Different Religions Week: One small step for mankind?

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen has proclaimed July 11-18 Different Religions Week: 'During this week, I encourage all citizens of Tennessee to attend a religious service of a faith different than their own, so that religious tolerance may lie closer to our grasp.'

The Rice University student who proposed the idea explains why in this essay.

Of the myriad afflictions that kill humans, one is disturbingly prominent: religious intolerance. The grim tide of religiously motivated violence may never be entirely avoidable. But I have an idea that could make religion less deadly.

This summer, I want people to participate in a "Different Religions Week," in which we will attend a religious service or meeting of a tradition that is not our own. (Agnostics and atheists should feel free to pick any tradition.)

Having an entire week for this endeavor should catch the religious meetings of most major faiths. A whole week will also allow participants time to attend their own services.

For many,including me, stepping outside of one's own religious universe will be a bit disorienting. Having never attended a non-Christian service in my life, I fully expect to be baffled by the Muslim service I'll attend.

Why, then, am I not putting just myself through such an experience, but also asking others to join me?

Because I believe religious rigidity has been tearing humanity apart ever since the dawn of civilization.

History is littered with religiously motivated violence. The Crusades, the recent Bosnian conflict, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict come first to mind. On examining these atrocities, there is some temptation on the part of religious skeptics to blame organized religion. Some say that religious tenets - such as "love thy neighbor" (Christianity) - can disguise the violence inherent in mainstream religion.

I disagree, and instead blame religious violence on the more specific tendency of almost every faith to posit itself as superior. As the prominent religious scholar Peter Berger notes, this "marketing" of superiority is necessary for each creed's survival in a diverse world - but it often plants seeds of misunderstanding and intolerance with respect to the "other" religions.

Notions of religious superiority cannot be stopped in any kind of universal sense. But exposure can begin to alleviate misunderstanding and intolerance.

Growing up a Congregationalist (liberal Protestant), I was socialized to be wary of the more conservative and doctrinally based Catholic Church. Catholic views on Biblical interpretation, women, and abortion differed soundly from my family's, my creed's, and my own. So when my girlfriend, who was Catholic, started taking me to her mass a year and a half ago, I wasn't enthusiastic.

Now, with numerous masses under my belt, I still find myself disagreeing with almost every conservative belief the Roman Catholic Church proclaims. But I've progressed from ignorant to informed opposition. I'm now cognizant of the straightforward tenets and the conceptions of a highly personal deity that draw people to Catholicism, even if these are not for me.

If my nonviolent views were educated and my mind opened by sitting in a Catholic mass, might the same experience turn a violent extremist of any creed into a more tolerant, peaceful person?

Maybe, but probably not. First of all, I imagine most extremists won't participate in my experiment. And even if some do, many of them will go into the new service with such a negative attitude that they won't learn anything.

But the rest of us can broaden our perspectives and thus help to stop religious extremism from spreading. Bigotry, like any other "value," cannot survive without propagation.

Attending just one different service is, of course, not a full education - but it will be a symbol that some of humanity is ready, after thousands of years of misery, for openness, tolerance, and peace.

That's why I think that participation in Different Religions Week, July 11-18, can be a way to increase understanding and make the world a little safer.

Nathan Black, of Centennial, Colo., begins his sophomore year at Rice University in the fall.

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