Six Tips for Thinking about Religion:
Congratulations on coming to the United States for a year of study. I will be your academic advisor.
I appreciate the letter you sent me asking about the role of religion in American life. They say that eighty five percent of Americans believe in God and at least a third of them go to church. There is a group at Harvard called the Pluralism Project which can help you get your bearings. See www.pluralism.org. If you want to learn about religion in America, I strongly encourage you to explore this website.
Once you arrive, if you happen to have an American roommate, your roommate may ask you about your religion. He or she may think that you are Buddhist or Taoist or Christian. If you are not any of these, you might just say that you are "spiritually interested but not religiously affiliated." But eventually you will find yourself needing to understand religion a little more. In what follows I offer you six tips for thinking about religion. You might share them with your roommate if he or she is interested. Your roommate may or may not agree with the tips, but it will give you something to talk about.
1. I must begin with some unfamiliar language. As you arrive in America please consider the difference between exclusive religious affiliation and multiple religious affiliation and trans-religious spirituality. I borrow this language from “process theologian” in Claremont, California: Monica Coleman. See <www.monicaacoleman.com>. She is a gifted African-American theologian and one of American's rising theological lights.
Most Christians you meet will embody exclusive religious affliliation. If they are Christian, for example, they will belong to one religious tradition: Christianity. Many of them will be very nice people, and their exclusive belonging provides them with resources to be kind and open-hearted. But they may not be very familiar with multiple religious affiliation or transreligious spirituality.
You may also meet some Americans who embody multiple religious affiliation. For example, there is a famous theologian at a well-known seminary -- Paul Knitter -- who is both Buddhist and Christian. And many Asian Christians are influenced by Taoism and Confucianism. Imagine a river that is nourished by different tributaries; that's how these people are. They, too, can be very nice people. Some of them speak of this multiple belonging as spiritual hybridity. This kind of hybridity is becoming increasingly common among Christians and Jews who learn from Asian religious traditions.
You will also meet some people -- perhaps many people -- who will say “I am spiritual but not religious.” They mean that they have a spiritual side to their lives, but that they do not feel affiliated with any particular religion. They are open to wisdom from different religious traditions. A lot of them like to take world religion classes. They, too, can be very nice people. I suspect that you will meet a lot of people like this at our university.
You will also meet some anti-religious people, and I will say a word about them below. Some of them will not care about religion at all, while others will be very much opposed to religion as they understand it.
2. As you talk about religion with your American friends, you will need to recognize that different Americans mean different things by religion. Don't expect them to be consistent; words have different meanings in different contexts. Here are two meanings:
On the one hand, the word religion can name a religious tradition such as Christianity or Buddhism or Judaism or Islam. Scholars sometimes speak of these as world religions, but the idea of world religions is a somewhat recent, western invention. In any case, in China the word “religion” usually functions in this way. The Chinese government recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Most people in other parts of the world think of Protestantism and Catholicism as part of one religion: Christianity. So when you talk to Christians, they will find it odd to think of Protestantism and Catholicism as different religions. A recent survey undertaken by the Chinese government suggests that religious affiliation is on the rise in China, with roughly one-third of Chinese saying that they are “religious” in the sense of being influenced by one of these traditions.
Most Americans use religion in the sense above, but for some Americans the word names an activity of the heart and mind by which a person seeks wisdom for his or her daily life. Thus you may meet people who are religious in the second sense, but who do not belong to any of the religions in the first sense. If you ask them if they are religious they may say "Yes, but I do not belong to any particular religion." They also think of themseles as spiritual seekers. These people may also have faith in God, understood one way or another, even as they may not be religiously affiliated in any way.
Indeed, many Americans are religious in both of these senses. They belong to a religious tradition or traditions, but are also spiritual seekers. They belong to religious communities which, for them, are contexts for spiritual seeking. I myself attend a church where there are many spiritual seekers. We do not look at our tradition as supplying all the answers to big questions, although it provideds us with basic values. But we see our community as a context for seeking truth together, where people can ask questions and hold different opinions. We enjoy the freedom of healthy dialogue without any constraints.
3. Recognize that, for many Americans, there can be harmony between religion and science. They see religion and science as different but complementary ways of knowing. Like Yin and Yang. They will be surprised if you think of religion as superstitious. They may even this it is old-fashioned to think of religion as superstitious.
Some of these intellectuals may be intellectuals: writers, artists, philosophers, scientists. If they are influenced by postmodern ways of thinking, they may draw a distinction between modern western dichotomies between religion and science and more progressive, postmodern alliances between religion and science. For them modern western does not mean contemporary. Modern refers to ways of thinking that were alive in the West from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, and that were exported to different parts of the world. Postmodern refers to more advanced ways of thinking which see religion and science as complementary, not contradictory. Postmodern is contemporary.
4. You may also meet other Americans who are atheistic. They will agree with people in China who believe that religion is superstition and divisive. Sometimes they will be even more fervent than Chinese, because they are reacting to what they take to be an overemphasis on religion in American culture. If you come from China atheism will seem like a soft and innocent word: a way of saying you do not belong to any religion. For them it will be a hard and forceful word. You will meet evangelical Christians and also evangelical Atheists. You might want to be careful in the presence of both of them, if you happen not to be sure what you believe. They will want to convince you.
Still, of course, there is wisdom in atheism, and atheists may be right in their rejection of a higher power. At the very least they are helpful in reminding religious people of the abuses of religion itself. There is a movement among a small but perhaps growing number of Americans to champion atheism as a more viable way of thinking and living than theism. Often these Americans do not know very much about Asian religions; their primary targets are the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. An excellent writer who represents this kind of atheism is a man named Christopher Hitchens. His book god is not Great is well worth reading to understand the new atheism, and he is one of the most gifted essayists in the English-speaking world today.
5. Try not to think of religion in static terms. Recognize that the historical religions – Christianity and Buddhism and Judaism and Islam – are evolving over time. It is good to study their histories if you have time. But it is also important to recognize that what Christians believed in the Middle Ages may not be what they believe in the twenty-first century. For example, more than a few Christians today do not believe that Christianity is the only path to salvation or that Jesus was literally born of a virgin. And they do not see Christianity as primarily about getting to heaven. They see it as a way of life. Many Jews think this way, too. Be prepared to be surprised by the new ideas people embrace and by the diversity within religious traditions.
6. Recognize that there are different ways that people understand “God.” For many Americans, God is a Supreme Being. In this very website we have writers who speak of God as a Love Supreme and who believe that it is rationally justified to have faith in this love. But it is important for you to know that for some Americans “God” names the interconnectedness of all things or a feeling of peace inside the heart. They don’t think of God as a personal being with a will of his or her own, but a kind of energy. And for many people who are involved in this website, God also names a lure toward adventure: openness to the call to think freely and creatively. In short, the word "God" has many meanings. Beware of people who say that there is only one meaning of the word “God.” And be open to the possibility that people use other words to name the same reality. For example, it is possible that what Taoists mean by the Tao is similar to what some in the West mean by God.
I hope these six tips might help you adjust to your life in the United States. Don’t worry. If you never want to think about “religion” at all, that’s fine.
I do hope, though, that you will seek wisdom for your daily life, learning from whatever sources are available to you. If the religions are among those sources, feel free to learn from them without needing to belong to any of them. On the other hand, if you find yourself wanting to immerse yourself in a religion -- becoming a Christian or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Muslim -- that’s good, too. Be honest to the best of your lights. As Confucius made clear, the journey will last a lifetime.