Having a religion means different things to different people. For some people, religion gives them an identity, a sense of belonging to a community, just like race, nationality or gender. Going to a synagogue, church, mosque or temple brings their members closer not only in their worshiping of the creator but also in taking action to help the most vulnerable elements of society.
For other people, religion provides answers to the well-known existentialist questions that each one of us has asked at some point in our life. What is my purpose in life? Who created me? What happens after death? And so on. The average human being looks to religion for providing answers to these otherwise bewildering questions. It is undeniable that all religions bring some level of peace and comfort when pondering such questions.
A religion can be a complete way of life, a way of living your life. There are rites, rituals and traditions to be observed. Some religions require weekly and even daily worship. In others, there are sacred undergarments or special objects to wear at all times. There are dietary restrictions in some religions. These special characteristics are distinguishing features among the various religions.
There are, however, crucial differences among the major religions that can compound the number of raised questions instead of answering those already at hand. Some of these key differences can be reconciled among seemingly contradictory beliefs by exploring, learning and understanding other religions.
A Hindu friend of mine explained to me that he did not view his religion as a polytheistic religion where multiple gods were being worshiped. In his understanding, these multiple deities were in fact different manifestations of the same god. In other words, my friend was arguing that Hinduism is a monotheistic religion, just like the Abrahamic traditions.
We started looking at other crucial beliefs in our two faiths to see whether we could find some commonality or common ground. We ran into an impasse when we started discussing the concept of reincarnation or rebirth. Islam and other Abrahamic traditions deny the concept of rebirth. In my faith tradition, this life is the only life you get. There is no rehearsal, so to speak. If you get it right, you enter Heaven; if you get it wrong, then you go to Hellfire.
Buddhism, another religion with reincarnation as a central belief, does not accept heaven or hell as eternal places. Buddhists believe that there is no fire equal to anger, lust, greed or ignorance. According to the teachings of Buddha, there are 11 kinds of physical pain and mental agony and anguish: lust, hatred, illusion sickness, decay, death, worry, lamentation, pain (physical and mental), melancholy and grief. In this religion, some people are already living in the midst of their own hell or heaven, depending on their behaviors.
Any religion has the unintended consequence of separating a group of people from the greater human brotherhood by labeling its members as "us" versus "them." There are numerous examples in history where religion was used as a weapon to dominate, subjugate and oppress the "other." This is organized religion at its worst.
On the other hand, religion can be used to build bridges of understanding among different faith communities. In my humble opinion, every religion is characterized by remarkable qualities that stand out from other religions. Our various religious communities can learn from each other by sharing their best practices for dealing with different societal problems.
In order for this process of sharing experiences among faith communities to work, we need to build bridges of friendship, empathy, compassion and understanding. Empathy, for example, allows us to suspend our judgment regarding our differences with other religions and to focus instead on the improvements they can bring to our own way of life.
At the very least, we need to exercise tolerance when it comes to other religions and other communities of believers.
In a letter to William Hamilton dated April 22, 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend." This is sound advice for anyone willing to engage in interfaith dialog and activity.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.