Based on my religious history classes, most people don’t know much about other religions. In some cases, people are arrogantly convinced their belief is the only correct one, so they won’t bother with someone else’s faith. Or they have been told about another religion, but didn’t understand or like what they heard.
Yet, in our ever-tightening world, knowledge about religion is extremely important both because of cross-cultural connections, communication and world harmony. Religion plays such an integral part in human lives, ignoring it or pretending there’s only one “true faith” guarantees animosity and discord.
The biggest problem is overcoming the distortion and outright lies told about other people’s beliefs. That’s not done on the academic level or even in scholarly books produced by one religion that deals with another. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia does a very good job of explaining Judaism.
On the other hand, not much of that filters back to the general public. There are several reasons for that.
One is ego. Everyone wants to believe their religion is correction. As a result, their ego is tied up in the faith. If someone else demonstrates a flaw in the faith, a believer becomes protective. He is not shielding the religion; he is putting up a wall to protect himself.
Another is power. Religions essentially are claiming to have the ear of the divine. This harkens back to the beginning of religion, which started as magic. When incantations didn’t work well, they were replaced with prayer and ritual in an effort to gain divine favor. If one religion succeeds at something while another fails – such as the biblical account when the prophet Elijah (left) gets a water-soaked altar to burn when the priests of Baal fail – then the religion is “proving” it has God’s support.
That’s also why people spend so much time fixating on omens. They are the “secret” signs from God that hint at correctness. The Puritans saw financial success, for example, as “proof” of God’s backing. Bankruptcy, of course, meant the person must have sinned.
To enhance the odds of staying in God’s good graces, religious figures resort to a variety of strategies, including:
Condemning anyone who leaves the faith.
Demanding financial support to make sure there’s a financial tie.
Imagining reward and punishment in an imaginary afterlife for members to scare congregants into staying.
Distorting and lying.
The last choice is by far the most successful. Christians got off to a good start on that one. In the New Testament, John the Baptist is described as saying he was not the real messiah; Jesus was. Why? John the Baptist (right) was a real person who garnered multiple followers and was worshiped after his death. The early Church had to counter his influence and did so by putting denigrating words in his mouth.
The same thing happened to the apostles, who were described as ignorant and basically blind to Jesus. Why? The early Church shunned the original followers of Jesus, who had their own organization, and followed the teachings of Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle who admitted to disagreements with the original “pillars” of the faith.
Every religion happily distorts the faith of rivals to its own benefit. Christians see Jews as money oriented, ignoring the reality that Church leaders for centuries banned Jews from virtually any form of employment except as moneylenders. Naturally, Jews focused on money. What choice did they have? The list of such distortions could be virtually endless.
That’s one reason I teach classes in religious history. People need to understand that all religions are seeking a path to the divine. People everywhere regardless of faith share the same attributes: puzzled by our presence, by the meaning of life, seeking for answers via a variety of avenues. The pathways bear different names, were developed through their own histories and offer their own rituals and conventions.
However, in all the important ways, none is “better;” none is worse. They are all the same.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.