Do Religious Differences Matter?


I met a congenial Quaker at a party. I didn’t know anybody else at the party except the hosts, and I always feel a bit awkward at parties, so I was happy to have the friendly Quaker to talk to. I can’t remember how his being a Quaker came up. Once it did, though, we began comparing religious traditions. A Quaker service lasts about an hour, and for the most part nobody says anything unless moved by the spirit, which often doesn’t happen.  A Jewish service—at least at my synagogue—lasts about three hours, and nobody ever shuts up. There are a couple of silent prayers, but they don’t last very long. Quakers are Christians and pacifists. Jews are, well, Jews, and don’t have a pacifist tradition.

The rest of our conversation covered personal background, travel stories, and politics. Our backgrounds and political judgements are remarkably similar. We had both been leftists in our youth and remain left of centre as adults. Both of us at some point had travelled to the former Soviet Union and to China. We were both happy to see Stephen Harper gone, although we were disappointed that the NDP hadn’t done better. We were both appalled by Donald Trump and the entire Republican field of candidates in the American presidential race, although the Quaker has no American connection, while I’m an ex-pat American.

How can two people of such disparate religious traditions have so much in common and share so many political and social values?  Could it be because religious doctrine and religious differences are no longer taken seriously, at least by a solid majority of religious adherents? It may be news to Richard Dawkins, but there are many reasons for religious adherence that have nothing to do with truth claims or religious conviction. In our liberal, secular society, whether one attends a church, a synagogue, or a mosque has more to do with family background or liturgical taste than is does with worldview. And if for most, religion provides little certainty about anything, it does provide community.

Even so-called evangelical and fundamentalist Christians more or less share the same secular morality as the rest of us. To be sure, they may have a different moral perspective on abortion and gay marriage, but for the most part they aren’t adhering to a moral code derived from the Bible, which, among other things, sanctions slavery and genocide. Few have responded to Jesus’ call to give everything they own to the poor.  Most—there were some at the party— happily socialize with non-believers, and if they think we’re all going to Hell, they keep it to themselves.

These days one can encounter evangelicals who are left of centre, especially on the environment. Many Catholics and mainstream Protestants are politically progressive. Others embrace conservative ideologies that have little or nothing to do with Christian values. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school, has endorsed Donald Trump, hardly a committed Christian. Republican Paul Ryan, the devout Catholic Speaker of the House, is a self-described follower of Ayn Rand, a convinced atheist who promoted a philosophy based on the notion that selfishness is a virtue.

Of course there are fundamentalist Christians, devout Muslims, and ultra-Orthodox Jews whose worldviews and codes of morality are the antitheses of the secular, but they are small minorities who still take religion and religious differences very seriously. The rest of us can find so much common ground because we just don’t.

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