Friday, March 12, 2010

Race, Sex, and Religion

In the wake of struggles within our community involving religious identity (e.g.) we are forced to examine why our capacity to talk about religion and religious diversity seems to lag behind our discussions of race, sex and gender on college campuses.  This is not to say, of course, that we have progressed perfectly on other aspects of the diversity conversation, nor that we aren't working successfully to promote thoughtful conversations about faith.  But I do think our capacity to publicly discuss faith, religion and spirituality in religiously diverse settings could be far better, and has yet to develop at the rate of other discussions of diversity.

Indeed, Dartmouth students frequently ask about this, and groups like the Interfaith Youth Core have made it their mission to "bring religion into the diversity conversation."

There are, of course, unique challenges and situations which we must acknowledge on this front -

First, religion is for many (though certainly not all) a category of identity which is not immediately visible.  We are able (and quite willing) in many cases to keep our sense of faith and religious self private when we're conversing in secular and public spaces.  This is neither good, nor bad.  But it allows us to largely ignore religious difference should we choose to.

Second, in terms of the history of this (and many) institutions, we've seen an explicit and intentional shift from a Christian to a secular institution.  As I've said before, I have high hopes for what "secular" could mean in terms of leveling the playing field for diverse religious and non-religious voices.  However, in practice, I think our "secular" identity leads to lack of willingness - or at least lack of practice - in discussing matters of belief and deep, personal conviction.

Third, I think those who have worked, especially in racial diversity, have done an admirable job of developing the sense that building support for specific racial and ethnic groups benefit the knowledge awareness and ultimately education of us all, regardless of our own racial or cultural identity.  I don't think anyone would argue a similar notion has developed amongst different religious groups.  We are perhaps too quick to turn to claims of exclusive truth, but they certainly exist.

Finally, is the sense that race and sex are accidents of our birth, while religion is a choice.  Or, as one commenter put it, racism and sexism are worse than religious discrimination because "you are attacking someone for something that's not their fault."  Indeed, I would hope that we are free to choose our religious paths, in ways we can't choose other forms of identity.

All that being said, I think we have significant opportunity to do better, and serious reason to do so.  I won't repeat myself on secularism, except to say that my perpetual hope is that a secular culture is one in which we're allowed and encouraged to dialogue about not only that which is measurable, but also about the various beliefs and convictions that shape and form us.

I don't doubt that we will struggle to discuss competing claims to ultimate truth.  But I do think we can enter into such conversations with a level of humility and desire for learning.  From childhood to old-age, the oldest religious sages to fresh-faced students, we are called - people of many religious contexts - to seek after a truth and ultimacy that we will never fully grasp.  And with this spirit, I would hope that conversing with people of other views and contexts would shape us and ground us better in our own traditions.  We must truly an sincerely ask ourselves if what it means to be the best Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Buddhist is to be surrounded by only like-minded members of our own faith.  Or, does it mean being grounded enough that we can meaningfully discuss things of significance with people who are different from us.

Finally, on the question of choice (or fault), I would simply say that while I would agree that religion is a choice, that doesn't mean it doesn't matter, or that we ought not learn how to respectfully and thoughtfully dialogue with others (religious and not).  Indeed, I would argue that we are all shaped by beliefs (about God or goodness, or human community, or education...) and that these beliefs are tremendously important to who we are.  In large part because we can choose them.  And when we don't bring them into conversation, we miss a tremendous opportunity to discover more about ourselves, more about others, and more about how we can bring our beliefs to bear on the troubles of the world.

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