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01 December 2008 @ 11:25 pm
Religious Tolerance - Introduction  
When I was 6, my paternal grandma (among other things: a Presbyterian Sunday school teacher) moved to Kansas from Michigan, and taught my brother and I our very first bedtime prayers. "Now I lay me down to sleep, pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I wake before the light, God shall see me through the night. God bless (insert list of people you want to bless here, especially including family members, guinea pigs, the family dog, mean school mates and hungry children in Africa - I think my record was 10 minutes, which she encouraged me to do - to open my circle as much as I could - and that tendency has stuck with me to do this day and is why this post is public. Thank you, Grandma :> )."

When I was 8, she died, and my dad decided to follow through on her dying wish that we start attending church. Mom, Dad, Chris and I piled in the Crown Victoria every Sunday and listened to the excellent sermons of Reverend Ramsey at the local Presbyterian Church. Eventually, my mom, who is very anti-organized religion, rebelled, and Chris and I were given the choice to keep going with Dad or to stay home with Mom. I didn't get much father-daughter time, and I really loved Reverend Ramsey's sermons, so I opted to keep going. My brother decided to stay home with my mom, which lead to things like coming home from church and finding that they'd bought our now nearly 20-year-old Quaker parakeet, Toby, at the flea market.

When I was 14, while my youth group peers were going through the Confirmation process, I studied towards my baptism. Both of my parents have anabaptist leanings - they believe that a baptism must be consciously understood and accepted and that infant baptism is meaningless - so Chris and I were not baptized at birth.

After my baptism, I got very serious about reading the Bible beginning to end, and started asking harder and harder questions and was eventually asked to not return to Sunday school (one of many reasons why Contact strikes a chord with me), as I was becoming disruptive in class. When I hit college, I loved and respected many people who followed the teachings of Jesus, but I wasn't so sure about this God being described in Joshua and nobody was answering my questions. Reverend Ramsey would've had some wisdom for me, I think, but their family had moved to Texas and now we had a different reverend who was a lot more easily flustered and also had several arguments with my mom when she tried to override my mom's authority in my life. My logical solution was a decline in my faith; I became agnostic.

When I was 20, I was friends with a man who took the initiate vows of the Benedictine brotherhood of the Catholic church. I was talking with him online one day about religion, and somehow the subject of the LDS Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormons) came up. He said several things about Mormons that seemed to be both hostile and untrue, but I actually was too ignorant about the LDS Church to argue with him. My solution? This makes a lot of people smile when I tell them... I called up the LDS Church and requested that they send me some missionaries to explain their religion to me.

I met with two totally awesome female missionaries in the Kansas winter at the apartment I was sharing with a bemused and very tolerant Matt, and we drank hot chocolate together and studied from the Book of Mormon once a week for a month or two. I was very clear with them that my purpose was education and not conversion, but I take on a very When In Rome approach to everything I do, so I attended a few Sunday services at the college ward ... Anyway, my experience with the missionaries and the LDS Church deserves its own post. The point is, I was right in thinking my Catholic friend was unjustified in his accusations and prejudices, and I'd developed a basic vocabulary with which I could now go back and argue with him and (hopefully) open his heart somewhat.

This whole experience pointed out to me, though, how incredibly ignorant I was of the world's religions. So off I went to Borders to find a good encyclopedia of the world's religions. After sitting on the floor of Borders for over two hours, reading through my options, I was disgusted. In one book, the author suggested that Catholics worship idols because of their religious icons. In another, the entry for Witchcraft described it as an extinct religion, no longer practiced. What was repeatedly missing from these books was the voice of the believer.

So, I started a website on religious tolerance - one that would seek out believers to describe their own religions. At its peek, I was communicating with Catholics, Episcopals, Baptists (one of whom resigned because Atheism and Satanism were also being represented on the website), Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Pagans of their many feathers (Dianic Wiccans being the most eyebrow-raising and fascinating to me of this lot), Lutherans, a Demonolatry priestess, a card-carrying member of the Church of Satan (an atheist philosophy created by Anton LaVey), a Discordian (wins for most entertaining conversations), a Theistic Satanist, a Kaballah scholar, a Unitarian-Universalist, Buddhists from several schools, a Shinto, a Sikh, a Greek Orthodox (Doc Oz, who gave me an awesome and hilarious pamphlet about What To Expect if you've never been to an Orthodox Church before what with the prostrating and the kissing icons...) a Scientific Pantheist, a Secular Humanist, a Jain, a Quaker, a Mennonite, a Zoroastrian ... gah, I'm probably forgetting some people, though I can still actually name many of these people 11 years later.

Eventually, the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance's parallel efforts exceeded mine and I passed on what unique work I'd done to them and let go of the project.

It was, however, an extraordinary personal experience.

These are the most important things I learned during that time:

1. All prejudices I had that made me feel fear were consistently proven wrong by speaking with a believer of that religion.

2. Always ask someone what they believe. I first learned this from NeoPagans and later discovered it to be true of all believers! Even if they're in a reasonably orthodox religion, there is still personal flexibility and interpretation.

2b. If someone is born into their religion, tread carefully with #2, and if possible, see if you can find a convert. Some religions have rites of passage (CCD, Bar/t Mitzvah, missionary work, etc.) that require their believers to learn more about the faith, but unfortunately, many don't and a lot of people born into their religion actually aren't sure what they believe. All of the most stressful moments I experienced on this project were because of the frustration and anger people feel when they are asked to describe the tenets of their faith, and cannot.

3. If someone likes you and is sound in their faith, many people will whole-heartedly believe you will eventually join them in their faith. Don't take offense at this. It is an expression of love.

4. No matter how hard I try to be unbiased, I think that four out of the Jains' Five Principles of Living are utterly cool and awe-inspiring. I also retain exactly one extremely strong bias against a particular religion I won't name here. There were just too many anecdotes I heard firsthand of religious leaders condoning husbands beating their wives when those wives sought help for themselves and their children. For all I know, if I sat with enough domestic abuse survivors, the list would grow to include more modern religions. I just happened to meet two from this particular group, one of whom only had partial control of her face after reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation. I just can't respect that. The only thing I'm willing to do, begrudgingly, is stand up for their first amendment rights. Part of being tolerant is tolerating people who are intolerant, or things that are, ultimately, intolerable to us - it is the difficult nature of tolerance (and my most unpopular assertion about tolerance!), and here I've failed somewhat. But this gets into my personal moral barometer and that, too, is another post.

5. SE NON VERO, E BEN TROVATO. If it is not true, it is well-intended.

This last has been the guiding principle of my long-standing crusade to tolerate and respect all of the diverse beliefs of my friends, families, of strangers, and people I really really really don't like. One of the first problems I encountered in studying this many belief systems at once was how many of them said, "This is the [only] truth." This lovely Latin quote, which I found in a book I read about the Freemasons, gave me an extraordinary tool for addressing the pluralism of world religion, and I find that most believers can hear that about other religions in a positive, kind way.
 
 
 
(Deleted comment)
Kburgunder on December 2nd, 2008 06:12 pm (UTC)
Thank you for commenting. I clicked Post last night and felt incredibly naked about doing this, and just having someone respond - even if you were to have responded negatively, within some random limits I'm sure I'll be defining as I pursue this subject ;> - it let me breathe out this morning.
Jenjenblue on December 2nd, 2008 01:31 pm (UTC)
This all made me smile. Danke for sharing.
Kburgunder on December 2nd, 2008 06:13 pm (UTC)
Oh, how cool is that.

Are there any religions you've studied or been involved with? I'd love to hear about it if you care to share.
indie: daisyindiefic on December 2nd, 2008 02:08 pm (UTC)
What an incredibly inspiring dialog. I personally find so much faith (in humanity) from this part of your life. The fact that you went out of your way to do this is just amazing.
Varnvarn_ix on December 2nd, 2008 02:40 pm (UTC)
Interesting, I also reserved the right to negotiate on one of the principles.
VAXhackervaxhacker on December 2nd, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC)

Thank you for posting this. It was really enjoyable to read, and one of those things that gives me a lot of hope for humanity in these days of intolerance and hatred between factions.

I think my record was 10 minutes, which she encouraged me to do - to open my circle as much as I could
Good for her! She sounds like a great grandma.

I was friends with a man who took the initiate vows of the Benedictine brotherhood of the Catholic church.
That would be interesting. I've wondered what that kind of life must be like. It's so different from anything I know (and doubt it would be for me, personally).

LDS Church (Church of Latter-Day Saints, Mormons)
Please forgive me for nit-picking, but it's “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints.” At least to the LDS, that's the most important part of the name :)

I called up the LDS Church and requested that they send me some missionaries to explain their religion to me.
To do that, with any group, speaks volumes about your character. Most people, in my experience, tend more to just believe whatever they hear, and sadly the more sensationalistic or lurid things are the more memorable. Going to the source, whether the religious group itself or those who practice it themselves, has always seemed to me to be more reliable. I haven't yet met anyone I had reason to believe was outright lying to me about what they believed, and nearly everyone was very happy to be given the chance to just explain themselves in their own words. Of course, in a lot of cases you'll conclude that you don't agree with those beliefs or practices, but at least doing so on the basis of accurate information is so much better than hearsay from hostile sources.

[Continued due to LJ posting limits...]

VAXhackervaxhacker on December 2nd, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)

[Continued...]

So, I started a website on religious tolerance....
I'm impressed! And such a diverse group. Awesome.

All prejudices I had that made me feel fear were consistently proven wrong by speaking with a believer of that religion.
Completely believable. And that doens't just work for religions, of course. It's a powerful thing to move from seeing people from being "those other people" to fellow human beings.

If someone is born into their religion, tread carefully with #2, and if possible, see if you can find a convert. Some religions have rites of passage (CCD, Bar/t Mitzvah, missionary work, etc.) that require their believers to learn more about the faith, but unfortunately, many don't and a lot of people born into their religion actually aren't sure what they believe. All of the most stressful moments I experienced on this project were because of the frustration and anger people feel when they are asked to describe the tenets of their faith, and cannot.
Yes yes yes. This is a big problem, but I've noticed the division between following along with the group in relative ignorance vs. having made a well-informed choice to be a more personal matter regardless of conversion status. It's important IMHO for anyone to have a conversion experience, begun with a lot of earnest searching for information and asking of tough questions, even if born into a religion. And there are also some converts who have more of a "this feels good, I won't think too much about it and do what these people are doing" attitude, too. It makes for some tension within a religious community between the more fundamentalist-minded folks and the more liberally-thinking-reasoning sort. But that's another blog post topic, too.

If someone likes you and is sound in their faith, many people will whole-heartedly believe you will eventually join them in their faith. Don't take offense at this. It is an expression of love.
This is usually true, and sadly very hard to understand if it's coming at you from someone. Just remember that if the other person finds a deeply meaningful and fulfilling experience in their life from their faith, they'd want you to enjoy that as well. It's not some sort of orchestrated plot to "get you" (well, usually, anyway :) On the other hand, they need to understand that you can seek to understand their faith as a way to love and understand them better, without accepting their religion as your own, and that's not a rejection of them or their own faith in their life.

I also retain exactly one extremely strong bias against a particular religion I won't name here.... husbands beating their wives when those wives sought help for themselves and their children....
Holy crap. Sadly, abuse happens everywhere, but it's hard for me to understand a religion condoning it. Although, of course, people with abusive tendencies can appear in all walks of life, too...

If it is not true, it is well-intended.
I've had to recite that mantra a few times, even recently, when trying to discuss attitudes and actions of people. It's easy to assume that the other guy is just being mean-spirited or intolerant, when what you're really dealing with is someone intending the best for everyone, but looking at life through such a different lens of interpretation than you are.

Kburgunder on December 2nd, 2008 06:26 pm (UTC)
Completely believable. And that doens't just work for religions, of course. It's a powerful thing to move from seeing people from being "those other people" to fellow human beings.

Oh, man, I forgot to include the most important lesson of all that this whole experience taught me.

I've found that the single greatest trouble-maker of our time is the concept of "us" and "them".

As long as we find a way, even over a simple love of LOLcats, to forge a "we" between diverse people, there is hope for humanity.
Kburgunder on December 2nd, 2008 06:25 pm (UTC)
Please forgive me for nit-picking, but it's “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints.” At least to the LDS, that's the most important part of the name :)

Ooo, I knew I should've listened to that little voice at the back of my head when I included the parenthesis that said I wasn't forming the official title properly. Tsk, tsk. Will correct. Thank you!

nearly everyone was very happy to be given the chance to just explain themselves in their own words

This reminds me of a story the LDS missionaries told me about encountering a Muslim married couple. I can't find a reference for it before I run out the door this morning (I thought it was one of the five pillars, but it's not), but it is part of being Muslim to sit with people who ask and explain Islam to them. So the Muslim couple invited the missionaries in, and they sat and exchanged stories about their beliefs and learned a lot about each other over the course of several weeks, and developed a mutual respect for the faith of the other by the time they'd completed all that could be comfortably discussed. I couldn't possibly have loved those girls more than I did when they told me this story.
Kburgunder on December 2nd, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC)
p.s. Is the abbreviation "LDS" or "LDS Church" OK?
VAXhackervaxhacker on December 2nd, 2008 07:28 pm (UTC)
Sure. And I was just being anal anyway, like I am with grammar and such, no worries :) The full name of the church is a mouthful to try to say all the time anyway. It's not hard to understand why a word like "Mormon", even though it was originally imposed as an unfriendly epithet by others, ended up being accepted and eventually became an unoffensive nickname. It's a whole lot easier to say. (And the word "Christian" has a rather similar history too, starting out as an unfriendly term which was eventually adopted by the community. Come to think of it, that happens a fair bit, doesn't it?)

Now try explaining to someone why you have a religious text called "D&C" (again, obviously an abbreviation for an unwieldly long name, but now bearing an unfortunate resemblance to a common surgical procedure).
VAXhackervaxhacker on December 2nd, 2008 07:43 pm (UTC)
It's people like those young women who are going to go home from their missions having grown a lot through that experience. I suppose a fair number would have just passed on by, or only tried to deliver their message without listening to others as well. But it sounds like they gained some valuable insight into other people's beliefs and came to understand the world a little more, and have a little less fear of people who aren't just like them. In a lot of ways, sending people in their late teens/early twenties out on missions is not the most effective way to get a message out to people (although it does work, obviously). Really, it's a great opportunity for the missionaries themselves to go out into the world and really grow up and gain a lot more knowledge and understanding about their own faith as well as other faiths and cultures. Whether they take that opportunity or not is, of course, up to them.
Kburgunder on December 2nd, 2008 07:49 pm (UTC)
The missions are a brilliant rite of passage.

I love it when you post about yours.
junoimeldajunoimelda on December 2nd, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
So Neat!! Thank you for posting this story. Great to read about another of the many interests of the very interesting Burgunder.
marc17marc17 on December 2nd, 2008 08:32 pm (UTC)
Nice post.
Kriskfrye on December 2nd, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC)
I knew that you've been actively interested in getting information on all types of religions, but I didn't know that you actually created a website. I love you!
Sarah: Owl2sarmonster on December 2nd, 2008 10:53 pm (UTC)
I love you right now.

Holy crap.

I'm curious about ...-was gonna asay all religions, but, well, everything. Though I reserve the right to think that some people are silly.
Watching resonable people (like my scientist/epicopal deacon father) sidestep the ridiculous aspects that inevitably sneak into any 'out of the box' religion makes my teeth hurt.

You are a better woman than I.