Why It’s Important to Learn About Religion
The events of 9/11 showed us that religion and religious motivation are still a big part of a world that we sometimes see as increasingly secular. It is true that there was much more to these attacks than just religion, and that religion itself can not be reduced to the fanatical beliefs and actions of a few. Nevertheless, the years following these attacks saw a steep increase of enrollment to post-secondary programs in religious studies, as well as general public interest in the matter.
Religion is everywhere. The majority of people in this world classify themselves as belonging to one religion or another. It is one of the most pervasive of all human activities. Anybody who genuinely wants to understand other human beings cannot discount the importance of religion. It is equally important for religious and non-religious people both to have some kind of rudimentary understanding of other religions and of the nature of religion itself.
Religious people may know their own religion well, but they run the risk of trapping themselves in a selectively permeable bubble in which they see and hear only those things which agree with their firmly held beliefs. For example, some Christians argue that the Bible is the perfect and unchanging word of God without being aware of the fact that many different Christian groups use many different versions of the Bible. At the same time, there are Christians who are aware of this fact and are able to reconcile it with their beliefs because they do not close themselves of from the world. Another issue concerns religious people condemning other faith groups without knowing anything about that faith to begin with. This creates unnecessary tension that could possibly be resolved if we took the time to learn and listen before condemning others for believing differently from us.
It is also important for non-religious people to understand religion. Though they might think that it does not affect their own lives, the reality is that religion is everywhere. Religion often notoriously ties itself in with politics, which is ironically the number one place that non-religious people would insist it should stay out of. Just as religious people run the risk of making snap judgements about other religions or about atheists, atheists run the risk of making snap judgements about religious people. Negative stereotypes abound about the faithful as uneducated and illogical. Oftentimes no attempt is made to understand the real life, thoughts, and experiences of someone who chooses to be religious.
Finally, it is essential to learn about religion if you are simply interested in the rich and diverse cultures of our collective history. It is impossible to get a full view of a certain culture without taking into account the beliefs and cosmology of the people. Religion can affect how people dress, what they eat, where and how they live, as well as numerous other aspects of their lives. The wealth of knowledge and writing that comes down to us from ancient cultures is almost unintelligible without recognizing that it is most likely tied to the spiritual beliefs of those who wrote it.
Even though the number of people claiming adherence to various religions seems to be dropping somewhat, a significant “unchurched” segment of the population still professes to hold on to spiritual beliefs. Therefore, religious and/or spiritual beliefs play an important role in the private and public lives of almost ever member of humanity. Understanding religion also helps to understand those who claim to not believe anything at all. It can help us see why people are identifying as such, what factors drove them away from religion, and what role they play in the dialog surrounding religion. If we want a better world, people with wildly different views need the ability to open up lines of dialogue on one of the most prolific of human activities – religion.