Nothing can stir emotions more quickly than a conversation about religion. By design, one's religious beliefs speak to the very nature of who one is and why one is. Faith can be so deeply entrenched into the soul of a person that it governs everything about a person's life: who they associate with, how they spend their money, how they spend their time, who they marry, what career they choose, how many children they have and even how they vote. Because one's personal spiritual life has a habit of spilling over into the public spectrum — such as with voting — we can often run into problems when openly coming into contact with someone of a different faith. But there are at least five ways we can diffuse the fights and stereotypes that can come when differing faiths collide.
1) Research other religions. The more you know about other religions, the more easily you can shed the misconceptions and flat out myths you may have ingested about other faiths. Even if there is a policy in a faith that you understand but don't like, it's to your benefit to find out why the members of that religion believe in that policy or practice.
You may be hesitant to find out about other faiths out of fear that your research might be disrespectful to your own faith.But the point of researching is not to convert to another faith or to agree with everything you find. On the contrary, the goal is simply to understand it and the people behind the practice better. The more I learn about other faiths and religious practices, the better, I understand my own. Because once you can see the humanity in another faith, it is much easier to see yourself in them and even aspects of your own beliefs.
2) Visit other places of worship. There is no better way to get a sense for how people operate within a different faith than to attend their place of worship. This is religion in action. And no matter the faith, observing the way people seek to connect with God can be breathtakingly beautiful. The words that are uttered, the rituals that take place, this is the heart of the faith. While you're reading up on it, find out what places of worship are nearby and whether or not they will allow non-member visitors. If you have a friend who is a member of that faith, ask if they can be your ambassador to ensure you will not inadvertently do anything disrespectful during your visit.
If you fear participating in a worship service might be disrespectful to your own faith, see if there are other activities that members of that faith participate in that you can join, whether it be collective holiday meals or faith-based outings.
3)Speak with members of another faith. Conversations with friends or family members of other religions are a great way to learn more about other faiths. To avoid being offensive, first ask if they are comfortable sharing with you about your faith, for educational purposes. Ask questions and listen. Do not use this time as an opportunity to try to "convert" them or share your own faith unless they specifically ask you about your faith. This way, they will know that your interest in their faith is genuine and will be more likely to open up and answer questions. "How did you come to your faith?" and "What do you love the most about your faith?" are great questions to understand not only the religion, but the people behind them.
4) Dialogue with Spiritual Leaders. Of course, spiritual leaders are the best resources for understanding faiths. They study it and share it with others religiously and would therefore be great people to get deeper answers from. Once you have these answers, go back to your own spiritual leaders and speak to them about your experiences and ask them any questions you may have about your faith and the faith you've been researching. Where is there overlap? What does the other faith mean in the context of your own? Your spiritual leaders can help lead you toward the answers to many of the questions you have about how to respect other faiths in an every day sense.
5) Understand the expanse of God. Most all religions acknowledge the infinity of God, whether it exists in one or many forms. For a spirit(s) of such expanse, such omnipotence, does it seem odd that it would need finite beings such as ourselves to fight its battles? Heaven forbid. There will be many people in our lives who will not believe as we believe — even within our own faith! But this is no reason to get bent out of shape. Tolerance in America means understanding that God is bigger than someone's unbelief in your God. If you are confident in the choice of your faith, you will understand that someone saying your faith is wrong won't change how mustard tastes. The deeper you go in your own faith and the more you grow to love your God, the less inclined you'll be to become upset with met with intolerant people, and the less likely you'll be to try and force your beliefs onto others, as well.
Through religion, faith and spirituality, many of us are simply trying to understand ourselves and our place in the world. At the crux of all faiths is a deep yearning for the love, understanding and the very affirmation of God that we are OK and we exist for a reason. Upon that rock of commonality, build your coexisting church, and the weapons of intolerance will not prevail against it.
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