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In Good Faith

Firsthand experience of religion is still important in fostering understanding

By Ellen C. Bryson, Crimson Staff Writer

I never thought, as a 10-year-old, that when my mother took my sister and me to church every Sunday so we could “make an informed decision” about our own religious views when we were “old enough to choose,” I would someday be glad she did. At that age, church was simply an obstacle to playing video games and doing what I wanted to all weekend long, and I still remember the fights we had, come Sunday morning, about whether we really had to go.

Since then, however, I’ve learned to appreciate her insistence on giving us a religious education. Even now, I see the relevance of what I learned in church school in my studies and my attitude toward the world.

Believer or not, it’s impossible to deny the effect that religious ideas have had on the world, in fields ranging from art to literature to philosophy. Experiencing some of those ideas firsthand, whatever tradition they stem from, is certainly an asset for anyone who seeks to become an educated person. One might argue that taking a class on religion achieves the same effect as actually practicing that religion—and, certainly, studying religion from a comparative perspective and learning about the views of various groups is an extremely valuable pursuit. But there is also something to be said for experiencing religion oneself, not from the perspective of an outsider looking in, but as a member of a religious community.

For one thing, the practice of most religions is a communal experience. Whether it involves singing, chanting, or just reading religious literature with others, most people’s experience of religion involves not only solitary study but also spiritual experience in a group setting. Trying to understand a religion without experiencing its mode of worship is like reading about the rules of baseball in a book without ever attending a game and being a spectator yourself—you might get a basic idea of how the players move around the field, but you probably won’t understand why watching the game has so much appeal.

While it would be impractical to suggest that everyone should get a full experience of every religion in the world, to experience even one religion in depth by studying its teachings, attending meetings or services, and being a part of a religious community can provide insight into spiritual beliefs in a way that learning about them from the outside cannot.

Of course, many religions have long histories of intolerance toward other viewpoints, and there is always a danger that, in promoting the practice of religion, one is breeding intolerance. However, religion also has a great potential for fostering tolerance: When religious groups teach their members to be open to others’ beliefs, the experience of belonging to one religion can help people draw parallels to their own experiences and create understanding deepened by shared beliefs and experiences.

Indeed, such understanding is of critical importance today. Although much ink has been spilled about today’s “secular age,” religion remains extremely relevant. The large majority of people are still spiritual in some way—only four percent of Americans define themselves as atheist or agnostic. However, the number of people unaffiliated with any faith, especially among young Americans, is growing. This trend poses the danger of creating a new generation that will grow up outside of any sort of religious tradition altogether, making it harder for them to come to their own “informed decisions” about their own beliefs.

In order to give the next generation an opportunity to experience religion, parents should be encouraged to give their children a religious education—not to indoctrinate them and make them intolerant of others’ viewpoints, but rather to give them the experience of being part of a spiritual community as well as to teach them about religion through the actual practice of it. Only in that way will they be able to truly understand the beliefs of those around them.

Ellen C. Bryson ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Cabot House.

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