Getting beyond the problem of ‘other’

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”   (psst.  Unless the others don’t observe the ‘right’ religion – in which case the Golden Rule doesn’t really apply.)

That’s my basic problem with religions.   By their very existence they create an ‘other’ that is perceived as undeserving, or lost.   Let me just say up front that I also believe most religions – at least, the ones I am familiar with – to have good in them.    I have friends who are born again Christians, others who are Orthodox Jews, a few who are Muslims, a couple of Buddhists,  some athiests and pagans and they are all truly good people, generous of spirit and caring.    So if they have all those things in common, why must they separate themselves at all?

Most religions speak about love and acceptance – at least to a point.   Christianity for example preaches ‘love thy neighbor’ & ‘turn the other cheek’ but then says that homosexuals are damned, and ultimately anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? – well, they might be nice people here on earth, but they are going to Hell.

But isn’t it good for people to have a set of beliefs in which they can take comfort?  Which helps them deal with death and gives them hope?    Well, yes, except somehow humans have a hard time taking that comfort without denying it to others.    Maybe not all the time, but under the right conditions, absolutely.   A good example is Yugoslavia, where Muslim Croats and Christian Serbs had lived side by side for years as friends and neighbors.   Then Milosovic came along and his ‘charisma’ combined with a certain set of conditions (both economic and political) and suddenly neighbor turned upon neighbor.    They were no longer friends but enemies, primarily because of their religion.

In the Middle East, centuries of conflict involving Christians, Jews and Muslims continues with no end in sight.   The Passover story may indeed be a metaphor, though I think you’d be hard pressed to sell that idea to fundamentalists who believe every word in the Bible was given by divine revelation and is therefore literally true.   But even if it is a metaphor, it is a metaphor in which God releases horrendous torture upon an entire nation of people, many of whom had nothing to do with the enslavement of the Israelites, simply because of their nationality and beliefs.   Slavery is bad but so is revenge.   Both are born of hate and can only perpetuate hate.    Why then must a metaphor about gaining freedom include the very seeds of hate?

It is wonderful to get together and celebrate culture, family and freedom from oppression.   How much better would it be if we could get past religion entirely and then celebrate that kind of progress?   To be able to see all people as one, without the asterisk that religion puts on any evaluation of a person or a nation.   We could even celebrate the good parts of our religious past – many songs and writings that are religious in nature are beautiful.  “Amazing Grace” is one of my favorites.  If we could just let go of the part that thinks one religion is better than another, we could celebrate the beauty in all of them, and rejoice that we no longer allow them to divide us.

This is a difficult subject to cover because you either get into arguments of dogma, which are futile, or you argue with people who say they truly do not judge people badly who are of a different religion than their own.   But then why do you need a religion at all, if that is the case?

Elie Wiesel, of all people, made this point unwittingly when I was in college  and he came to our campus to speak.    I went to Earlham College.   Earlham is a Quaker school, and therefore there are no fraternities or sororities, no prom king and queen, and no titles.   Professors and students alike are all known by their given name.   Quakers do not believe in putting one person above another because of popularity or rank.  (As dogma goes, the Quakers have a pretty good one.)   Word that Elie Wiesel was speaking on our small campus got around, and people came from all over to hear him.   At one point he took questions, and a young man stood up, said he was from the University of Cincinnati and was hoping Mr. Wiesel could help him with a problem.   He belonged to a Jewish fraternity and a student who was not Jewish had asked to join.    Should they allow this non-Jewish student to join their Jewish fraternity?    To which Mr. Wiesel replied, “I’m not sure I understand.  Why do you need a fraternity?”

Yes, why?   I ask the same about religion.   Why?   If you believe that God made all things, why do you separate yourself from so many of them by virtue of a certain dogma?   Why do you need to create an ‘other’?  All people are God’s children, but you think he plays favorites?

So when people ask me how Joshua and I are ‘handling religion’ with Maya and Ben, I tell them that we teach both the Jewish and Christian traditions, but as tradition, not truth.    My kids each have a clear sense of right and wrong and strong ethics, neither of which they would credit to a religion.   They truly do not understand why one person would harm another because of their religious beliefs.   To them that would be as absurd as harming someone because they favored Aesop’s Fables over Grimm’s Fairy Tales.   They don’t need religion to know how to love and respect people or to feel empathy.   These are human traits and all humans are deserving of them.   There is no separation or ‘other’ needed.

The quote I posted last night from Marcus Aurelius gets to the crux of it, so I’ll let it be the last word:   “Live a good life.   If there are gods and they are just, they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.   If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them.  If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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2 Responses to Getting beyond the problem of ‘other’

  1. Cathy says:

    Great post! Now that my kids are teens, family and friends are often surprised at what great values they have and what geniune, loving hearts they have despite never having been brought up in a religious house. The secret? We treat them with respect and expect the people around them to treat them with respect also. They have never known anything but love. Therefore, they don’t know how to be any other way.