Contra Interreligious Ignorance

Cambridge, MA. The New York Times for Monday, October 13 caught my eye three times over with items of sadness that pertain to interreligious relations, interreligious thinking. On the front page, one article talked about the campaign dedicated to spreading the rumor that Barack Obama is a Muslim. A second front-page story recounted the ongoing violence against Christians in Orissa, and efforts to “reconvert” Christians to Hinduism. Inside, a third report narrated recent violence against the tiny Christian minority in Iraq, in the town of Mosul.

     Each story is of course a world unto itself, and each case requires a different kind of analysis. But among other things, they all show us how ignorant people can be of other people and their religions and, in these cases at least, the apparent unwillingness — rooted in ignorance — even to imagine properly the religious worlds of others. The campaign against Barack Obama may be nothing but a deliberate effort to confuse voters — since Mr. Obama is a lifelong Christian — but it also bears with it the unexamined presupposition that there is something wrong with being a Muslim, or that it would be bad for the United States to have a Muslim president. (See my earlier reflection on this theme.) The violence in Orissa is certainly not simply a matter of misunderstanding, but there is a duty — not just now, when the fires are burning — but as a regular part of life, for people who live as neighbors to understand the faith and practices of those neighbors. Majorities in particular are obliged to learn from religious minorities, not just tolerating, to some extent, their existence. The same applies to the situation in Iraq. It is very good for communities to live without fighting, but it is not enough, since such a “peace” today may erupt in warfare tomorrow. It is necessary to keep banishing ignorance by learning from one another, allowing the ideas, images, practices of our neighbors to enter deep inside us, so that we will find it very hard, perhaps impossible, to treat the other as a stranger, threat, or enemy.


     Yes, it is also obvious that no amount of book-learning guarantees that ill-will and violence and lying will not occur. Sin is not reducible to ignorance. But since we can learn, and can open our minds, it becomes culpable ignorance not to keep learning about one another. If Christians and Hindus and Muslims — in these stories — knew more of one another’s traditions in detail and close up, we would surely be more disposed to respect one another and resist the sin of interreligious animosity.

     Of course, this applies to the people we read about in the newspapers, but it applies as well to us when we may be tempted to judge those we are reading about, “as if” we understood how they think, what they believe. If we are Christians, in particular, we have much to learn from our Hindu and Muslim neighbors, and we need not to judge them on the basis of the violence of the few.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 1 month ago
''If Christians and Hindus and Muslims — in these stories — knew more of one another’s traditions in detail and close up, we would surely be more disposed to respect one another and resist the sin of interreligious animosity.'' This is a valuable thought and is truly in the Christian tradition of showing love and respect for one's neighbor. Unfortunately, not all religious traditions share this view. Muslims are actually enjoined from studying and understanding other religious views, because it might make them question their own faith, which they believe to be the absolute and only revealed truth of God. A conversation only bears fruit if both sides are talking, and I fear that Muslims are not interested in conversation, only the conversion of others.
9 years 1 month ago
When the Dalai Lama, after a visit to Spain, was asked what was wisdom, he responded: "Ask Father Basili." For the past twenty years, Father Basili Girbau,OSB has been living in a remote cave in the mountains of Montserrat. He doesn't like hearing about his relation with the Dalai Lama, although everyone in the monastery a thousand steps below knows that the Dalai Lama calls him by telephone. Nor does Father Basili like it when he is asked about wisdom. "Figure it out yourself," he replies...


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

“To love the poor means to combat all forms of poverty, spiritual and material."
Gerard O’ConnellNovember 19, 2017
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago speaks Nov. 13 during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life could be helpful as the church grapples with issues like migration, health care and even taxes, some bishops say.
Michael J. O’LoughlinNovember 17, 2017
Giant machines dig for brown coal at the open-cast mining Garzweiler in front of a power plant near the city of Grevenbroich in western Germany in April 2014. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
“What we need to do is just continue to live out the challenge of ‘Laudato Si’,’ which is to examine our relationship with the earth, with God and with each other to see how we can become better stewards of this gift of the earth.”
Kevin ClarkeNovember 17, 2017
Hipsters love the authentic, the craft and the obscure—which is exactly why Catholicism, in its practices and its aesthetic, is perfectly suited for them.
Zac DavisNovember 17, 2017