In my life so far, I’ve seen many sides of religious life. I’ve had the opportunity to live as a Muslim, a Christian, and now walk in the shoes of a non-religious person. I’ve seen the beauty of life when engaged in a healthy lifestyle within each, as well as a dark side – religious (and non-religious) intolerance. Seeing first-hand a few years ago, my own brother face the severing of his relationship with the girl he loved dearly merely because of denominational differences (within Islam). Reading countless articles about ongoing violence between religions, and now, being non-religious, having witnessed how religious differences can crumble families, I think now is a good time for us all to develop greater compassion and help bridge the divide holding us away from each other.
Growing up, I’ve always been around religiously centered people. As a Muslim kid, I remember taking part in countless religious observances, prayers, and annual celebrations. After understanding the belief , and for a considerable amount of time, really believing in it with all sincerity – believing that a supreme being, an entity wholly more powerful, smarter, and everywhere, named Allah, was worth praising. However, I later began having some doubts in the reality of this (Muslim) god. When an aunt told me that in order to find a camera I’d lost, I had to pray a very specifically worded prayer “10 times and you’ll be certain to get it back”… mind you, I didn’t; I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of praying to a deity who made me atom-by-atom, yet required me to say (in a seemingly mechanical way) certain words in a prescribed method in order that my pleas be granted.
Later in life, I ended up having the privilege of sincerely entering the fold of Christianity. I found far more beauty and meaning, a profound sense of freedom and worth this faith that was not (as perceived in my earlier life) available in the Muslim religion. I found acceptance, love, and most importantly, a more openly communicative body of believers. I engaged in it fully, even giving my life over to the pursuit of active full-time ministry by completing a four-year degree in Christian ministry.
For quite a while now I’ve been having an ongoing friendship with a guy who lives in the Southern United States – he’s come out to his family as bisexual, and not only that, but he recently discarded religion altogether and is now what could readily be termed as the non-religious equivalent of a fundamentalist Atheist. Initially, his ‘coming out’ was tolerated by his family; according to what he told me, they told him what they strongly believed religiously regarding his sexual orientation, yet his family life continued relatively well. However, when he later abandoned his Christian faith, his family decided to kick him out of their home. From their side, it’s likely the single-largest problem that’s ever hit their family. They feel broken-hearted in a way that can’t easily be described – that the son they raised and love dearly has abandoned what they greatly value and have strong, life-long convictions about. From his side, being a 17-year old, he sees his family’s reaction as a personal attack and has more adamantly stuck to his new Atheist community to find comfort. He feels deeply hurt, broken, betrayed and depressed that they have judged him, and that their reaction didn’t reflect what he perceived they believe in. I think, on both sides, what was lost in the heat of their quick reactions was the ability to develop any sense of true compassion.
We could bridge the gap between those who are faith-centered, and those who aren’t. I believe that stereotyping, miseducation, and victimization are some causes for this great divide. The stereotyping of individuals makes us see an individual as caricature of a person – we lose sight that they have beautiful nuanced and storied lives, have felt pleasure and pain, have interests, goals, desires. They have families and close friends – people they love dearly. Not being actively aware of our tendencies to stereotype people can cause us to look at an individual not as a human, but as a faceless part of corporation – we can easily, and even unintentionally dehumanize them. Along with that we may easily be unintentionally miseducated – by casually allowing people to tell us second-hand information about others’ motivations. Out of that we may lack the desire to know personally how they arrived at where they are now. I see an equivalent in how my Atheist friend lacks an understanding that his parents love him passionately and believe he would live a better life believing in their religion, just as much as they lack understanding of how he desires to show love through the freedom he finds in Atheism. Now, victimization of self seems to be the single most pervasive undercurrent in religion that very few people address or even recognize. I’ve seen this in absolutely equal measure when I was Muslim, then Christian, and even now as non-religious. In the Muslim religion, while fringe fundamentalism was on the rise (years before 2001), Muslims claimed that their religion was being attacked, that there was a global agenda by all other religions where a handful of extremists were being used to discredit the majority in their religion. I found myself being emboldened by this because the Muslim faith claims it would be persecuted precisely because it is “the real faith”. In the same way, Christians have used the concept of persecution to bolster their legitimacy and mission. Additionally, even the non-religious crowd is beginning to use the card of victimization to become more vocal, crass, and reactionary than ever before.
I think, ultimately, these gap-creating factors, when we aren’t acutely aware of them, manage to divide us the most. We tend to become defensive, subtly distrustful, and shore ourselves up with people who already believe as we do – we form tribes, and we willfully disconnect and oftentimes, even unintentionally and unconsciously, disengage from those who aren’t like us out of fear that they will corrupt our side of the gap. But genuine friendship, compassion, and love can actually help to bridge this divide. Genuine friendship means really seeing the person on the other side of the gap as an equal – not a mission, not a person to be fixed, or altered, or bettered, but rather a person whose life contrasts yours. I think for quite a long time I’ve wanted friends who were just like me, who had all the same interests as me, but now that I can look back a little, I’ve found the longest lasting friendships are the ones where we have different opinions – ones where, for example, we both like music, but have different tastes in music genres; or we love movies, but have entirely different favourite directors.Without interest in friendship, constructing a bridge to traverse the religious divide will not go too far, and won’t last too long. This works in direct conjunction with compassion. Understanding the person for who they are, in their own shoes, rather than who they are from your shoes. Pity is not compassion.
I remember a few years back when the movie Avatar came out, I was so fascinated by the one line between the two main characters Sully and Neytiri when he finally gets it and says, “I see you”. It really struck a cord with me. They are looking directly into each others eyes and they totally connect and see through to the souls of each other – they totally and completely “get” each other, they dwell in each others’ hearts and can gather their motivations, they share an unspoken strength and they communicate their love for each other. The kicker was that they both knew whatever they had in that moment, it crossed their physical boundaries – the character Sully knew he was in failing health, a paralyzed cripple, and a human, merely using the alien body he controlled. Neytiri was an alien creature to him that he could never really connect with – they didn’t know what would happen at all, but they crossed their physical gap and understood each other.
Building a bridge to really “get” someone is a costly, risky thing. We can never be sure it’s being built right, or that it’ll last – maybe one day you’ll cross the bridge you’ve built and meet them on their side, maybe they’ll meet you on yours… but it could just be that the real goal isn’t to cross these bridges at all. Maybe the very fact of having a bridge is the real goal – and when they are found to be built well, they can actually become the dwelling place of a loving friendship, and that may just be okay.