BEYOND TOLERANCE

Secular, Western nations have adopted a battle cry of ‘tolerance’ to cope with our global world. I don’t think many would argue against peaceful tolerance in favor of conflict. But I feel tolerance has become a buzz word that is perhaps used inappropriately. I tolerate long lines at the bank, annoying people on public transport, advertisements and crying children. Tolerance does not require or encourage respect or empathy; which are perhaps the two most vital elements in a heterogeneous society.

The only understanding tolerance provides is the understanding that we must put up with something to maintain society’s status quo. Tolerance breeds silence. In that silence, issues compound and hatred can run unchecked. Since the civil rights movement, Americans have witnessed how racism can continue implicitly. There are laws and policies in place to prevent discrimination and racial slurs are largely unacceptable in mainstream society. And yet, it continues. While the days of ‘whites only’ entrances are behind us, racism seems to have found the back door. More recently, we have seen Islamophobia take hold in the same way since the attacks on September 11th, 2001.

Tolerance is only the beginning of a peaceful community. To complete this, respect, understanding and empathy are essential. I think we are capable of more than just tolerance, more than just coexisting. We will need to cooperate and commiserate with each other if diverse societies are going to thrive rather than just survive in this global world.

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CONVERSION V. ALTERNATION

In today’s global world, we are faced with a wide range of issues and phenomena from many different cultures. This level of communication and awareness is fairly new, as the global platform that makes this possible is also fairly new.  The great amount of diversity we are exposed to in our daily lives creates the opportunity for conflict, a new level of understanding, peace and sometimes… a change of heart.

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Concerning religion, or any life-shaping philosophy for that matter, this awareness and (often) close proximity to varied ideas promotes the process of ‘alternation’ rather than the more well know process of ‘conversion’. Conversion entails a switch to a completely different system of understanding, often strongly contradicting the previously adopted system. Whereas alternation is a far more gradual process indicative of the person’s previous inclinations, rather than a switch to seemingly opposing beliefs (Travisano 1970: 601).

Travisano argues our age is one of alternation (1970: 606). I must agree and attribute this shift to the global world. No longer are people of different religious backgrounds separated by geography or national boundaries. Very few homogeneous communities exist. Even those who live isolated in the physical world can often not escape the ever-widening grasp of media. Today almost everyone is exposed to religious and spiritual traditions different to their own. This exposure allows people to become familiar with different traditions, develop interests and follow new traditions. This scenario facilitates alternation over conversion due to the development of new beliefs and traditions in accordance to the person’s personality and existing inclinations.

Our increased exposure to diverse systems of belief not only promotes alternation over conversion, but may also promote an eclectic spirituality common to the phenomena often described as New Age. New Age thought has also rose with improved communication and transportation like alternation. Both alternation and New Age thought have thrived under the same conditions, and perhaps are directly traceable to the same cause: our increasingly global world.

Travisano Richard V. “Alternation and Conversion as Qualitatively Different Transformations.” In Social Psychology Through Symbolic Interaction, edited by G.P. Stone & H.A. Faberman. Waltham, MA: Ginn and Co., 1970: pp. 594-606.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: MORE THAN JUST A FILTER

Religion, politics and money: The three ugly topics to avoid in conversation. In my grandmother’s day, sticking to this rule helped ensure polite conversation. In today’s world, its part of a much larger code of conduct to ensure political correctness. A filter to not only prevent insulting other parties, but more importantly… cover your own ass. Public figures aim to be politically correct to convey sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Not a bad notion, but the overwhelming importance of political correctness in this age has an unfortunate side effect. Political correctness often keeps the issues that matter obscured. People keep silent on real and pertinent issues for fear of being seen as racist, sexist or (God forbid)… politically incorrect. Rather than being tackled, problems are side-stepped in favor of less controversial causes.

Big issues became big issues because the topic became taboo. They remain big issues because the silence continues. Moreover the silence has been largely justified by the larger than life concept of political correctness. The secular mindset allows societal issues to be categorized and separated in a far too basic manner. This allows public figures to take on ‘safe projects,’ that in truth are not very safe at all. The interconnected web of society ensures that even the most palatable issues have taboo topics at its core. The symptom is treated (a great chance for a photo opportunity), while the cause is left to fester. There are not very many politicians willing to actually do something at the risk of a PR nightmare. The notion of political correctness justifies their cowardly ways.

I’m not saying politicians should say everything they think. Considering what may be lying in the depths of some politicians’ minds, a filter is probably necessary. But I think its time to stop being gun-shy, and start getting down to the nitty-gritty. It’s time to have those hard conversations, no matter how unpleasant they may be. There are too many people suffering from discrimination in its multitude of forms to let the silence continue any longer.

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RELIGION V. SPIRITUALITY: BIBLICAL INSIGHT

In the secular age, popular conceptions of religion and spirituality have changed. Traditionally, spirituality was a component of religion. But in recent times these terms have become the antithesis of each other. As many identify as, ‘spiritual but not religious,’ we are must come to terms with new conceptions of these terms with concern to religious identity. As many of those in the ‘spiritual but not religious’ camp have a Christian background, it may be useful to consider these terms from a Christian standpoint.

The contemporary concept of religion largely did not exist in biblical times. Rather than denoting a set of beliefs, religion primarily described one’s system of worship (A.R. 1957: 188). Spirituality, and more basically the term spirit, carries numerous meanings throughout the Bible. That closest to our contemporary understanding is spiritual experience, usually attributed to the presence of the Holy Spirit. With this experience often comes enhanced mental abilities described as wisdom or discernment (G. Johnston 1957: 235); not dissimilar to the benefits of a rich spiritual life today. Jesus is described as a spiritual man because he closely associated the work of the Spirit of God to his own actions (G. Johnston 1957: 238). This too resembles modern spirituality considering its emphasis on holism and integration of beliefs into mundane actions. In both biblical and modern times, spirituality reaches outside cloistered ritual and worship into ordinary life. There is no doubt that these terms have always carried different meanings. However the near mutual exclusivity we see between religion and spirituality is a fairly new construction.

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Both terms: religion and spirituality, have negative connotations. For example, religion is often considered hierarchical, dogmatic, patriarchal, and hostile toward other religious traditions. While spirituality is often thought of as loose, unregulated, self-gratifying, hippy-dippy mysticism. These negative connotations exist in a binary as extreme opposites. When people claim religion over spirituality or visa versa, they often cite the negatives of the undesirable label to support their choice. However when they do this they perpetuate the binary that includes the same extreme negatives for their chosen identity.

This binary is ineffective and damaging to those that use it and distort the ideas represented. Deconstructing this binary would involve using the terms to describe phenomena based on substance rather than to simply mark denominational boundaries.

A Theological Word Book of the Bible. Edited by A. Richardson, London: SCM Press Ltd., 1957.

PEACE BE WITH YOU

In secular societies from Australia to America, a child must attend a private school if he or she is to have a religious education. It could be argued (and often is) that Americans are more religious than their Aussie counterparts. But Australia has no shortage of religiously affiliated private schools. In fact they seem far more frequent than in America. The vast number of parents that choose to send their children to a religious school seems to be a chief exception to the largely secular attitude of Australian society. However the true influence of religious education in Australian private schools is questionable. Parents’ choice to send their children to these religious schools is not necessarily an indicator of religious affiliation or faith.

Not long ago I was out to lunch with a group of women. All were white Australians near 30 years of age. Most had children so the conversation quickly turned to what I deem ‘mum talk.’ Two of the women had their children enrolled in the same Catholic, private school. Both children had taken to using the phrase, “Peace be with you.” This is no doubt a gesture they were instructed to use when addressing their teachers. It is a pleasant gesture in my opinion, but apparently not so to the children’s mothers. They thought it odd that this phrase was added to their regular ‘goodnight routine.’ One mother was especially perturbed by it and instructed her son not to say it at home, but instead to “leave school things at school.”

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While this case can not be indicative of every family with children in religious school, it goes to show that religious schools are not exclusive to students from typically religious families. It also shows that secularism is not only an institutional phenomenon, but a phenomenon very active in the minds of Aussies. While religious private schools are allowed to exist and are fairly common in secular Australia, perhaps due to their respected institutional affiliations, their influence beyond their gates is heavily policed and regulated.

For religious families, a child’s religious education may be encouraged and facilitated outside of school. But for secular families simply seeking out the best education rather than a religious education, may lead parents to actively discourage their child’s faith and further enforce the religious / secular boundary. The wider implication of this is an ongoing appreciation of churches and affiliated private schools as institutions, but not necessarily as centers of faith. While these schools may be able to ensure faculty and staff share the philosophical stance of the affiliated denomination, achieving the same with students is much more difficult. As the budget requires tuition paying students, the school may need to be more flexible with student beliefs and backgrounds to remain viable. Secularism not only limits the schools’ influence in the wider lives of their students, but the secular attitudes of the students may make its way into the school culture. Where secular humanists once fought off religious influence, religion is fighting to not become secularized.