Prof: Let’s talk about beliefs
Kate McCarthy says religion has always been a big part of her life. She grew up in a Roman Catholic family, in a household that she describes as open and inviting, a place where it was OK to ask questions about religion and the sometimes uncomfortable issues associated with it. Now in her 14th year of teaching religious studies, the Chico State University professor loves religion and can’t stop talking about it.
“Religion has always been a big interest of mine,” she said. “It just seemed like something I would never lose the passion for.”
Her latest book, Interfaith Encounters in America, is representative of the issues she has always been interested in, and is ultimately an extension of her doctoral dissertation on religious differences and religious others, she said. In the book, McCarthy examines interfaith interactions in American lives and encourages readers to open up and ask about others’ beliefs.
Americans no longer can ignore interfaith, or the mixing of religions, simply because the nation is undergoing so many cultural changes. Immigrants are changing the way people interact with each other. In Yuba City there are Sikh temples, and in Chico Muslims form one of the groups that have made the greatest effort to foster interfaith activity.
She writes, “The ‘religious organizations’ heading in telephone books across American cities, no longer limited to churches and the occasional synagogue, now includes mosques, Hindu temples, Sikh gurdwaras and Buddhist meditation centers. The religions of these immigrant communities are dramatically restructuring traditional models of ‘interfaith’ efforts. … Interfaith projects today might involve Hmong elders educating neighbors about their shamanic practices, or Sikhs inviting other local religious groups to help celebrate the opening of a new temple.”
Most people who choose not to involve themselves with people of other religions are afraid of losing their own religious identities or of having their beliefs diluted. But that’s not what happens during interfaith encounters. What most people actually find is that sharing their beliefs and learning about others’ can create openness and understanding. It enhances their religious identity, McCarthy said.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a surge in interfaith communication. Groups such as Muslims have reached outward, teaching others about their faith, and for the most part people have been accepting.
“People are no longer looking at a monotheistic identity,” McCarthy said. “There is a general curiosity and wanting to learn more. They want to know if there’s any good out there and have a more genuine openness to different identities.”
But it doesn’t take a large-scale event such as 9/11 to pique people’s curiosity and acceptance of others. Simple everyday acts such as falling in love can create opportunities to share.
Interfaith families can be found across America. McCarthy interviewed 14 couples and shared their experiences in the book. While most people in interfaith relationships respected the beliefs of their partners, raising children in the interfaith families proved to be the most difficult part of the relationship. To compromise, most families take the all-or-nothing approach: The children are either raised in a pluralistic religion or are not provided religious direction and allowed to form their own beliefs.
Finding religion online has also become common for many Americans. Using the Web site Beliefnet.com, McCarthy examined the way people interacted on the Internet. In the online discussions, minority groups such as pagans found a voice and place to share their views. Pagans, who make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, had a 12 percent presence online.
Wherever and however people get their spiritual needs fulfilled, there is one thing that can’t be ignored: People are curious about others, and they want to learn about each others’ beliefs. More opportunities need to be provided, McCarthy said.
One place to start is from within. For people to embrace interfaith religion, they must overcome their personal hesitation to speak freely about religion and learn to ask questions.
McCarthy, who also teaches women’s studies, says religion has pretty much been left out of the mix when it comes to teaching about diversity and understanding differences. Diversity efforts usually focus on race, gender and class, but not religion. To create a religiously pluralistic society, religion must be taught and talked about. After all, religion and culture can’t be separated.
“There are so many aspects of our lives that involve religion when it comes down to it,” she said. “There is no clear boundary between religion and popular culture. And secular culture is really religion.”