The Washington Post
Linda K. Wertheimer
At arecent event in my suburban Boston town, a Sikh acquaintance asked if it wereokay for her and her family to visit my Jewish temple. Of course, I responded.I was at first surprised that she thought she had to ask. Services at ourtemple are open to anyone.
Then I thought of my ownpreparation to visit a Sikh temple, known as a gurdwara, as part of researchfor my book, Faith Ed., about public schools’ efforts to teach about the worldreligions. I knew very little about Sikhism or the religion’s worshippractices. I read a book about the religion. I chatted with a Sikh I knew foradvice. I scrutinized the Sikh temple’s website for hints. I too would’ve beenhesitant to just show up.
Making visits to other housesof worship does not come naturally for most of us. Yet now, more than ever,it’s critical that Americans attempt to learn about other religions and meetpeople of other faiths.
There is some evidence thathunger for such knowledge is growing.
Harvard University last weekrolled out a new series of free, online courses on world religions taught byHarvard and Wellesley College scholars. Each course is four weeks. The firstcourse, which began last Tuesday, “Religious Literacy: Traditions andScriptures” drew more than 20,000 people in the first week. By the second week,the enrollment had risen to 26,400 from more than 160 countries. Roughly 65percent of the participants came from the United States.
Several students who signedup posted messages on Twitter that they were motivated bytheir concern about the current climate.
It’s not just presidentialcandidates spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric that’s at issue. Thousands ofAmericans have cheered them, and other religious minorities have been targeted,too. There have been beatings and shootings of Sikhs. There have been swastikasand anti-Semitic graffiti discovered at public schools. We can and shouldrespond with outrage to such acts, but we can also help teach each other aboutour different faiths.
The online courses, which Iam taking, offer a great way to learn about religions and their nuances.But they can’t help but miss one aspect —the unforgettable experience ofseeing a house of worship different from your own.
When I arrived for that visitat the Sikh temple, the religious school principal acted as my guide. Sheadvised me to cover my hair with a scarf and take my shoes off before enteringthe worship hall. Sitting on the carpeted floor on the women’s side, I watchedas an occasional worshiper went to the front, clasped hands, and bowed andknelt in front of the holy book, known as the Guru Granth Sahib. Nearby, twomen played harmoniums while a third musician accompanied them on tabla drums.Dressed in white, the men sang prayers in Punjabi. I could not understand thewords, but the sight was beautiful and familiar. Like in my own temple and inmosques and churches I’ve visited, a community of all ages came together topray. And like in my own temple, people were welcoming to a stranger, whetherhe or she was of their faith or not.
It was easy, I admit, for meto recruit a guide for my visit to a Sikh temple. I was a journalist used tocontacting strangers and being the stranger. Those who are more shy can consult“How to Be a Perfect Stranger, The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook.”Edited by Stuart M. Matlins and Arthur J. Magida, the book is celebrating its20th anniversary. The No. 1 reason for creating the book, Matlins told me, wasthe growth in interfaith marriages and blending of people from different faithtraditions. People needed guidance about attending ceremonies in differenthouses of worship, and the book provided tips to avoid embarrassment or givingoffense.
The diversity of religions inAmerica has increased as has the proportion of those who observe no faith atall. Consider that nearly a quarter of Americans now affiliate with noreligion, and that the Christian share of the population has fallen from closeto 80 percent to 71 percent since 2007, according to the Pew Research Center’s2014 Religious Landscape Study. The percentage of those in non-Christian faithshas risen slightly from less than 5 percent to 6 percent.
Along with that increaseddiversity is heightened fear of the ‘other.’ “Since Sept. 11, so many religionshave been painted as dangerous, as invalid, as the bogeyman which some day willarise and wreak havoc on our nation,” Magida told me. “One way to reverse thatmisconception is to experience in flesh and in our very own eyes whattranspires in another house of worship.”
President Barack Obama knewthat when he made his first visit to an American mosque in early February. Hewas sending the message that we are not a Christian nation despite views to thecontrary. We are a nation of many faiths, and we should not fear any of them.We can let ourselves remain ignorant or dare to enter each other’s religioushomes.
Linda K. Wertheimer, aformer education editor for the Boston Globe, is the author of “Faith Ed.:Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance.” Find her on Twitter@lindakwert
ICSA News Desk shares articles of interest or importance with ICSA members who have signed up for News Desk. Selection of an article for the News Desk mailing does not mean that ICSA, its directors, staff, volunteers, or members agree with the content. ICSA provides information from many points of view in order to promote dialogue among interested parties.