After twenty years of learning about religions and engaging with ethno-religious communities, I’m still often awed by how complicated religion is. It has a tremendous capacity to motivate us, sometimes to do great good (even at great sacrifice), and at other times, to do great harm.
The portrayal in the media and our public discourse, however, often seems less nuanced. The cost of this is it can lead to stereotyping or even just feeling distant from our neighbours and colleagues. Religion is so influential it’s worth the effort to try to get a fuller picture. Today, let’s explore religion’s public image and why it might lead us astray.
For Many, Religion is Off the Radar
Misconceptions often begin when we lack information. On religion, two factors loom large. First, far fewer of us are religious today, meaning we lack daily or weekly engagement with religious communities. Engagement provides knowledge and complexity. And second, we don’t teach religious literacy in the education system. In fact, our cultural norms often encourage us to avoid discussing religion. All of this fosters ripe territory for mistaken concepts to thrive.
Religion in the News? Uh-oh.
Some events, however, cannot be silenced. As a result, when religion does enter the public conversation, it is often through horrific news events we can’t ignore – wars, extremism, abuse, or highly charged political issues. “Religion” comes to be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America’s January 6 protest, or Canada’s residential schools. These events are real and deserve scrutiny. But if this is our only engagement with religion, the view we get is likely to become strictly negative.
When religion enters the public consciousness, it is typically from disturbing events. | Photo credit: Tyler Merbier, commons.wikimedia.org
Religion Not in the News
If religion is not part of our daily life and not in our schools but only what shows up in the news, what we miss is the ordinary – the way religious beliefs can comfort a person in great distress; how a religious congregation can rally to support someone in need; or the meaning many find in religous rituals that mark lifecycle events and solemn occasions. People in pain and struggle often find resilience and resources in their religious commitments, while others find practices of gratitude that foster a sense of feeling fortunate. Much of this is hard to measure, but other aspects can be measured and tell a compelling story.
The Religious Give More
In 2010, Statistics Canada released data that showed people who attend religious services at least weekly volunteer and donate more (considerably more) than those who don’t. Weekly attenders were much more likely to volunteer (65% to 44%) and donate three times more money ($994 per year versus $308 per year on average). In fairness, some of the donation gap is because attenders were donating to religious charities others might not value or support but the weekly attenders even donated more annually to non-religious charities ($306 to $247). And religious donations don’t just support churches of mosques – they run soup kitchens, support global poverty programs, and more. The American story is similar with those actively engaged in religion, donating more and volunteering more.
Being Religious Seems to Help Your Personal Well-Being (and Maybe Societal Health)
The Pew Forum compiled data from 25 countries that showed the religiously active are generally happier and more civically engaged than those who are religiously inactive (i.e. people who espouse a religion but don’t attend) or those who are unaffiliated with any religion. Importantly, the key here is actually attending a community. A belief on its own does not seem to do much. A Canadian study found similar results, with the actively religious being happier and more civically involved.
“It’s Fine…But Keep it Out of Politics”
You often hear versions of the above. I understand why: religious nationalism right now is a surging force in many countries, and just last summer, I wrote about how Pentecostalism has developed political outlooks in recent decades that seem worrisome. There are reasons for concerns.
It’s just that it’s not the whole story. Arguably the twentieth century’s two most compelling figures were Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Both leaders were deeply motivated by their religious convictions. And those convictions changed the world. In the United States, the Black Church has been possibly the African-American community’s most important institution over the centuries in dealing with oppression, in organizing, and in fighting for their rights.
I don’t mean to be pollyannish. The Ku Klux Klan, after all, burnt crosses on people’s lawns. Religious groups have often upheld patriarchy, and there are myriad sexual abuse examples that come to light regularly. But this is what’s hard: religion is vast and complex…and sometimes we all want a clear answer.
Gandhi’s political stance and his moral compass drew on his understanding of the Hindu teaching of ahimsa or nonviolence. | Photo Credit: Canva.com
The Single Story
The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a wonderful TED Talk titled The Danger of a Single Story. I encourage you to listen to her stories that show how we seem primed to make quick judgments that reduce individuals or groups of people to single narratives. These people are like this. It’s understandable – our brains are busy, and the world is vast. But as her account shows, this can lead us astray.
Her examples return us to where we began this topic – namely, that we are most prone to grab a single story when we don’t know much about a person, a group, or even a continent (Africa in her example). The less we know, the more our minds will latch on to what they see – the four horrific news stories in the past year – without seeing the daily acts of charity and support that happen below our radar.
Religion is too vast for a single story. You will find saints and villains, moral practices, tribalism, communal support, and sometimes harmful traditions. It’s worth our time to understand its complexity so we avoid stereotyping communities and miss out on opportunities to connect and learn from one another.