So, let’s talk about religion. No really, let’s have an honest, difficult, crucial, courageous, fierce conversation about the most fundamental element of our worldviews. Religion, for many, represents the biggest barrier to true inclusion and the most acceptable form of exclusion. Traditionally, when it comes to religion, we believe what we believe; there is no room for compromise; no basis for acceptance; no path to appreciation of other beliefs. It can be the most challenging dimension of diversity any person faces.
Yet, something is happening among scholars of nearly every great world religion. An examination is going on that seeks to discover more of what we have in common and less of what separates us. Recently there was a full page ad in many national newspapers (NYT, USA Today, etc.) encouraging Catholics to wake up and leave the church. A similar ad urged Mormons to abandon their ties to the church.
I was introduced to Irshad Manji at a diversity conference in Atlanta. She was one of the keynote speakers. She also introduced and signed her first book, The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s call for Reform in Her Faith. I bought a copy and proceeded to read it cover-to-cover. This was the second major apologetic on religion that I had experienced during that time. I had just been made aware of Bishop (Episcopal) John Spong’s book entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. Finally, I have read most of the work by Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun who introduced me to the concept of the Axial Age (a period between 800 and 200 BCE when many world religions were founded as humans began to rethink the role of God or gods).
World Religions at a Crossroads
Here are the facts. The Christian church in the U.S. is in trouble. In recent years there has been a silent but steady exodus away from the strict dogma and doctrine that make the church the center of authority for Christian believers. This silent exodus is taking place even though the official church does not seem to know it or maybe have chosen not to acknowledge it. When people “quit” and institution, they do it one of two ways. One, they quit and leave. Two, they quit and stay. It should not escape the attention of any mainline U.S. Christian leaders that the rate of church going in Europe (the source for many of our traditions) has sunk to below 20%. What makes us think that cannot happen here? Christianity (statistically) remains the largest religion in the world. But, we all know that having your name on the role does not always translate into practice.
More and more Jews identify as ethnically and culturally Jewish without the need to practice Judaism. Until recently Islam was the world’s fastest growing religion. That distinction now belongs to Atheism. There is a shift occurring and thinking people have noticed.
The cause of this shift can be traced to one central fact – the explosion of knowledge and the ready access to that knowledge everywhere in the world. It is more difficult for a religious leader to demonize “those people” over there, when ten of those people live on my block or twenty of them have “friended” me on FaceBook. Proximity challenges mystery. The constant animus between people of different religious traditions is being tested like never before. Traditional dogma, doctrine, mythology, and sense on exclusivity is becoming more difficult to promote.
We define unconscious bias as implicit attitudes; actions or judgments that are controlled by automatic (old) brain function and are outside a person’s conscious awareness. The now famous Harvard IAT (Implicit Association Test) has done much to illustrate the fact that we often do not know what we think. In the field of D&I, we work hard to help people overcome the impact of unconscious bias.
Conscious bias on the other hand seems to be left in place without much attention or discussion. At a recent café-style diversity roundtable discussion, I asked if there are any subjects that still are not discussed freely in the workplace. The two common responses were politics and religion. That means that many are still free to practice conscious bias in these two areas. After all,” that which you can talk about, you can control. That which you cannot talk about controls you.” This is a troublesome dilemma. Like it or not, our religious affiliation (whether theistic or atheistic) informs most of our world view. Our ability to respect the world view of others is threatened when we hold fast to a dogmatic religious attitude.
The Shift Begins
We are on the verge of a great new opportunity to promote inclusion worldwide. And, diversity practitioners at every level need to prepare themselves to lead this new conversation. This is where our collective skills in facilitating difficult conversations can really pay off.
Karen Armstrong suggested in a recent interview that we are at a pivotal moment in history; a new Axial Age. She said,
“All over the world, people are struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for a very different type of society. They are finding that the old forms of faith no longer work for them; they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to find new ways of being religious.”
When we bother to explore the core beliefs of other religious traditions, we are often surprised to discover that we have more in common than we knew. Humans have, from the very beginning of our existence as a species, created religions to give us the sense that life really does have some ultimate meaning, value, and sacredness. Religion has traditionally been a tribal system. We adopt and practice the religion of our clan. It is only when we get exposed to other religious beliefs that we can begin to examine our own objectively.
Unlike the previous Axial Age, this new transformation of religion may be less about national or tribal traditions and more about the collective consciousness of the people of the world. We may still practice different rituals and hold to different views of the divine. What is likely to happen is that we will all know and respect the basis of everyone’s beliefs. We will not claim exclusive rights based on our beliefs. We will practice inclusion.
Merging Thought – Avoiding Conflict
“You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” Maimonides
This simple aphorism may be the catalyst that creates a world that works for all (a major goal of the D&I movement). There has always been philosophical merging across religious groups. What we are about to experience in this new age may simply codify this truth and make it more accessible to all people.
According to Karen Armstrong, religion is highly pragmatic, despite its other-worldliness. Religion can make a difference in how we relate to the world. It is a tool to help us make sense of things. And, as soon as it ceases to be effective, it will be changed. At this moment in history, I believe that we will see a new spiritual revolution. Right now, we’ve got war; we’ve got the prospect of terrorism; the economy is suffering. And what we know from history is that suffering, fear, violence, and despair are the prime conditions for a religious and cultural renewal. These times are characterized by globalization. We live in one world, and we have to learn to live with differences, at home and abroad. Unfortunately, as our technological expertise has advanced, our spiritual wisdom hasn’t kept up.
What Then Must We Do?
As we get ourselves ready for a sea change in religious thought and a lessening of religious animosity, there are some steps we can take. They include the following:
Talk about it. We can no longer afford to make discussions of religion off-limits. To create healthy work environments, we need to get to know our fellow workers more fully. That includes understanding their worldview and how their religion informs it.
Use cultural curiosity respectfully. Genuine curiosity about religious culture is always welcomed. Use it to become more aware and sensitive to that which you otherwise would not know.
Don’t proselytize. Discussions of religion must be approached with mutual respect for all faith traditions. No one needs to be saved from their error in belief. There should be no attempt to proselytize. The objective must be to understand.
Allow everyone to express their practices freely. I am amazed at the PC behavior when people of different faiths come together. The attempt to generalize the interfaith conversation is at best inauthentic, and at worst ludicrous. We should all expect and embrace the fact that Christians will invoke the name of the Christ; Muslims will address Allah; Jews will mention God and Hindus will likely address an appropriate avatar (Krishna, et al). Our efforts at cultural knowledge should make this a comfortable exchange.
Get over it. We are all raised to respect the faith of our fathers. These times demand that we also respect the faith of others. You don’t have to give up anything to embrace the possibility that others are not wrong, just different.
About the Author
James O. Rodgers CMC, MBA is a diversity coach, spiritual teacher and author. Rodgers works to create a harmonious, racism-free society. He strives to know the world through spiritualism, but in the tradition of Christianity. His book, Epiphany: Finding Truth Without Losing Faith , is the story of his journey which led to spiritual awakening. Despite being interested in all of the world’s religious traditions, Rodgers has chosen to remain steadfast to his traditional faith, Christianity, and church.