Embracing religious pluralism: examining new ways to pray

An Indian native takes off his shoes before entering the arched door of the mosque. Hinduism is the dominant religion of the country.

Mac Kenney

An Indian native takes off his shoes before entering the arched door of the mosque. Hinduism is the dominant religion of the country.

On a March evening in 1981, I had the good fortune of hearing Naomi Shihab Nye read a selection of poems for “A Gathering of Poets” in the student union on the campus of Louisiana State University. As an undergraduate student, I was totally smitten with this exciting young poet whose work reflected her multi-cultural experiences: her father was a Muslim immigrant who spoke Arabic and prayed to Allah; her mother was Caucasian, and she grew up under the “light of Catholic miracles” in the Hispanic/Native American world of Southwest Texas. I delighted in each cross-cultural reference she provided that night and in her debut book, Different Ways to Pray. Over the years, her book’s title has evolved into a mantra, a guiding principle in my life. I couldn’t help but wonder, as Missouri Southern students were exposed to the piercing prose and poetry readings by Cuban authors and scholars during our Cuba Semester, if they were as moved by intriguing cultural images as I was listening to Nye over two decades ago.

As a child, I grew up under the multi-ethnic, multi-racial cultural influences of south Louisiana, complete with Cajun and Creole cuisines, music and dancing. My father was United Methodist, while my mother was Southern Baptist, so I experienced a multi-denominational upbringing.

Further, as a young adult, I joined the Unitarian Universalist Church, an organization whose primary doctrine includes a respect for all world religions. Beyond religious tolerance, I learned the value of religious pluralism. It is in the U.U. spirit of embracing, not just tolerating, religious diversity that I enthusiastically accepted Mac Kenney’s invitation to join him in a McCaleb Peace Initiative exploring the roots of religious coexistence in India.

Sociologists are interested in studying religion as a social institution. Rather than proclaiming judgments about the relative merits of one set of religious doctrines over another, we tend to analyze the social organizations of religion and the meanings that people attribute to their religious affiliations. Obviously, not all sociologists think alike when it comes to religion; we incorporate different theories to explain religious phenomena. According to the structural-functionalists, for instance, religion serves a variety of functions that promote social conformity in order to maintain the status quo. On the other hand, conflict theorists assert that religion serves primarily as an agent of social control; thus, it perpetuates social inequality. Further, Marxists assert that religion serves as an “opiate” for the masses. Feminists criticize the patriarchal practices of religions that exclude women from the most sacred positions in religious orders, as symbolic interactionists acknowledge the extent to which religion provides meaning and purpose in our lives – for women and men, rich or poor.

According to the classical sociologist, Emile Durkheim, religion encompasses a set of beliefs and According to the classical sociologist, Emile Durkheim, religion encompasses a set of beliefs and practices related to the sacred, or that is extraordinary, and inspires a sense of awe or reverence. This contrasts sharply with the profane, or the ordinary world of everyday life, such as going to class or surfing the net.

It is illuminating to inquire about the symbolic boundaries between the sacred and the profane. Obviously, worshippers pass through physical structures, such as gates and arched doorways, to enter sacred spaces. At such moments, Muslims and Hindus, for example, remove their shoes before entering a mosque or temple in order to avoid defiling their sacred spaces with soles that have touched the profane ground outside. With regard to religious practices, the devout engage in various formal rituals or ceremonial behaviors in order to gain access to the sacred, such as daily prayers or puja at small altars in the homes of most Hindus or the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims.

Although religion is a cultural universal, there is considerable cultural variation in the expression of religious beliefs and practices. For example, some religions are monotheistic, like Christianity and Islam, while others are polytheistic, like Hinduism. Yet, the distinction between monotheism and polytheism is blurred to the extent that all three religions envision the universe as grounded in a single, unifying essence or being, albeit with numerous incarnations or manifestations. Further, all religions share a conception of a moral force or purpose that transcends the individual and offers us a way to relate to the supernatural.

Every university-educated person should know some basic facts about the major world religions, such as may be found in any introductory sociology or comparative religion textbook. Christianity is the most widespread religion, with nearly two billion followers, representing one-third of the world’s people. Islam, whose followers are called Muslims, is the next largest world religion, representing one-fifth of humanity, with approximately 1.2 billon followers. Although chords of fear are struck as we hear the threats of extreme Islamic fundamentalists, most Muslims (like most Christians) do not espouse fundamentalism or an ultra-conservative religious doctrine. Hinduism has the distinction of being the oldest world religion, dating back 4,500 years, and has 800 million adherents, most of whom reside in India. Although Buddhism originated in India, and claims 350 million followers worldwide, it is a minority religion there today. Judaism is a relatively small world religion with about 15 million followers, and the largest concentration of Jews resides in the United States.

Western religions, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism, typically are monotheistic and tend to be congregational, with people worshiping in groups at specific times and places. For example, reverential Muslims gather together at a mosque for ritual prayer five times a day. Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, tend to highlight both individual spiritual development and ethical codes for living; further, they are informally fused with their cultures. Mac and I witnessed hundreds of Hindus at various temples across India who came and went as they pleased, paying little attention to other worshippers (except for a curious eye toward us).

Although most of the approximately 285 million people in the United States. have a Christian religious affiliation (56.2 percent are Protestant and an additional 25.1 percent are Catholic), our country is founded upon religious freedom and characterized by religious diversity. Currently, there are over seven million Muslims in the United States; that’s more than many established Christian denominations, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians or Unitarians.

Although Hinduism is intertwined with Indian culture, it is also a part of our cultural diversity, with 1.4 million Hindus living in the United States.

In addition, select elements of Hinduism have diffused into our culture: Who hasn’t heard of dharma, the universal force that presents everyone with moral responsibilities, or karma, a system of spiritual rewards and punishments based on worldly actions, or reincarnation, the spiritual progression of human souls?

What concluding remarks do I have about religious pluralism? First, both the United States and India do not have an official religion; instead, the church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) is independent of the state.

In both countries, laws protect religious freedom, which they guarantee as a basic human right.

Ideally, all countries would model their social contracts to protect religious pluralism, as the United States and India have done. Rather than repeating the saying that was popular when I was in college, asserting only “One Way” to God, I encourage you to remember there are “different ways to pray.”