Religion 101

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is from Introduction to World Religions, a college textbook on religion edited by Christopher Partridge.

“The word ‘religion’ likely tells us more about the user of the word than it does about the thing being classified. For instance, a Freudian psychologist will not conclude that religion functions to oppress the masses, since the Freudian theory precludes this Marxist conclusion. … As for those who adopt an essentialist approach, it is likely no coincidence that only those institutions with which one agrees are thought to be expressions of some authentic inner experience … whereas the traditions of others are criticized as being shallow and derivative.”

The second reading comes from the book The Ideology of Religious Studies by Timothy Fitzgerald.

“It is sometimes claimed that there is a common-sense use of the word ‘religion’ that refers loosely to belief in gods or the supernatural. No doubt this use will remain with us in common parlance, for example in connection with churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. This is really an extension of the traditional European usage: religion was traditionally used to mean something like faith in God or faith in Jesus Christs and in the church and priesthood who serve him. However, … various writers such as the deists at least since the eighteenth century have self-consciously attempted to transform the meaning of religion, reduce its specifically Christian elements, and extend it as a cross-cultural category. This has stretched the meaning of ‘God’ and related biblical Jewish and Christian notions … to include a vast range of notions about unseen powers. This has given rise to intractable problems…. For example, are ghosts, witches, emperors, and ancestors gods? How about film stars? What is the difference between a superhuman being and a superior person? Why should Benares, Mount Fuji, or the Vatican be considered sacred places, and not the White House, the Koshien Baseball Stadium in Osaka, or the Bastille?”

Sermon: “Religion 101”

Everyone in the United States seems to think they know all there is to be known about religion. Many people like to make very definite pronouncements about religion: “The United States is a Christian nation!” “Religion is the cause of most of the evil in the United States!” — and so on.

But the American Academy of Religion, a professional organization for scholars of religion, tells us that religious illiteracy is widespread in the United States today, adding: “There are several consequences that stem from this illiteracy, including the ways it fuels prejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.” They say this specifically about religious literacy in grades K-12. These scholars are telling us there are basic things that every high school graduate should know about religion, because to know these things will promote peaceful coexistence. They are telling us that these are things we need to know to participate effectively in democracy. I would add that a significant part of the intolerance and prejudice and antagonism we see in American politics today is a direct result of religious illiteracy. Thus, this become a topic of serious concern for those of us who would like to strengthen democracy, while reducing intolerance and prejudice and antagonism.

There are three basic elements to religious literacy. First, someone who religiously literate has basic knowledge about the core values and practices of at least some of the world’s major religious traditions. Second, someone who is religiously literate knows that within any given religion, we will find diverse practices and beliefs and ways of expressing that religious tradition. Third, someone who is religiously literate recognizes how religion plays a “profound role” in the world’s cultures, in politics, and in human society in general.

So the American Academy of Religion says a high school graduate can be considered religiously literate if you know something about the basics of half a dozen or so religious traditions, the practices and worldviews of those religious traditions today, and how those religious traditions have been shaped the wider human context in which they exist. Here at First Parish, religious literacy is one of our key educational goals for our children.

I believe we adults also need basic religious literacy. Because religious literacy promotes tolerance and peaceful coexistence, it is actually an important part of democracy.

For the purposes of maintaining our fragile democracy, we should know who our religious neighbors are, not just in our town, but in the surrounding region — the people we see at work, at the shopping mall, on the beach, and so on. Then we should know some basic facts about our religious neighbors, enough so that we can be good neighbors. And of course we need to understand that every religious tradition has a great deal of internal diversity, so our local religious neighbors may be different from whatever Wikipedia says about their broad religious tradition.

I’ve been researching the religious diversity here in southeastern Massachusetts, and it is simply amazing the diversity we can find near us. Within an hour’s drive of here, we have Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim religious communities. Then if you drive a little further, say two hours, there are Daoist, Humanist, Jain, Sikh, and Zoroastrian religious communities. This means we are very likely to run into people, co-workers or acquaintances, who belong to one or more of these religious traditions.

Mind you, these are just the religious groups that are willing to go public with their religion. There are other religious groups that prefer to stay out of the public eye, either because they like having a low profile, or because they are avoiding potential prejudice and discrimination. Thus there are also Santeria, Pagan, and Native or Indigenous religious groups within a forty-five minute drive of us. We may not see much evidence of them, but they’re here, too.

For the sake of democracy, we should know something about our religious neighbors, just as a matter of politeness and basic intercultural competence. Learning about these religious groups, however, can be a challenge for those of us who grew up in the United States. Those of us who grew up in the United States have been shaped by Protestant Christianity. Because of this, we have some assumptions about religion, assumptions that work well for Protestantism, but that don’t work so well for other religious groups. For example, most people in the United states assume that religion is mostly about belief — because Protestant Christians believe that religion is about belief. When we meet someone from another religion, one of the first questions we’re likely to ask them is, “What do you believe?” (I find myself asking this question, even though as a Unitarian Universalist I should know better, since we Unitarian Universalists don’t have any required beliefs.)

A less biased question would be to simply ask, “What is your religious (or spiritual) identity?” This is also a better question because there is diversity within every religious tradition. If you know someone who is Christian, and you ask them, “What do you believe?” they might reply, “I believe in God.” But while most Christians believe in God, there are major differences between different Christian groups. If we just look at the Christian groups within about an hour’s drive of us, we see evidence of this.

Take, for example, the difference between Roman Catholics on the one hand, and the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons. Roman Catholics typically have daily and weekly meetings where they have a ritual known as the eucharist, or holy communion; they have dedicated clergy who wear special clothing and who officiate at their rituals; they meet in buildings that typically feature sculpture and paintings with subjects taken from their religion. By contrast, Mormons typically meet weekly (but not daily) with a worship service that features communion; Mormons do not have paid clergy, they have volunteers who rotate clergy duties among them; local Mormon buildings are typically fairly simple inside. So you can see that Roman Catholics differ quite substantially from the Latter Day Saints. There are other significant differences, too: the Latter Day Saints have an additional book of scripture, called the book of Mormon, which they venerate along with the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures they share with Roman Catholics; nearly all Latter Day Saints wear special clothing; they have a prophet named Joseph Smith who is not recognized by other Christians; and so on. In fact, the Church of the Latter Day Saints are so different from Catholics and Protestants, that some Catholics in the United States insist that Mormons aren’t really Christians.

Catholics and Latter Day Saints are just two of hundreds of Christian groups n the United States. These two groups differ significantly from each other, but they also differ significantly from other Christians: from Ethiopian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses — to name just a few of the Christian groups with established groups not too far from Cohasset. How do they differ from these other groups? Ethiopian Orthodox churches divided from the rest of Christianity in the fifth century of the common era, so both their beliefs and practices differ significantly from both Catholics and Mormons. Russian Orthodox services last up to three hours, and you stand up the whole time. Pentecostal services may feature things like speaking in tongues or faith healing or other workings of the Holy Spirit. Seventh day Adventists say that Saturday is the correct sabbath day, not Sunday. Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the doctrine of the Trinity and the concept of hell, and are well-known for their door-to-door proselytizing. There is an astonish amount of diversity within Christianity.

There are other religious traditions that also contain a wide range of internal diversity. As one example, take the other great proselytizing religious tradition in our area, Buddhism. Like Christianity, Buddhism has adapted itself to a wide range of cultures. Like Christianity, Buddhism has divided into many different sub-groups. If we just look at the Buddhists near us, we find Insight Meditation groups and Zen practice groups and a Buddhist humanist group, all types of Buddhism which have adapted in various ways to Western culture. We also find Cantonese speaking Pure Land Buddhists in the Mahayana tradition in the Thousand Buddhas Temple that our religious education program visited a few weeks ago. We find both Thai and Vietnamese Therevada Buddhist temples near us; Therevada Buddhists interest me because they are not theists, they have almost no supernatural element in their tradition. We find Tibetan Buddhists nearby, and there’s even a Sokka Gokai group outside Boston; just as the Latter Day Saints differ greatly from other Christian groups, Sokka Gokai differs so much from traditional types of Buddhism that it is sometimes called a new religious movement. In short, there is a great diversity among Buddhist groups near us.

So you can see, we have all this amazing religious diversity right here in eastern Massachusetts. We have all these different religious traditions living in close proximity. This is why we need religious literacy. We need people to know that “religion” means more than just Protestant Christianity and Catholic Christianity. We need people to stop defining religion in terms of Protestant or Catholic Christianity. We need people to know just how diverse our religious landscape is.

The religious illiteracy in our country has led directly to the rise of Christian nationalism. A lack of religious literacy allows people to define “religion” any way they want, which means they can use “religion” to promote their own destructive ideology. Many of the people who promote Christian nationalism have no clue about the wild diversity within Christianity; in their lack of knowledge, they mistakenly believe that “Christian” means “white Protestant evangelical Christian,” and maybe includes anti-abortion Catholics. They also have little accurate knowledge about non-Christian traditions, so some of them attack Sikh men wearing turbans in the mistaken belief that Sikhs are Muslim. Religious illiteracy fosters the growth of intolerance and hatred.

To become religiously literate, on the other hand, means opening ourselves to learning about the religions and the cultures and the worldviews of neighbors who are different from us. In fact, to become religiously literate is to further develop your intercultural competence. In our increasingly multicultural democracy, we all need to work on our intercultural competence; we need to improve our skill at talking with people who have very different worldviews from ours; we need to learn how to understand each other better so we can work together towards common goals.

I suppose the Christian nationalists would way that we define religion to promote our own ideology. We define religion as being a part of the cultural identity of an individual or a group. This definition promotes our ideology of tolerance and mutual respect. This promotes our worldview in which we remain always open to and curious about the people around us.