April 2, 2010

Religion and Tradition

A lot of strife nowadays is generated by religious intolerance which is a bit difficult for those who come from fairly liberal societies to understand. My observation is that while religious differences are definitely a serious cause, the bigger cause is really in the combination of religion and tradition.

In most societies of the world religion is something you inherit from you ancestors. It is simply a traditional way of viewing the world and your place in it, your relationship with the One you pray to, combined with the explanation of various phenomena and a code for behavior. Most people in the world did not invent the religions they practice. They got them from their forebears. And, unless you live in very liberal cities of the West, few people will be recent converts to a religion. The majority will simply become heirs to the way of worship and the worldly view based on how their parents, the society around them and, often, the governments, dictated that they believe.

If you are born in a country X, and are not a big city in California somewhere, you will probably have very little choice or even desire to acquire or change a religion. The country is of a certain religious denomination, your parents practice it, the inhabitants around you practice it and, in school and at work, most people you meet are practitioners of the same faith. Parents are probably the most powerful tool in transmitting a religion. If you have a child to whom a smiling mother and father bring a certain hallowed book when he or she is very small, and tell him/her that that is the correct way to see the world and that is what a child should follow and be proud of, then in 99% of cases, that is what the child will be. If, then, the parents start taking the child to an official place of worship of that religion, just like their parents did to them, then, of course, the child will grow up to be a good ( put the name of the follower of a religion here). Neither the parents nor the child actually sit down and examine their beliefs. They simply follow the tradition that spans hundreds or thousands of years and trust it to be good.

If one is to experience a particular religious awakening or a desire to radically improve one self, he or she will rarely change religions. Most often than not, he will either get deeper into his/her present religion or, in some extreme cases, change denominations.

When I lived in the Caribbean I saw many examples of people who would say that they 'became' Christians. I would often ask them “Well, excuse me, what were you before?” "I was Catholic". "Well, isn’t Catholic a Christian, too? They would hem and haw and say, "Well, yes, but not a true one.” I would often hear things such as “I have studied many religions and I finally understood one profound truth- Jesus is the answer”. Somehow, the tradition would still keep the people in that area within the same "range" of religion even though they would change sects simply because the major sources of spiritual information would be, in their majority, Christian. There would be few if any Buddhist or Taoist temples, few mosques, and knowledge about such faiths would be hard to obtain. Hence, the move from Catholic to Protestant as a major spiritual upheaval. Not much else is available there.

When going to Buddhist countries, I would again witness a similar phenomenon. The country is Buddhist, the temples around are Buddhist, the loving parents who inherited Buddhism from their ancestors teach their children symbols of Buddhism and the child faithfully and trustingly follows what his family, society, schools and friends follow- a Buddhist spiritual tradition. Sometimes, the Buddhist would switch from Hinayana to Mahayana, but rarely move on to other creeds.

Problems begin when you have people who grew up in one religious tradition and who are completely convinced of its total and undisputable truth -their parents and their society, teachers and elders told them that it was so-meet another group of people who had inherited another religious teaching through all the organs in their respective society, and whose view on God, worship and societal behavior differ from the first group. In other words, because of their own unique historical circumstances, the groups are now followers of different dogmas with each group feeling that their teaching is ‘natural”, “correct” and not to be questioned under any circumstances because it comes from books and other sources that are too holy to be challenged.

Each group usually feels prejudiced against the other’s teaching because, just like a foreign language, it does not seem natural to them, and because it is not expected and is strange, it is, therefore, wrong. The other group, that followed its own millennia-old customs will feel the same way about the first group.

Most groups of people will never be able to judge another spiritual teaching impartially and will only be able to compare it to what is normal to them. And their ‘normal’ belief is, strictly speaking, not theirs as a product of some thought-filled realization, but, again, as a consequence of a habit passed on over many generations. They inherit it from within the environment where it is most prevalent and wide-spread- their country.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that people are by nature social animals, and, belonging to a certain religion gives them a sense of identity. They now fit in with a larger group and they get support and guidance from it. Also, because in many parts of the world, not being part of an official creed invites social and economic ostracism, only a true rebel would ever dare to challenge it, while the ‘moral’ and ‘proper’ member of that society will conform to it so that others see him/her as good and civil and worthy of trust and acceptance.

Sometimes you do witness religious tolerance but such forbearance is just that-"You stay there and do your thing, and we stay here and do ours, that thing we have always done, and let's live in peace, but deep inside we know that we are right, but you are all wrong and I hope one day you will realize that".

In addition to that, we have very few people who are really and truly students of another faith even for scholastic purposes. Most would never touch another holy book except their own. Few Christians have read the Holy Koran which nevertheless does not stop them from making "knowledgeable" comments about it. Few peaceful inter-tradition dialogues take place. All this widens the gap of misunderstanding between members of different faiths.

People's affinity for tradition, and the failure to realize that we have other societies on this planet who are also followers of their own holy traditions that were passed on to them by their ancestors, and who also feel that they are right, as well as our tribal preference for people who are closer to us by their traditions is what has been creating so much strife today.

We need to promote more dialogue, more openness and more inter-religious communication. We need to study other religions deeply and objectively. Only then can we hope to have some kind of peaceful coexistence and learn to overcome our mistrust for one another.


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