Early in first grade, one of the nuns advised our class not to associate with children who attended other schools and believed other religions. My teacher, a younger nun, looked uncomfortable and quickly changed the topic. Later that day, I asked my mother about playing with friends who worshiped at other churches.
“Playing with other friends won’t change your beliefs,” my mother said. She was beautiful, devout and confident that her children knew right from wrong at an early age.
I have often wondered if those beliefs could have survived the Catholic Church’s child-abuse scandal, but she died long before the worst reports emerged.
Religions that insist that their adherents cannot read or explore other beliefs, testing their values, are insecure. Religions that try to thrive by insulting other religions are insecure.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) has purchased ads for the New York subway system that read:
“In any war between civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority originally rejected the ads, asking for modifications, but a U.S. District Court intervened.
The Interfaith Center of New York rejected the ads. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York released a statement:
“While agreeing with U.S. District Court’s ruling that the placement of the AFDI ad in the New York Subway system is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution, nonetheless, we find the ad’s content to be decidedly prejudiced and dangerously inflammatory. The broad mainstream of the New York Jewish community does not equate its unwavering support for Israel with intolerance for Muslims or their faith. We will continue our work with leaders of the Muslim and other faith and ethnic communities within the demographic diversity of New York to strengthen the communal collective and improve the quality of translife for all.”
Intolerance, an ugly quest for power and control, relying on fear to motivate – the certainty of some in proving to another that his or her frame of meaning has no value – these all cheapen spirituality. Clamoring is increasingly loud and insistent, overwhelming the power of example, in a shrinking world that cannot escape globalization.
Religious leaders bemoan a loss of faith, driving some to desperate measures. The AFDI Web site claims that it’s “Fighting for Faith,” and most of us prefer faith fighting for peace. Ruthless, mean competition for adherents and power, insults and violence, give reason to Americans to distance themselves from religion and explore spirituality alone or among a diverse and comfortable group of friends.
Susan Froetschel is the author of Fear of Beauty, a novel set in Afghanistan, about a woman’s struggle to learn to read with the help of the Koran.