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The Importance of Comparative Religion

I have long argued, based on my own experiences, that the study of other religions is one of the best ways to lose your faith in the religion you were raised with. Brian Jay Stanley makes a similar point in this essay, part of a larger piece, in Sun Magazine.

Before college I was a skeptic and rationalist toward every religion except my own, Christianity. Like most of humanity, I had believed the religion I’d heard first, and on its authority dismissed all the religions I’d heard second. Seeing Muslims wearing turbans or Hindus bindis, I thought the oddity of their customs proved the error of their beliefs. Studying all faiths in one class in college, however, I saw my religion from the outside and realized that the rites of my Sundays — warbling choirs and smocked babies dipped in silver fonts and bread as the body of Christ — were as curious as what I had disparaged as myths. In class discussions I sometimes unwittingly revealed assumptions that I thought were axioms, and would read surprise in the eyes of a Hare Krishna or Bahai. My notion of normal was an accident of my birth and upbringing. Whomever I saw as strange saw me as strange. I had raised a doubtful brow at Buddhists bowing to golden statues, even as I prayed weekly to a crucified first-century Jew, not realizing that either all religions are bizarre or none is.

One of the big things that shocked me into reevaluating my belief in Christianity was learning about the Moabite stone (also called the Mesha Steele), a text from the Moabites that told their side of the story of the wars between them and the Israelites (the same wars discussed in the Bible in the third chapter of 2 Kings. At the same time that the Israelites were explaining their success or failure in war as the result of their Yahweh’s pleasure or anger with them, the Moabites were doing the same thing with their god, Chemosh. Suddenly I recognized that these claims were identical, so why believe the Israelite version and not the Moabite version? It was an important question in moving me toward skepticism.

Comments

  1. pough says

    It’s not a big deal but in case anyone else feels like doing a search Mesha Stele will find different (and better) results than Mesha Steele.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    I sometimes unwittingly revealed assumptions that I thought were axioms, and would read surprise in the eyes of a Hare Krishna or Bahai.

    This is one of the problems with presuppositionalism. Even if you start with something as an axiom, it needs to be open to reconsideration if evidence uncovered puts it into question.

  3. says

    I didn’t take a comparative religion course, but having some general knowledge about other religions certainly helped me on the road to atheism. I once had a classmate who was raised in a polytheistic religion (I think his family was from India, so probably Hinduism). Just knowing he existed as a friendly guy who was helpful in group assignments really crushed any chance of the “Hell for non-believers” meme getting anywhere with me.

  4. Ben P says

    The professor I took World Religions from in college was both an ordained methodist minister and a practicing zen buddhist who had worked with Houston Smith.

    His perspective was both similar and different. We definitely got the “you need to realize how bizarre your own religion might look to outsiders” perspective, but there’s also the very serious point that you can’t really study another religion in earnest if you continue to focus on “hey, they wear silly hats.” If you wish to study another religion seriously, you have to approach it on its own terms.

  5. says

    Human being is a product of his culture, language and faith. There is a positive co-relation between language and culture. If Muslims become notoriously monolingual Brits than there is a likely hood that they will adopt English culture. They will still be the underdogs of the British society. In the past they were victim of Paki-bashing in all walks of life by the British society because majority of them were not well versed in local accents. Now Muslim youths born and educated by British education system are being victim of terrorism by British establishment. Thousands of them are being searched by Police in streets and many of them are behind the bar without any trial. A lot of Muslim youths are imprisoned by British courts on the slightest excuses. The number of Muslim prisoners is on the increase in British jails. When they come out of jail they will become real criminals and terrorists while British foreign minister has said that Muslims are law abiding and committed citizens.

    Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. A bilingual teacher has the ability to teach bilingually and explain complex concepts to children who have limited understanding of English. Learning in their first language ‘raises their self-esteem, self-respect and strengthens their identities in western culture. It will help them to develop their cultural, linguistic and Islamic Identy, otherwise, they will be lost in Western Jungle. According to verities of studies, a child will suffer if he/she finds himself cut off from his/her cultural and linguistic roots. Arabic is our religious language and each and every Muslim must be well versed in Quranic Arabic. This the main reason why I believe that Pakistani parents must find marriage partners from Pakistan for their children. Pakistani children and youths suffer more than others because they find themselves cut off from the literature and poetry. Majority of them are not even well versed in Standard English. This is the main reason why majority of Pakistani children leave schools without good qualification. English is their economic language while Urdu is their social and emotional and Arabic is their religious language.

    There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school. Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools turned out balanced citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism. Muslim schools give young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam’s teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling role in society. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Children like discipline, structure and boundaries.

    Bilingual Muslim children have been in state schools for the last 50 years. They have been suffering from Paki-bashing. They have been unable to develop their confidence and self-esteem due to racism and bullying. This is one of the main reason why they have been unable to achieve good grades. They have been suffering from Identity Crises. They do not know where they belong. Muslim school with bilingual Muslim teachers is only the answer.
    Iftikhar Ahmad
    London School of Islamics Trust
    http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

  6. d cwilson says

    My experience was similar to Bronze Dog’s. I realized at a relatively young age that everyone on Earth falls into someone else’s definition of Who is Going to Hell. After that, the idea that all-powerful, benevolent being would create a world of billions and then flush the vast majority of them away in favor of a select few who managed to guess which religion was (or were born into) the One True Faith looked pretty ridiculous.

  7. says

    they wear silly hats

    WTF is it with religions and silly hats? You can practically use hats as a universal algorithm for detecting authoritarians – military or religious. The bigger and sillier the hat, the more likely they are to bayonet you (or get someone else in a silly hat to do it). And speaking of silly hats, there’s some wonderful footage of one of the big hat crowd who has a flip-up crucifix on top of his helmet, getting into a popemobile and one of his minions reverently flips down the crucifix. It’s on failblog somewhere. :)

    Silly hats was actually the thing that triggered one guy I know’s deconversion. He realized that all the religions have big silly hats and someone made some crack about you can tell how important the guy is by the size of his hat, and that was what started the cascade of skeptical thinking.

  8. Michael Heath says

    It’d be interesting to taking a comparative religion class at a fundie/evangelical “university”. Not so much an unapologetically anti-intellectual place like Oral Roberts U. or Bob Jones U., but instead one that actually attempts to teach critical thinking skills such as the misnamed Liberty U. or Patrick Henry College.

  9. eric says

    One of the big things that shocked me into reevaluating my belief in Christianity was learning about the Moabite stone…At the same time that the Israelites were explaining their success or failure in war as the result of their Yahweh’s pleasure or anger with them…

    My young alarm bells started ringing when teachers started mentioning Christian God and success in war in the same sentence. The details of ‘against whom,’ or ‘they worshipped a God too’ didn’t really matter.

    The connection between a god of love and orders to kill enemies seemed so discontinuous to me, that for years I blindly assumed it must not be an “official” church position. I thought maybe Jesus’ pacifism was like Santa Claus’ non-existence; something they didn’t explain until you were mature enough to accept it. Yeah, I may have understood earlier, but I wasn’t going to be the guy who told the other little kids that Santa Claus wasn’t real. So I kept my mouth shut when churchy folks talked positively about war.

    I thought that way pretty much until I got to college, was introduced to Augustine, and realized that all those adults who I thought were simply playing at a convenient fiction were serious. That the christian church and most of its people really believed that Jesus supports (some types of) war, and had been officially saying that since the 300s AD. That was one of the straws for me: whether Jesus-the-person was god or not, at that point I concluded that the organization was obviously corrupt and not worth listening to.

  10. andrewjohnston says

    This reminds me of a quirk which you see among evangelicals. During Christine O’Donnell’s “I am not a witch” period, a lot of people were wondering why she spent all those years claiming to have practiced witchcraft (among other things) when it obviously wasn’t true. Turns out that it’s not uncommon for evangelical Christians to falsely claim to have experience with other religions.

    It makes sense if you think about it. The confidence that evangelicals have in the truth of their beliefs is tempered by the fact that many of them grew up in a very insular culture. Evangelicals realize this, so they create colorful background for themselves. Often, this will involve dabbling in a religion that is outside the norm – anything from “alternative” religions (such as Wicca or New Age practices) to relatively mainstream faiths (such as Buddhism or Mormonism). By doing this, they demonstrate that they have seen what the world has to offer and rejected those other practices as false. In most cases, though, these claims are untrue or, more precisely, true only in the loosest sense (i.e. someone claiming to have practiced Hinduism after buying a copy of the Bhagavad Gita). But it establishes their credibility as authorities on religion, even if only within the community.

  11. says

    Evangelicals realize this, so they create colorful background for themselves.

    I’ve encountered that a fair bit as well. Several times I’ve heard the “I was a boy that went wrnog until I discovered jebus!” routine. “I was a satanist, I drank and did drugs, but…” I usually start asking them details about the satanic rituals and then start messing with them: “Ah, bell book and blood… did you ever do the modus ponens or modus tollens ritual?” Do as thou will’t shall be the whole of the law, what what?

  12. Brownian says

    Hear, hear.

    My first degree is in anthropology.

    Anthropology is to take the excellent points Brian Jay Stanley makes and apply them to all aspects of human culture: clothing, marriage, family, kinship, food, ritual, language, material culture, jobs, work, games, play, jokes, etc.

  13. says

    Three cheers for the Moabite Stone! I teach a Humanities survey to community college students–it includes a segment on Ancient Israel, and I ALWAYS share the Moabite Stone with them.

    It proves, among other things, that the Moabites shared with the Hebrews the unpleasant custom of ḥērem: “dedicating” captives to their god–in other words killing them.

  14. immunologist says

    I may be an exception, but I thought my own religion looked odd, nonsensical, long before I knew much about any others. I came to that conclusion in about the second grade (I was in in Hebrew school). The idea that the creator of the universe demanded constant and extravagant praise seemed to me incredible (to say nothing of the implied self-esteem issues), so I didn’t credit it. Dismissing the bible stories as myths took no effort at all. This may have been easier for me than for some in other religious traditions, and for several reasons. First, the tradition of questioning everything, even the Torah, was part of my culture (reform Judiasm). It is not only accepted, it is expected, and I’m happy to say that everything was open to question. Second, it has since become clear that there is a strong secular Judiasm movement, in which cultural identity, and not doctrinaire (or indeed any) faith, is the basis for living a Jewish life. While I am totally nonobsevant (and have always been, once childhood was behind me), and do not self-identify as a member of any religion, I will always consider myself fortunate that these two conditions (OK to question, secular Judiasm movement) made it possible, even in the 1960s, for a kid in Hebrew school to have no faith, and never be called out because of it.

  15. d cwilson says

    Evangelicals realize this, so they create colorful background for themselves. Often, this will involve dabbling in a religion that is outside the norm – anything from “alternative” religions (such as Wicca or New Age practices) to relatively mainstream faiths (such as Buddhism or Mormonism).

    Or like Kirk Cameron, they claim they were once an atheist because it was “cool”.

  16. NitricAcid says

    “There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school. ”

    You’re an idiot. There is no room in a multicultural country for a school that will only allow one culture.

  17. Skip White says

    I first learned about other religions outside Christianity when I was in confirmation class around age 13 or 14. There was one day where we learned some basics of other major religions, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism if I recall. I found myself sitting there thinking “wow, these other religions sound much more interesting than what I’m learning!” I didn’t even make it to the end of confirmation before deciding that belief in a God or gods made no rational sense. I only finished the thing to make my mother happy at the time.

    I waited another year or two before I told her I didn’t believe in God, and didn’t want to go to church anymore. She was completely accepting of that, and still is. She ended up marrying a semi-retired preacher, who is also accepting of my non-belief.

  18. Sastra says

    sc_3etc. #5 wrote:

    There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school. Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools turned out balanced citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism.

    Is there a place for a fair and objective comparative religion course in your Muslim school — one which treats Islam as impartially as it treats other religions? A balanced education?

    I thought not.

    If you post anything else on this thread (and I doubt very much that you will), please address the topic.

    I suspect that teaching children that their entire identity hinges on being and remaining a Muslim is unlikely to weed out a tendency towards “extremism.”

  19. Michael Heath says

    andrewjohnston writes:

    Turns out that it’s not uncommon for evangelical Christians to falsely claim to have experience with other religions.

    I’ve observed more Christians claiming they were once atheists than claiming to be believers in another belief system. I’ve never done the research to determine the rate both occur.

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