Understanding Other Religions is Fundamental to Citizenship

  • 2017-05-24
  • Aeon

By walking down the street of any major city, you are likely to see more diversity than an 18th-century explorer did in a lifetime. People with very different ideas of how society should function must live together, and there is no idea more divisive than that of religion. Many of the most important moral disagreements break out along religious lines. Indeed, differing religious views on freedom, sexuality and justice threaten social cohesion. That must not be allowed to happen.

One crucial way that people can best learn to live with one another is by increasing their religious literacy. In 1945, the British author C S Lewis said that one will gain greater insight into other belief systems by stepping inside and looking ‘along’ them, rather than looking ‘at’ them from the outside. He explained this by analogy. Think of the difference in the experience of looking at a beam of light through a window, in comparison with the experience of looking along it. It is from within that we can test a system’s internal consistency and its ability to form and inform the believer. The idea is to see religion not merely as a set of propositions held in the head, but, in the words of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, as a ‘lived experience’.

The key to this kind of understanding is dialogue. This isn’t the all-too-common conversation in which the goal is to poke holes in another’s religious argument. Rather, the purpose is only to understand, however fanciful or wrong the beliefs might appear. It requires moral imagination, letting the human voice of a believer express in concrete terms how his or her world is experienced. When questions are asked, they are there to reveal rather than eviscerate. It’s similar to how you experience stories, entering into them imaginatively and empathising with the characters. Stories are at the heart of human life, and also at the heart of religions. It is through understanding the way that human stories are affected by religious ones that we begin to look along that beam of light, rather than at it.