Andrew Fiala

Fear and prejudice breed ignorance about religion

Education about religion leads to peace and justice. But religion education is not easy. Fear and prejudice get in the way. We are afraid to examine our own assumptions. And we are often ignorant about religion.

Stephen Prothero spoke about religious ignorance last month at Fresno’s Town Hall Lecture Series. Prothero is a religion scholar from Boston University who is the author of a widely used “religious literacy” test and a book explaining the need for education about religion.

We know very little about religion, including our own religions. Prothero explains, “Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life’s basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels, and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.”

Prothero inspires us to learn more about religion. This weekend, there is an opportunity to do so. Fresno’s annual Interfaith Scholar Weekend features a famous religion scholar speaking at a Sikh gurdwara in Selma on Friday night, a Jewish synagogue in Fresno on Saturday and the Unitarian Universalist Church in Clovis on Sunday.

Jim Grant, chair of the Interfaith Scholar Weekend committee, described the event as a chance to explore religious meaning by “joining with diverse others in diverse settings.” Grant said that there is something amazing about “being exposed to experiences that are foreign but which resonate with our spiritual yearnings.”

Grant suggested that we all have a common spiritual yearning. Human beings look for meaning and purpose. We value community, love, peace and justice. And we benefit from education.

Grant also is director of the Social Justice Ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno. He pointed out that interreligious dialogue and education about religion are dear to the heart of the Catholic tradition. He explained that Pope Francis began 2016 with a prayer that “sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of peace and justice.”

The Interfaith Scholar Weekend has existed since 1998. The weekend typically involves Jewish, Muslim or Christian scholarship and communities. This year is the first time Sikhism has been featured. Grant noted the growing importance of the Sikh religion in the Central Valley. He expressed thanks for the enthusiastic support of the local Sikh community.

This year’s invited scholar is Professor Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh from Colby College. Singh is the author of an important and accessible introduction to Sikhism. She explains that Sikh monotheism focuses on the oneness of God, which encompasses everything, including diverse religious traditions. She writes: “Everybody is welcome to perceive that One in their own way.” She explains that this has the potential to end conflicts over our interpretations of God.

This vision of oneness is inspiring, as is the pope’s idea that interreligious dialogue may produce peace and justice. When we listen to one another, we avoid violence and condemnation. When we open our minds to inquiry, we realize how little we know and how much there is to learn. Through listening and learning, we forge friendships that transcend our differences and discover all that we share in common.

But we often fail to engage in sincere dialogue. Perhaps we are afraid. Perhaps we are too busy. Perhaps we just don’t care. Or perhaps we have grown accustomed to a culture in which insults pass for arguments and ignorance is viewed as a virtue.

Whatever the reason, the result is disheartening. People understand very little about their own religious traditions. We know even less about other people’s beliefs. We are also often ignorant about the First Amendment and the importance of religious liberty in a pluralistic democracy.

The Sikh scriptures begin with the assertion of one God and one truth, which is beyond fear and hatred. The Catholic pope urges us to talk to one another about our religious differences in order to produce peace and justice. And here in Fresno, a growing interfaith community is actively engaging in the kind of inquiry that is needed to cure hate, prevent prejudice, overcome ignorance and build a better world.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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