As some of you may know, I have a degree in Religious Studies, not that it matters and not that it commands much respect. For better or worse, we live in a country in which people can essentially label themselves as Reverends or gurus or spiritual teachers without having any formal education in the discourse of religion, let alone a bachelor’s degree in the subject.
And to me, that is okay.
Regardless of your faith, religion is usually considered to be something one can only gain and appreciate through ritual and personal experience, something that one can only truly comprehend after extensive practice, study, and commitment. Sure, you can be born and immediately confirmed into a religion, without ever having the opportunity to make your own independent decision, but either way, considering we are all free-thinking, sentient beings, I believe religion is something you must grow to understand. And I’m speaking as someone who was raised a Methodist and baptized before I could talk- which, personally, I believe to be a meaningful ritualistic acknowledgment and gesture. If your faith instructs that you will be damned to eternal hell unless you participate in the ritual of baptism, among other things, it makes sense that we should baptize babies, at least as an insurance policy. And I’m not attempting to sound crass or flippant; it is a powerful ritual.
And I believe in the power of ritual– physically, psychologically, and physiologically.
Forgive my slight digression, but as a college student, I studied the physiological and sometimes neurological effects of both glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and kriya yoga. While I could never make claims about the religious validity of either practice (in my estimation, such would be a judgment of personal faith and not objective science), there is no question that both practices can induce an intense and powerful euphoria, experiences that some consider to be clarifying and deeply spiritual. The same type of experiences can be found in all of the world’s religions: Whirling dervishes, sweat lodges, tantra (not necessarily the dirty kind), Kabbalah, and even baptism.
I didn’t study religion to become a preacher or a reverend or even a guru, though I think “guru,” at least in the West, is the most hilariously intimidating title one can bestow upon oneself.
I studied it because I was and remain genuinely interested in the ways in which human beings collectively interpret their own existence and purpose. In many ways, to me, religion represents the most fascinating component of the human psyche: the hope for eternal life or reincarnation, a conduit for the absolution of sins, an attempt at explaining the very nature and fabric of our universe and our existence.
When I was a freshman in college, shortly after my father passed away, I decided to major in Religious Studies. One weekend, a professor of mine invited a group of students over to her home for an informal get-together, and I remember speaking with a senior named Moriah, who was also majoring in Religious Studies. She told me that the more you studied, the less you believed. It was an intimidating proposition. I hadn’t decided to study religion as a way of destroying my beliefs; I had hoped that in my studies, I would reaffirm them. I firmly rejected the notion that the more I learned, the less I would believe.
As a high school student, I taught Bible Study. I even had the chance to preach a couple of sermons behind the pulpit at First United Methodist Church in Alexandria. I never wanted to become a preacher, however. I majored in Religious Studies because, frankly, I thought it was the most important conversation that human beings had ever had. I wanted to know more.
With all due respect to my friend Moriah, I think she was wrong. The more you study religion, the more you recognize how little you actually know and how little you could possibly know about religion. For a serious scholar, an in-depth education in religion should not inspire atheism; to me, it should inspire awe. It shouldn’t lead to any definitive answer; it should result in even more questions– healthy, thought-provoking, insightful questions about the very purpose of human life.
To borrow from the religious lexicon, we are indeed blessed to live in a country that celebrates the freedom of religion as one of its central rights. We are fortunate that our country does not ban people from practicing and worshipping their faiths, whether by themselves or in a congregation of like-minded practitioners. This isn’t merely a right of all Americans; freedom of religion is absolutely critical to our identity as a country.
You may believe it is insensitive for a group of Muslim-Americans to plan a place of worship blocks away from Ground Zero in the highly-condensed neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, but with all due respect, in expressing and giving legitimacy to that opinion, you are implicitly suggesting that the Muslim faith, itself, is somehow culpable for the actions of a handful of radical terrorists who simply exploited their own faith as a way of justifying murder. David Koresh did the same thing. So did Jim Jones. Both men used Christianity to justify and legitimize the mass murder of Christians.
Frankly, when I hear people speak against the proposed mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan, it sounds like nothing more than egregious and self-righteous religious bigotry, masquerading under the banner of “sensitivity.” I’m sorry, but sensitivity towards whom? Many of the victims of 9/11 were practicing Muslims, and others, like former George W. Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson, whose wife was killed on 9/11, have defended this project.
Put simply, why do we have to be sensitive toward intolerance and ignorance about a religion that is shared by more than a billion people?
These are our neighbors, our colleagues, and in many cases, our families and friends. We don’t live in a monolithic culture; we are all fortunate to live in the United States of America.
To be sure, the decision to construct a mosque that isn’t even viewable but is close to Ground Zero is inherently controversial and provocative.
But despite the controversy, this is America. And in America, we have the Constitutional right to practice our own religion. We have a right to participate in fellowship and assembly. We have property rights in this great country.
And despite what some on the radical right may purport, we are not and have never been a theocracy. We are a democracy.
Thank God, right?