Why Do We Keep Missing Our Common Humanity in the Name of Religion?

Why make religious scapegoats of other people?

Have you ever thought about the fact that “religious” people all over the world — I mean everyday people, not elite thinkers or those who use religion to push their career and political agendas — care about the same things when they practice their religions?

I’ve been observing that in my formal studies and teaching as a historian of religion for more than 50 years. The religious thinkers, philosophers, theologians, and organizational leaders can give us all the great theories, scriptural quotations, logical cosmologies, and “important” doctrines all they want. And when these experts talk about various religions, that’s usually what they tell us theirs is.

Likewise when people refer to other religions, they like to speak in terms of those doctrines — while the majority of the people who visit their shrines, temples, mosques, and churches couldn’t care less.

How many people think that Zen (Ch’an) temples are places where all that contemplative Zen philosophy we read about in books is being taught and meditation is the main activity — when what people do in Zen temples, when they actually go to them, is the same worship you’d find in any temple in the same culture — with priests performing the same prayers, rituals, and funeral services any other temple priests would?

But, everyday people have different ultimate concerns than those who need to keep an “ism” with all its creeds, doctrines and orthodoxies going to preserve their livelihoods and self-being. To define someone’s religion as what is of ultimate concern to them — not in terms of “the Great Religions” talk — is not only to see where people are, but to actually see where people have something very important in common that’s deeper, I think, in the human condition than all the creeds in the world.

This is where I started with my students over the years. Think of someone’s religion in terms of what is of ultimate concern to them, not what you’re told by the educated elite it should be. Then you’ve learned about people in reality — I mean, real people in the real world.

Unpacking an atheist orthodoxy

When I spent a summer in Taiwan with support from National Taiwan Normal University, I was provided with a graduate student in education as a translator and guide. He was a thorough and staunch “atheist” by his own testimony.

So I asked him why he, an atheist, would apply during his summer break to accompany a religious studies professor. His response was that he wanted to understand why in the world anyone from the U.S. would spend time in his country studying how popular Chinese temples are reacting to modernity (the topic of my summer research there).

That summer was a positive experience, with me requesting to see temples this secular man would never have known otherwise existed in his home city and country.

As the summer came to a close and we were back in Taipei, he suggested that we should visit the local temple where his mom would take him regularly as a small child so she could do bai-bai (拜 拜), the common designation for standing in front of an image of a deity (or buddha), putting your hands together, introducing yourself, and proceeding with a request or with thanks for blessings already received.

As we rode the bus there, I asked him why he thought his mom went to the temple. “I don’t know,” he responded, as the young non-believer he was. “She was just very superstitious. That’s how she was brought up.”

“Maybe,” I remember saying, beginning from my definition of ultimate concerns, “she was praying that the little boy whose hand she was holding would grow up healthy, qualify through his baccalaureate exams for a good education through graduate school, and become a respected teacher.”

The rest of the bus ride was silent. I wasn’t trying to do anything other than to help him understand his mother. But as we explored the temple that he remembered from those childhood visits with his mother, I noticed that the young man bought incense and offerings and did his own bai-bai for the first time in his life.

We all want the same things

All over the world, no matter what their “ism” — or the activities they practice, or the institution they attend or identify with — people want the same things. And that’s what they pray about: My spouse is in the hospital and needs to get well, may my child do well in school, take care of my loved one on their long trip away, help me keep the job I have, guide my child to make a good marriage, grant my loved one peace in this time of stress, take away the suffering and pain of a friend, bless my family member with more happiness than sorrow, heal my mother after her accident, keep my child safe as they’re sent off to war, grant peace to those who’ve passed into the beyond, and on and on.

It’s a shame — isn’t it? — that instead of seeing our common humanity, religious leaders divide us in terms of their sectarian definitions of who’s outside their personal fold and who should be allowed in.

It’s a shame — isn’t it? — that so many clergy want to describe some group as an Other to be blamed, feared, and excluded — LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, people of different ethnic backgrounds, human beings of different skin colors, believers in other isms.

It’s a shame — isn’t it? — that people somehow obsessively use their religious dogmas to keep their prejudices going, to never examine what’s going on inside them that means they can’t let go of their prejudices and maybe see their own faith differently.

I’ve learned not to blame religion for any of this. People often seem to use their religion so as not to get down to the underlying issues they need to face for their own growth as full human beings.

Religion becomes the excuse that’s too easy to rely upon.

While people worldwide share such common concerns, though, it’s a shame — isn’t it? — that they can’t see human beings behind all their own bluster, politics, and orthodoxies.