Religion Matters . . . So Why the Reluctance to Talk About It?
In a country with freedom of religion, speech, and the press, why is it so hard for
us to talk about religion’s role in modern life? Until we can figure out how to talk
about religion in ways that matter, we’ll remain in a state of denial or ignorance,
which is risky in a democracy.
In other areas of life, we understand that beliefs influence behavior. We know that
one’s political convictions get translated into party affiliation, votes at the polls,
and public policy. So why do so many people miss the connection between religious
belief and behavior? Why is there such reluctance to recognize the impact of religion
in American life, when it has had such a strong and recurring influence in our past
and present? I believe there are four main reasons:
1. Religious ignorance
According to Pew’s recent Religious Knowledge Survey, most
Americans are simply uninformed about the core beliefs and practices of religions
in America and around the world; and a significant number of believers lack basic
knowledge about their own religion. Without such knowledge, it is impossible to make
sense of the religious motivations behind the way people act.
2. Secular point of view
Other people may know quite a bit about religious beliefs
and practices, but want to exclude them from public life. This secular perspective
makes religion a private affair: “If you want to believe that, it’s your business.
Just don’t try to force the rest of us to live according to your beliefs.” In other
words, religious people should keep their opinions to themselves; and religion should
be kept out of the public square.
3. Political correctness
More recently, political correctness has made it difficult
to ask hard questions about religion for fear of offending specific groups. The most
glaring example is the inability or unwillingness of many national leaders to talk
about the religious motivations of terrorists. Such reticence is baffling since extremists
usually are eager to explain themselves: They are proud soldiers of Islam who are
fighting for Allah. That is what they said, clearly, loudly, often, and without apologies.
Why is it so hard for some of us to believe them—or take their words seriously? The
simple answer is that many people fear a backlash against our Muslim neighbors. Identifying
the terrorists as Muslims may lead numbers of people to conclude that all Muslims
are terrorists or that Islam as a whole is to blame. Certainly that would be a huge
mistake. But is it really up to American politicians to absolve Muslims of all culpability
when those perpetrating violence are claiming religious reasons for doing so?
4. Denying the obvious
Some observers thus refuse to recognize the obvious: Islam
is a complicated religion that is deeply divided by historic, ethnic, and theological
differences. There can be no doubt that that growing numbers of Muslim extremists
are using jihad (“struggle”) to justify violence in the creation of a world-wide
Islamic community under Shariah law. But it is also true that a fierce debate is
raging within Islam over such views and how Muslims should relate to the modern world.
Muslim extremists started killing other Muslims long before they took their war to
Europe and the United States.
I understand how hard it is to admit that such violence exists within one’s religious
community. For thirty years I taught the history of Christianity to future ministers,
many of whom denied that any real Christian could have inflicted torture during the
Inquisition, beheaded or burned heretics at the stake, committed atrocities in the
Crusades, persecuted Jews in the Middle Ages, or ridden with the Ku Klux Klan to
preserve white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian America.
My job was not to shield them from such facts, but to help them understand how and
why the clergy, theologians, spiritual leaders, and lay people of the time justified
such behavior on Christian grounds. While Christians today deplore and reject such
behavior, they need to understand how people pretty much like themselves could commit
such acts with a clear conscience. It seems foolish and naive to deny that such things
Of course, not everyone is reluctant to talk about religion. Believers often promote
religious solutions for what ails America, while critics blame religion for America’s
troubles. From one perspective, religion does not matter enough; from another religion
matters too much.
While many Americans embrace religious faith, others fear it. In the U.S. such fear
can take many forms, as in the belief that religious people are a threat to American
liberties and so must be restricted in their political influence. Another example
is the blanket indictment against all religion, as in Christopher Hitchens’ God Is
Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything or Bill Maher’s film Religulous.
Like it or not, one way or the other, religion does matter, for good and for evil.
One group of believers feeds the hungry, heals the sick, helps troubled youth, provides
for those in need, or even lays down their lives for others. Another group sets off
bombs in public markets or makes plans to bring down airplanes or kill people in
Times Square. Different beliefs have different consequences. In addition, increasing
numbers of Americans believe that they can live productive and ethical lives without
any connection to religion at all.
In a conflicted world like ours, how should we talk about such complex religious
matters? Here are a few suggestions:
- Be honest. Religion is a powerful force for good in modern life, but it also has
a dark side. Political correctness may seem like a good short-term strategy for avoiding
offence, but in the long-run, it impedes our ability to ask the right questions and
get honest answers. Ignoring the obvious never works when solid information is needed
to understand religious differences and their results.
- Judge fairly. All religions have the right to define themselves; and no religion
should be judged by its worst examples. To their credit, most religions wish they
could delete embarrassing parts of their histories. None is monolithic; and most
contend with internal “we’re truer than you” arguments between rival factions. Passing
judgments about such complexity is never easy; but in the end, “by their fruit you
shall know them.” Over time religions usually deserve the reputations they get.
- Celebrate our liberties. The First Amendment guarantees that the state will neither
establish religion nor prohibit its free exercise. Such freedom has been good for
believers and unbelievers alike. Religious freedom is America’s greatest contribution
to modern life, the one that distinguishes us most from those who would force one
religion on everyone. That liberty is worth celebrating and keeping.
- Find common ground. Religious freedom promotes and protects religious diversity and
guarantees, as the Founders believed, that the truth will always be heard. It ensures
that religious groups can claim that they alone have the truth and requires that
such believers and non-believers give each other room to hold and express opposing
views. In addition, religious liberty provides the opportunity to seek and find common
ground. Don’t just about all of us want to give our children a decent future, safeguard
democracy, and exercise the God-given inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness?” One of the marvels of American history is that a diverse population
has found ways to find and preserve such common ground. E pluribus unum.
Good information is vital these days. Without it we can jump to unwarranted conclusions,
assign blame when none is deserved, or fail to make connections that can help us
manage our present and future. In a time when civility is in short supply, Religion
Matters intends to provide the kind of information, resources, and perspective that
both enlightens and encourages. Religious freedom works best when people are informed
and realize both the blessings and the challenges of living in a free-market religious