The Importance of Religious Dialog

There are certain things that are difficult to express using words. Love. Honor. Hope. Anguish. Yet we talk about these things and we acknowledge their existence. A sense of spirituality within us and around us is quite common, whether or not a person believes that the spirituality comes from outside of them or from within them. This awareness of the spiritual world is what many people believe to be God. However, the experience is so common, among people from every religion that it is not beyond our common understanding and can therefore be discussed.

What is stopping discussion about religion, though, are agnostics and moderates. They keep insisting vehemently that religion cannot and should not be discussed on the same level as other important topics, such as science or politics. This insistence allows believers of untenable philosophies to hide and avoid facing reality.

Of course it makes people mad when their beliefs are called into question. But it's important that we call people's beliefs into question. We all have a philosophy, religion, code by which we live. Whatever you call it, everyone has one. There are as many such philosophies as there are people in the world. These philosophies can make or break us. They can inspire us, allow us to dream, give us hope, and fill us with joy. Or they can cause us untold suffering and destruction. It's important that as a society we embrace open and honest discussions about our beliefs and those of others, so that we can decide as individuals, not through force, but through discussion and dialog, which ideas are the best guides by which to live our lives.

Some might say that questioning religion is contrary to religious tolerance, and that wars have been caused by a lack of religious tolerance. Those who maintain this argument fail to see that religious tolerance, itself, is the religion that they are vehemently preaching. The fact that they are intolerant toward those who believe in discussing religion is contrary to their own belief system.

Putting aside the inherent confliction, let's examine the view for it's merit, anyway, shall we? We are not talking about forcing people to believe in a religion. We are proposing open discussion. Does open discussion lead to death or war? No. On the other hand, there is evidence that NOT openly discussing religion has led to death, violence, and other forms of suffering. Because those who espouse non-discussion of religion are aiding religious zealots in their beliefs by allowing them to propagate unabated without confrontation, the tolerants themselves are complicit in the violence caused by the religious believers.

Do such people agree that parents should be allowed to raise their children under whatever circumstances is allowable by their religion? What about Christian Scientists who don't take their children to the hospital? Or what of Christian parents who scar their homosexual children for life by trying to undo the homosexuality or shame the child out of it?

Those of you who are against open dialog about religions, the good and the bad parts of them, are responsible for the worst philosophies on the planet to thrive and, in fact, dominate. Religions that have no basis in reality, have no grounds for their beliefs, and are harmful and destructive, are the most suited to an environment where ideas are accepted without question.

Think of it from the perspective of evolution, where a species that adapts best to the environment is the one that survives. If the species' that are competing are religions, and the environment is one where religions are left unquestioned and uncritiqued, what kind of religions are going to thrive in that environment? If the goal for human beings is the dumbing down of our spiritual selves, then we're creating the perfect kind of environment for success. If, on the other hand, we want to see religions succeed that require some thought and patience to master, then we need to change the environment.

The concept of God is simplistic. It's so simplistic that it's as old as the cave man. While we have grown technologically a hundred times over, we haven't grown an ounce spiritually. Isn't it time to change that? Even while our scientific discoveries have disproven every god-based philosophy on the planet, people still cling to them.

Why is it so important that we grow spiritually? Because the philosophies by which we live affect our lives in so many ways and so deeply that it's virtually impossible to separate a society from its religion, or even a man from his religion. Does a man believe in spanking his child because he has seen the effectiveness of it? Or does he believe in it because the Bible endorses it? You may be inclined to say that the former is the case. However, if the same man practiced a religion that forbade spanking children, would he still testify to its effectiveness? Would he still spank his child? As a society, would we even be having this discussion if the majority of us weren't practitioners of a Bible-based teaching? Spanking children might not even be thought of. The point is that there are so many subtle ways that religion affects our lives that we can't always even see them all. Then there are the not so subtle ways that our lives are affected by religion. There are many more violent examples that have been brought up numerous times by others, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the death penalty, the World Trade Center, the war in Ireland, the Middle-East conflict, abortion.

Besides the obvious problems with the teachings themselves, there is a spiritual harm involved in theistic religion, too. People suffer because they believe that God, society, parents, teachers, their boss, has power over their lives. One problem caused by this is more external. Handing control over our lives to another automatically removes us from the leading and most important role for making a positive change in the world. When God is taking care of things for us, we can help, but we still aren't the main players. When you feel that everyone's suffering in the world is your responsibility and yours alone, this is a different mindset -- a more powerful one.

But there is another, more serious result of handing your personal power over to someone else. Many religions, even eastern religions, cause people to look outside of themselves for the answers to their suffering. The problem is that the answer to how to eliminate suffering from a person's life doesn't come from outside. It comes from within. Only by making a very powerful change within us can we actually begin to become happier people on a consistent basis, regardless of outside influences.

We all want to help those who are starving, don't have enough water, are sick, and have other obvious sufferings. But who worries night and day about the child who, while having all of his needs met, has to deal with bullies at school? Or the person who longs for a lover and feels saddened by the thought of not having one? Or the person who has to deal with a mean boss every day, works long hours, and makes barely enough money to survive? Or what about people who have no noticeable external reasons to suffer, but feel hurt inside anyway, even from time to time? Are these not suffering? Are they not important? When you begin covering all of the bases, you find suffering all around you. The people here are hypothetical, and many may brush aside their sufferings as meaningless. But it isn't hypothetical anymore when it's your child, or your sister, or you. You are probably not homeless, and you have fresh drinking water. But do you still suffer? Who cares about you and your sufferings? Who laments night and day about how to resolve your suffering? Is there an answer to it?

This is the quest of Buddhism. We think it is the most noble quest of any religion on the planet, covering all of the "good deed-doings" of other religions, but incorporating something that theistic religions cannot touch.

Ending ALL sufferings for ALL beings is the call of a Buddha. Opening a soup kitchen or setting up proper drainage is easy by comparison to what a Buddha does. To really change your sufferings into happiness, requires a tremendous change from within. You must change your life condition from deep down inside. It requires a change of your entire being -- your spiritual being. You must take full control over your own life, your own spiritual condition, your own happiness. This simply cannot be done if you're hoping for intervention from outside of yourself to rescue you. You must look for your own happiness within.

But it sounds so empty when we say that, right? You already know what's within you. You've lived with yourself your whole life. You probably think that no great, wonderful, immense happiness exists within you. All you've ever known is the "peace" you feel when you "let go and let God." You're right. Even if you look within for the answers to suffering, it isn't enough. It's just pretty words that mean nothing. That's why we need a practice that allows us to grow into someone we've never met before, and to see something inside of us that we've never seen before. Until you practice Buddhism, you will never really know what lies within.

In essence, the fact that people look outside of themselves for the answers to their sufferings, causes them to suffer even more, both from the external results of the causes they make, and from the results of not searching for answers to their inner sufferings (not even believing themselves worthy of such a search or not believing that there are any answers to be found). This is the greatest tragedy of all that comes from not discussing religion openly. Insisting that all religions are the same or equal does everyone a huge disservice, and stagnates us further in our quest to find happiness and meaning from life.

It's about time we began examining what teachings we're going to embrace with a critical eye to find out whether the teaching is going to harm us or help us.