:

{italic}Blessed are the [holy warriors]…who get such a war, which, being, as it were, the open gate of heaven, comes to time of its own accord. But if you do not fight this battle which is enjoined by [religious duty], then you will have given up your own [religious duty] as well as glory, and you will incur sin{/italic}.

Another hint: members of this religion call for other religions’ adherents to be expelled from their homeland.

A third hint: if you said “Islam,” you are wrong.

The answer, gentle reader, is Hinduism. The event in question occurred in Kherlanji, India, the passage quoted is from the Bhagavad Gita, and a call for the removal of Muslims from India can be found on the Hindu Unity website.

It would be a disservice to Hinduism and an offense to Hindus across the globe to use the atrocities in Kherlanji, a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, and one hate-spewing website as a measure of Hinduism’s worth as a religion. The murders, like the call to expel Muslims from India, were the actions of fringe radicals; the passage from the Bhagavad Gita I lifted more or less at random, I quoted it out of context and, in the process, I fiddled with the translation of words I’m not academically qualified to translate.

Yet this is how too many of us talk about the religious traditions we don’t understand. We quote bits of sacred text and remember historical events that confirm our prejudices. Nowhere in the West is this lack of informed discourse more acute (and, perhaps more dangerous) than in the ways we talk about Islam.

I wish I had a maple doughnut and a nice cup of coffee for every time I have been told something untrue about Islam and Muslims. Rumors fly around the internet. American media are awash in the misuse of Islamic vocabulary, such that terms like jihad and sharia are now sinister words in the American consciousness.

I have been in the presence of well educated people—men and women of high standing in religious communities—as they have disseminated half-truths and deceptions about Islam, often using the same methods employed in my game of Religious Trivia: a misquote of the Koran and reference to the actions of the radical fringe made universal through suggestion and innuendo. Even the Pope has been guilty of such ill-informed interfaith discourse.

All of this matters because the American inability to talk about religion is being translated into intolerance. A recent Gallup poll suggests that nearly four in ten Americans favor issuing special identification cards to Muslims living in the United States. Among Americans who do not know a Muslim personally, the number is five in ten, while only 24 percent of Americans who know Muslims favor such discrimination.

The message of these numbers is clear. If personal interaction can cut the rate of intolerance by half, then we need to do more to get to know one another. Learning to talk about religion is a good place to start. Each one of us has a responsibility to become educated about religious faith. We must learn each other’s stories, and we must spread the good news that is found in each religious tradition.

We must investigate the rumors and alarming stories told us about other religious traditions, no matter their origin. We must use our God-given curiosity and intellectual acumen to find out what is good and true about other religious traditions.

Without such efforts of goodwill we are in danger of being consumed by our mutual animosity. But the good news is that, with some effort, the American people can learn to know one another and we can live in a society of tolerance and good will.

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