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.

Education and Our Congregation

Sermon is copyright (c) 2022 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.

Reading: “For You O Democracy”

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the [life-long] love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you…!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

— Walt Whitman

Sermon: “Education and Our Congregation”

We Unitarian Universalists have our “seven principles,” a statement of values that our congregations agree to. These seven principles are not a creed, mind you; they’re a set of value statements. And one of those seven values statements talks about how we “affirm and promote” … “the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” I will make an even stronger statement than this. We do not just affirm and promote democratic process. I’m convinced our Unitarian Universalist congregations have an important role to play in maintaining a healthy democracy.

Yet in spite of my firm conviction that our Unitarian Universalist congregations help maintain a healthy democracy, I find it difficult to explain how we do this. The role we play in maintaining a healthy democracy is not simple and straightforward; it is subtle and complex. This morning, I would like to speak with you about one of the more important ways we help maintain a healthy democracy. And that is that we train our young people — our children in teens — in the democratic process. Our religious education programs support healthy democracy. It may not be part of the explicit curriculum we teach, but democratic process is central to our implicit curriculum; it is woven into everything our young people do in our congregation.

Our Unitarian Universalist religious education programs have four main goals. First, we aim have fun together and build community. Second, we want children to gain basic skills associated with liberal religion, such as public speaking, skills of cooperation, interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills, basic group singing, and so on. Third, we aim to teach basic religious literacy. Fourth, we want to prepare young people to become Unitarian Universalists, if they choose to do so when they’re old enough to decide on their own.

Now let me explain how each of these four educational goals helps teach young people how to participate in democracy.

The first of our educational goals is to have fun and build community. On the surface, this is an entirely pragmatic goal. Religious education is but one of a great many options open to children and teens. If our programs are going to compete with sports, robotics, or video games, our programs had better be fun. But on a deeper level, we need children and teens to feel that they are a part of a community before we can reach some of the other goals. For example, when we offer Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality education classes, young people need to feel relatively safe talking with one another when it comes time to talk about difficult issues and to think about personal goals.

This same principle applies to us adults. We can work more effectively together on committees if we first take the time to get to know one another. It’s easier to rely on one another for help during life’s adversities, if we’ve taken the time to get to know one another first. Then, too, when the inevitable conflict arise, it is easier to manage those conflict productively if we know one another first.

For both adults and young people, we know the basic techniques of building community and having fun together. Eating together is a great way to have fun and build community. Before starting a Sunday school class, or a committee meeting, we take time to check in with one another, each person sharing something about what’s going on in their personal lives. Working together on a common project is actually one of the most effective ways to build community.

This is true of society beyond our congregations, too. Out in California, I volunteered at a homeless shelter, and one of the other volunteers belonged to the local Christian evangelical church. We strongly disagreed with each other about things like abortion, homosexuality, and climate change, but our shared work at the homeless shelter meant we developed respect for each other. Once people have developed mutual respect through sharing work and fun, we are much less likely to demonize one another when we start debating polarizing political issues. Since demonizing others is destructive to democracy, then we can see how learning to build community helps strengthen democracy.

The second goal for our religious education programs is to build the skills associated with liberal religion. Partly, we want to give young people skills to work together towards common goals. We want them to be able to serve on committees when they get older, so we teach them how to compromise, how to look for common ground, how to disagree respectfully, and so on. We want them to be able to communicate their ideas clearly and without being nervous, so we help them speak in small groups such as classes — and a key feature of our Coming of Age programs for grade 8 through 10 is helping young people to speak with ease and comfort in front of the entire congregation. We teach them interpersonal skills, skills like listening well to others, searching for common goals, being empathetic, and so on. We teach them intrapersonal skills, skills like learning how to identify one’s own feelings, learning where the core of one’s being is, moderating one’s own feelings.

Our democracy would be stronger if more people learned these skills. Our democracy needs people who can aim for the highest ideals but who also know when and how to compromise. Our democracy needs people who know how to speak well in public, not to manipulate others, but to encourage people to work together. Our democracy needs people who have enough self-awareness to know what they feel and to know how to listen to the feelings of others.

Another of the skills associated with liberal religion is group singing. Believe it or not, group singing can also serve to strengthen democracy. When we sing together, interesting physiological and psychological things happen to us. Group singing releases hormones that help moderate the amygdala. The amygdala, sometimes called the “lizard brain,” generates some of our most primitive and destructive emotions, so moderating the amygdala is a good thing. In addition, when we sing together, our breathing and our heart rates synchronize, and I believe this physiological response can help people of all ages learn empathy at a deep level.

So all these skills associated with liberal religion, even group singing, can help young people build a strong democracy.

On to the third educational goal: religious literacy. This is not an abstract academic educational goal. Several years ago, I attended a presentation by a doctoral candidate who was researching religious literacy. She found that good religious literacy programs in high school and middle school measurably reduce bullying. Her research supports what the American Academy of Religion says about religious il-literacy: “One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.” So says the American Academy of Religion in their religious literacy guidelines for grades K-12.

You have to understand that for most people, religion has little to do with intellectual assent to doctrines or philosophical positions. Instead, religion has more in common with the expressive arts, with political life, with culture more generally. The big divide is not between religion and science, but between science and the arts and humanities. Just as the arts and humanities teach us how to have a deeper understanding of other human beings, so too does religious literacy.

And thus we can conclude that learning religious literacy will help strengthen democracy.

Finally, a brief mention of our fourth educational goal: we want to prepare children and teens to become Unitarian Universalists if they choose to do so when they’re old enough to decide on their own. Even this educational goal has a bearing on educating for democracy. Large democracies are made up of smaller groups with different priorities and values. In a healthy democracy, people in these smaller groups have a firm understanding of who they are. They have a nuanced understanding of their core values, and they know that they can choose these values freely. This is exactly the kind of self-knowledge that’s involved in helping young people decide if they are Unitarian Universalists. So even this fourth goal of ours strengthens democracy, by helping young people grow in self-knowledge and self-awareness.

So we teach community building. We teach skills that happen to be useful in a democracy. We teach religious literacy, or cross-cultural understanding. We teach self-knowledge and self-awareness.

All these educational goals teach things that lead to a healthy democracy. A healthy democracy needs people who are know how to build community with one another. A healthy democracy needs people who have skills like empathy, listening well to others, public speaking, and many of the skills that are associated with doing liberal religion. A healthy democracy needs people with skills in cross-cultural understanding. A healthy democracy needs people with self-knowledge and self-awareness.

So you see, the ways in which we teach democratic process to our young people are sometimes subtle and often complex. Yet these are exactly the kinds of skills our young people need to learn. We live in a time when our democracy is in danger precisely because so many Americans lack the skills we teach. When we teach our children the things we teach, we are sending people out into the world who have the skills our country needs.