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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Religion & Tonic

Those early years are hazy now, aside from the occasional times pulling tricks on my bike and instead bloodying my knee, or a second grade math rivalry. Sometime between our family's house in Montego Bay, Jamaica and a vast Queens, New York elementary schoolyard, I remember it. In the Ganesh temple in Flushing, Queens, my dad and I stood in front of a framed picture of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity. At that time, I had graduated from questions like "Do animals have feelings?" and "What do police officers eat?" Pointing to the corner of the picture, I commented, "Look at those coins, does she make you rich?" My dad replied matter-of-factly, "She's the goddess of wealth. But, those coins aren't just money. They can be anything-- health, knowledge, love, happiness. Whatever you want." The mundane moment has long informed me on how to value depth and richness of perspective and where to seek wealth. Cutting through complexity is not just seeing two sides of the same coin, but taking a second look at the coin itself.


"The God Who Only Knows Four Words"

Every child has known God.

Not the God of names.
Not the God of don'ts.
Not the God who ever does anything weird.
But the God who only knows four words.
And keeps repeating them, saying: "Come dance with me."

- Hafiz (14th century Persian poet)


The figures are dizzying. Christians number 2.2 billion today, one-third of the world, but most interestingly, Christianity's "market share" has fallen from 35% in 1900 to 33% today while Islam has ballooned from 12% to 22%, about a fifth of the "religious marketplace". The face of Christianity is no longer European or White Anglo Saxon Protestant. The biggest mega-churches in the world are not guided by Rick Warren in California or Joel Osteen in Texas, and they do not invite Pat Robertson or Ann Coulter. Instead, they are in places like Brazil, South Korea, and Uganda.

Stephen Prothero (professor at Boston University) elaborates on these trends in his book God is Not One. More Anglican churches inhabit Nigeria than England and over 6,000 denominations flourish in South Africa. From 1900 to 2000, Christianity exploded as a proportion of the population from 1% to 45% in Nigeria and from 1% to 41% in South Korea; during the same time, it exploded from 9 million to a whopping 335 million in Africa. "Members of the popular Kimbanguist Church of Congo celebrate Holy Communion with sweet potatoes and honey rather than bread and wine." The number of Mormons, which tallies 14 million, is quickly on pace to surpass the world's Jewish population.

Prothero also provides a useful primer on religions, albeit with many flaws (he has taken heat from the Jewish and Atheist communities). But, most importantly, he brings to the table a refreshing, controversial, and not-so-politically correct way of looking at things. Today, the popular notion is that the best way to get along is to look at all religions as essentially the same-- we begin on different "foothills" (dogma, rites, and institutions) but all end up in the same mountain top/treetop. In seeking religious tolerance and unity, Swami Sivananda states "the fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the non-essentials." The Dalai Lama, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, and Huston Smith are highly and rightfully revered for their efforts to unify. But, could this thinking also be a bit naive? Why do we fervently express our individuality and opinion in politics, economics, and culture, but not when it comes to religion? Is it too sensitive and private a topic? As Randy Pausch said, "If there's an elephant in the room, introduce him."

The "all religions are one" philosophy, while well-intentioned and in many ways successful, has also fallen short in advancing religious dialogue, has blunted religious literacy, and has obscured reality. It has left us flat-footed. Moreover, Prothero points out, it is "a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue." Differences do matter. Who is one to say that a Muslim's pilgrimage to Mecca and five-times-daily prayer, a Catholic's baptism, a Hindu's prostration and sacred fire rites, or a Buddhists meditative pose are "inessential." Even in a country as richly ethnically and culturally diverse as a America, we find religiously diversity still a rarity. Of America's 310 million people, 247 million check the Christian box. American lawmakers like Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, and Keith Ellison have had to treat religious traditions of Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam as radioactive, burying them deep underground. But, far more insidious, is that what seems to be a very peaceful philosophy has actually killed. It was America's bravado and ignorance of differences between Sunni and Shia Islam that fueled a bloody sectarian war in Iraq. Lumping beliefs and motivations of Sunni, Shia, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, "Islamo-facists", Taliban, and widespread moderate Muslim populations in Indonesia and Bangladesh into a monolithic group has proved divisive, not unifying.

Aside from broadly similar ethics of love, compassion, and the Golden Rule, the "different foothills, same treetop" philosophy is shaky. In reality, in addition to starting on different foothills, we are climbing up to different treetops and mountain views. Christianity and Buddhism weigh sin and suffering differently. Confucianism may look for order and harmony, while Daoism pines for spontaneity and naturalness. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews view ritual, law, and doctrine in different lights. Moreover, we may all differ in our final destinations and resolutions, some questioning if there is a God (Buddhists, Confucianists) or whether there is an afterlife or a next life. Islam does not center on original sin or suffering, but on pride. In sum, tolerance is less a recycled issue of pluralism and more a call for religious literacy.

The spectrum is wide. We can't just sing "Kumbaya". Nor is Prothero suggesting Sam Huntington's clash of civilizations. But, maybe there's a fresh, middle way. Ironically, to re-imagine a world that better unites us, we must carefully define what separates us-- our realities, contexts, nuances, textures, and histories-- in an honest, civil, logical, and tempered way.

But, is now the time to care so much? Shouldn't religion not matter as much anymore? Krista Tippett (award winning journalist and radio broadcaster) sidesteps the inevitable friction between science and religion by approaching religion and spirituality at a slant. For years she has interviewed physicists, biologists, doctors, and scientific thinkers, plumbing for religion through their works. She describes Buddhist "spiritual technologies" of meditation and mindfulness (actually Einstein believed Buddhism to be the religion of the future). Tippett dispels the college-dorm argument over science and religion as missing the point. Science and religion do not offer competing answers to the same question but actually ask different questions. Theoretical physicist V.V. Raman described to her an interesting fact about his native Indian language Tamil, which "distinguishes linguistically between 'why' as a causative question, the way science might ask why of a problem, and 'why' as a teleological question, the way religion might ask it."

As Prothero emphasized in a recent interview, the fact is that 99.9% of all human beings since the beginning of time have been religious, have asked big questions and used stories, rituals, philosophies, and institutions to wrestle with them. Religion has never really been about answering questions like "How does the sun come up?" It is more of a place that leaves room for mystery and things we don't understand, a repository for deep questions. An obsession with rationality squelches this fundamentally human yearning for questions and mystery.

Regardless of what you believe (Prothero argues that Atheism could actually be considered a religion itself), religion is a major marker of identity for most everyone. Except for Western Europe, the world is not on a fast track to secularism. Religions are worth understanding, because they are not just private and personal, but animate economies, politics, and armies. So called "holy wars" in Central Asia continue to dominate kitchen table conversations for tens of thousands of military families. Moreover, major tectonic plates shift without us knowing. Islamic banking now tops $1 trillion (no interest payments). As China rises and sits on nearly $1 trillion in U.S. treasuries, have core Christian values moved toward Confucian centerpieces of industriousness, thrift, loyalty, and authority? Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world and a cornerstone of moderate Muslim establishment, goes largely ignored. President Obama has canceled three trips to this place he once called home. In fact, half of the world's Muslims do not live in the Middle East, but in Asia in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the fourth, sixth, and seventh most populous countries in the world, respectively (if Facebook were a country, it would rank third).

These are strong currents. One person navigating them through dialogue and action is Eboo Patel, founder of Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core. IFYC is anchored in mutual respect, youth leadership, and cooperation. More than bridging shared values, Patel seeks community and global action, asking questions like "How can Muslims and Christians solve global malaria?" (I actually have a weird Captain Planet hero fantasy in which Eboo Patel, Jeff Skoll (founder of Participant Media, Skoll Foundation, Ebay), Jacqueline Novogratz (founder of Acumen Fund), and Shai Agassi (founder of Better Place) fly around with capes storytelling, financing, innovating, and "imagineering" a better world.)

But, discord and divergence abound. Saudi Arabia has made great strides in targeting Al Qaeda and rehabilitating terrorists, but still billions of dollars of oil money flows to propagate and export its puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam. In civil rights, positive movement for gay rights has unfolded with the election of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire and the recent overturning of California's Proposition 8 ban of gay marriage. But, at the same time in Uganda, Evangelical churches have been used as vehicles to criminalize and brutalize homosexuals. The bigotry is coming from all sides. Neoconservatives inflame tensions, pitting themselves against Islam, claiming it a religion of war. On the other hand, colleges and universities now face legal charges of discriminating against Evangelicals, who are underrepresented in academia and unfavorably viewed upon by most academics. Living in a political echo chamber, we up here in the Northeast tend to rush to judge Evangelicals and Pentacostals, caricaturing and equating them with Christian fundamentalists, which couldn't be further from the truth. Religions have good and bad parts, virtues and vices, "toxic and tonic," but we have yet to civilly face them. If Islam can be characterized as a religion of violence, then so can Christianity. Yes, Muslims slammed planes into the twin towers. But, Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen were card-carrying Christians who killed within the passages of Christianity. Tamil Tigers who have been suicide bombing in Sri Lanka for three decades are practicing Hindus. It's best to honestly grapple with these issues head on rather than deflecting or skirting around them.

Building tolerance needs more than just more cooks, it needs new recipes. This week's approval of the Park51 Muslim Cultural Center, also known as Cordoba House (it is not called the "Ground Zero Mosque"), two blocks from New York City's 9/11 Ground Zero is a big leap forward. Focusing on healing and elevating relations, the center's board members are Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Let's hope they re-calibrate and vault religious literacy, lest we reach a tolerance that is only an inch deep.