Religion & Public Life
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Understanding people of faith

Why religious people can be so perplexing, and how to better communicate with them

By Bruce T. Murray
Author, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

Studying the ‘religious creature’
“Religious people live in a world in which they are fundamentally oriented toward something larger than themselves.”
Rowland A. Sherrill

The study of religion – and sometimes covering it in the news – involves a fundamental irony: “At university departments of religion, the creature we study is the religious person — it’s as if we were in a biology lab with a specimen,” said Rowland A. Sherrill, the late professor and chair of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“The most important thing for any of us, in context of journalism and the context of life, is to de-center ourselves – to make ourselves strangers to ourselves.”
Adam B. Seligman

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, spurred a sudden media interest in religion. Following Sept. 11, Sherrill said press calls to his office spiked from about a dozen per month to more than 100. In the aftermath of the attacks, journalists stumbled upon a dumfounding question they hadn’t before attempted to explain: How to understand religious people – and in particular religious fundamentalists.

Sherrill offered a quick definition: “Religious people live in a world in which they are fundamentally oriented toward something larger than themselves. Non-religious people live in world without that,” he said.

The long answer involves time and effort to develop an understanding of people different from ourselves. Understanding others begins with understanding oneself and one’s own biases, according to Adam B. Seligman, professor of religion at Boston University. In approaching any term paper or news story involving matters of faith and religion, Seligman urges students and journalists to attempt to “get outside of themselves” and see through the eyes of others. No easy task.

“Because after all, we are so set in our ways and so imprisoned in our own ‘grid’ that what do we do? We take information reported in the newspaper, radio or television, and filter it through the grid of our pre-existing conceptions of the world, justice, rights and power; and in that way we dull the impact. We don’t allow it to upset our preconceptions. That’s true in stories about the Middle East; that’s true of Iraq; that’s true of everything,” he said.

Seligman challenges students and journalists to confront issues in such a way that they don’t comfortably plug into a their “grid” and pander to preconceived notions. For students writing term papers and journalists covering the news, this requires them to first examine their own biases and preconceptions – perhaps the most difficult task of all.

“The most important thing for any of us, in context of journalism and the context of life, is to de-center ourselves – to make ourselves strangers to ourselves; to understand that the world doesn’t end, as we say in Yiddish, at our own belly button. That’s the first step toward knowledge – to see our own understanding of the world, and realize our own way of living in the world is not the only one. That is a long and difficult process. But to the extent that a little of it is possible, I really think that’s the road to good journalism,” Seligman said.

Examining stereotypes

Sherrill begins his lectures on the issue by challenging students and journalists on their own biases for or against religion and religious people. He posits the question:

“What is it about religious people that mystifies you; or you think is wrong, or just generally annoys you?”

Among the answers:

  • Religious people are intolerant.
  • Heaven is reserved only for a narrow, select group of people.
  • Religious people believe they have a monopoly on morality and spirituality.
  • Some believers are blind adherents to religion; they accept certainty without empirical knowledge, and are unwilling to question things.
  • Religious people turn mythology and metaphor into literal truth.
  • Religious people sacrifice reason and rationality for faith.
  • They misunderstand the church and state issue.
  • They believe religion belongs only to organized institutions and don’t make allowances for private spirituality and personal faith.
  • Religious people are homogenous – they think and act exactly alike.

These perceptions operate at many sub-levels: “The corollaries are that religious people are superstitious, stupid, exhibit deep dependency traits to a neurotic level; they belong to an archaic world, are anti-intellectual, are absolutist and dogmatic, brainwashed, or are under some kind of mind control,” Sherrill said.

Karl Marx’s definition of religion as Das Opium des Volks (“opiate of the people”) fits in with these perceptions – the idea that religion numbs the mind and allows people to avoid reality.

Even at the academic level, Sherrill said religion and religious people are subject to similar prejudices.

“It’s the idea that religion is reducible to some other thing – whenever you find religion, what you’re really dealing with is some kind of neurosis, a political ideology, or a quest for self-interest,” he said.

“At the university level, like the public, one is inclined to think that there is no such thing as religion; and that religion is just a camouflage for some other thing. ... Maybe isn’t any such thing as religion, but there is such a thing as religious people.”

Irritating religion
“When you are religious, it affects everything you are.”
– Rowland A. Sherrill

Consistent in all of the negative perceptions about religion is how strongly and personally people react to the issue.

“Let’s not beat around the bush, our first response to people who are religious in ways other than our ourselves is to be irritated,” Sherrill said.

Indeed, some of the negative perceptions about religion may in fact be true. For his part, Sherrill said the biggest problem he sees with religion is when it has a “totalizing” effect.

“When you are religious, it affects everything you are,” he said.

In religious psychology, religion can become dysfunctional, or even pathological, bringing simple annoyance to something more critical. Pathological religious beliefs can manifest themselves as crippling guilt, doubt, self-righteousness, or excessive religiosity, which can lead to social isolation, according to Robert Bellah in his book, Bellah, Beyond Belief.

“Religious doubt can concentrate and summarize meaninglessness in an almost overwhelming way,” Bellah wrote. “The other pathological outcome is over-commitment, that is, dogmatism that may take such a form that it is felt that not only does religious faith meet the problem of religious meaning, but it should close all significant problems in the realm of science, technology and so on.”

Individuals can become religiously dysfunctional in an otherwise normal church or other religious setting. “If, however, not merely random individuals are showing pathological symptoms but the religious system has shifted its balance or is impaired in its function so that large numbers of people are being impelled in a pathological direction, then the religious system itself has become pathological,” Bellah wrote.

Such a situation could have serious consequences for society, and in the worst case scenario, produce religious radicals who commit crimes in the name of their religion.

‘A bit of slack’

In coping with the “religious creature,” Sherrill said a little sympathy can go a long way.

“What may appear to outsiders as misguided motivation or a failure of intelligence may be some deeply religious person trying to make sense of things,” he said. “On the other hand, just because people are religious doesn’t mean they’re right or even that they’re religiously sophisticated. They may be religious in ways that are nonsensical even to people of the same faith.”

Sherrill offered some points to keep in mind:

  • Religion is not just institutional, or something that only happens in churches, temples or mosques.

  • Religion is not one-dimensional. “Religion is multi-expressive,” he said. “Religious people tend to express themselves according to the adherence to a particular religious institution, but others are motivated by a commitment to scripture, ritual activities, or ideas about their own realities.”

  • Religion is not always as rigid as it seems. “You can never catch religion standing still. It is adaptable; it shifts, moves and dodges,” he said. “Religious people prove time and time again how capable they are of thinking things through in a way to allow refined interpretation.”

In earlier ages, religion was central to all aspects of life and society. In modern times, religion is sometimes pushed to the margins, or is regarded as just another aspect of life – without great importance.

“Religious people don’t like that,” Sherrill said. “Religion – even liberal versions of it – always has one eye on the past ... But it is adaptable.”

Expunging religion
“In a civil society, you don’t expunge the history just because you don’t happen to care for it.”
– Rowland A. Sherrill

Religious and nonreligious people often find themselves at loggerheads over the direction of the national culture — the so-called “culture wars.” Controversy over religious symbols on public property, removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, the “War against Christmas” — these are among the many flashpoints in the culture wars.

When the conflicts are resolved by the courts, the religious side tends to lose ground under the doctrine of “separation of church and state.” Since the 1960s, for example, remnants of religious elements in public schools have been removed by a series of Supreme Court decisions. From the religious point of view, the secular state has gained the upper hand and pushed religion to the periphery.

Sherrill said there is credence to the view that secular society and government institutions are hostile toward religion. If taken too far, the drive toward secularism alters history and robs society of its heritage, Sherrill warns.

“In a civil society, you don’t expunge the history just because you don’t happen to care for it; or because you are not religious, or you are religious in some other shape. A civil society has to understand how certain long-standing religious traditions have played in the cultural and historical experience of the society and to honor and respect that without privileging it,” he said. Afghan

Sherrill compared the drive to remove religious monuments from public property to the Taliban’s destruction of the huge sandstone statues of Buddha in Afghanistan in the 1990s. “For the Taliban to take down those statues was to rob Afghanistan of a rich part of its cultural heritage,” he said.

Similarly, removing public monuments that have religious elements whitewashes the cultural landscape in America, according to Sherrill. Whether one likes it or not, America has a religious history and culture, “and to refuse to honor that – not to privilege it – is absurd. It would be like tearing down the Jefferson Memorial because lately you found out Jefferson wasn’t such a good guy,” Sherrill said.

Remember the Inquisition
“The Inquisition is no more representative of Christianity at large than televangelism.”
– Rowland A. Sherrill

For the secular side, religious counter-reactionism provides yet another example of religious intolerance. Indeed, it is not difficult to cite certain events or points in history where religious people have behaved badly, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition or the murdering of abortion doctors.

Sherrill said taking these events as representative of all religion or all Christians is innacurate — what he calls the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” or characterizing the whole thing by one instance of it.

“It is a historical fact that much mayhem, viciousness, meanness and violence has occurred in the name of religion,” Sherrill said. “But on the other hand, it is not fair to any group of people to characterize them on the basis of one thing. The Inquisition is no more representative of Christianity at large than televangelism.”

Just say ‘No’ to tribalism

America’s diverse society – with its multitude of religious communities competing for recognition – presents a challenge for both religious and non-religious people alike.

For the non-religious, Sherrill said the most important thing to understand is how compelling religion is to religious people and not to chastise them for their faith. At the same time, “religious groups need to understand that people of other religions and secular people are as fully compelled by their outlooks as they are,” he said.

Sherrill said religious people face the following challenges:

  • Understanding the meaning of separation of church and state: “Religious groups need to understand how civil law and order underpins religious freedom, and without which some of these religious groups would not exist,” he said.

  • Understanding the value of the secular state: “The establishment of a state religion is the end of cosmopolitanism and the end of tolerance,” he said.

  • Avoiding tribalism and fundamentalism: “Religious people in a civil society need to learn how to treat the religious ‘other’ respectfully ... The biggest danger I see in fundamentalism is the tendency to go tribal – pulling the wagons into a circle, reducing life to that kinship network or blood brother network and to admit no other,” he said.

  • Adopting cosmopolitanism. “We live in a society of irretrievable pluralism. Religious groups need to understand that they live in a world replete with strangers. Cosmopolitanism requires people to continually negotiate with strangers. A new kind of cosmopolitanism among religious groups will be required for all of us to flourish,” he said.

Will all of these things happen? Not likely, but Sherrill said society needs constant reminders.

“It might be approximated, but we’ll never live in a world where everyone agrees,” he said. “If the media can educate the public, then you can give people the intellectual grounds to say, ‘I’m never going to agree with you, but I can talk to you in a way that is respectful; and you permit me to live and I permit you to live.’”

The ‘five shapes of religion’

Sherrill offered five scenarios as to how religion interacts with society:

  • Religion against culture – for example, monasticism in reaction to the worldly culture.
  • The religion of culture – a situation when there is an official state religion or theocracy; when culture and religion become the same thing.
  • Religion above culture – when religious people take in certain parts of the culture they like, but at a certain point the culture stops and religious authority takes over.
  • Religion and culture in tension – the clash of religion with the modern, liberal or secular consciousness. This is the current situation in the United States.
  • Religion in the form of a fist – when religion becomes a transformer of culture through reformations, crusades and holy wars.