I read your recent article about how to tell loved ones you are leaving the family religion. I am having a hard time understanding how my family thinks if someone leaves their religion they are automatically going to be a bad person who will end up in hell. What is it about religion that makes people judge others and determine their worth or worthiness, instead of the kind of person they are? And how come we tend to see people with different beliefs as the wrong or bad ones and think ours are the only right?
It will help to understand some things about human behavior. Most human beings struggle with some fear that they aren’t good enough. Many of us have, at some point in our lives, compared ourselves with others, worried and stressed about our appearance, property and performance. In these times, we long to quiet our fear to feel safer in the world. Here are some of the ways we do this:
- We get competitive and try to beat other humans at anything. (Example: "If I can win this game, at least I am better than this guy. That will feel good.")
- We become know-it-alls and show-offs trying to prove we have value.
- We get critical and judgmental of other people and their behavior and gossip about them — because the more we focus on bad in them, it takes the focus off our own bad.
- We get critical and judgmental of institutions, the government, the church, the schools (anything and everything), which also takes the focus off our bad.
- We try to establish a sense of identity we can feel confident about through our work, and we make our job who we are. This could quiet your fears for a while, but if you get laid off or downsized, your whole identity goes away and you crash.
- We try to establish a sense of identity in our children and focus our whole life on their accomplishments. This works until they all leave home and aren’t there anymore.
- We join groups that we find amazing, cool, fun or special and we lean on group identity and define ourselves and our value by the group. We do this with religions, college alumni groups, sports fan clubs, teams, hobby groups, political party, race, neighborhoods, even things as simple as seeing yourself as a Coke drinker instead of Pepsi drinker — anything that makes you feel superior to other people in another group. This is the most common and most harmful of the strategies.
Grouping, or 'othering'
Psychologists call this last item — the practice of creating “us” versus “them” groups — "othering." We see us as good and those other people as bad. This requires us to see the world in a very binary way. There are only two options: us and them, black and white, good and bad, righteous and evil, taller and shorter, or thinner and fatter. This binary, black-and-white thinking forces us to remove the gray area (where we might not be enough) and clearly put ourselves in a good group.
Though othering can provide a temporary boost to our ego, and quiet our fear, there is a cost. The cost comes to your relationships. It’s hard to have a mutually validating, safe relationship if you tend to see everyone outside your group as bad or wrong. But that is what many people think they need to do to get the self-esteem boost that being in the group provides.
This is the catch: How can you get the benefits of being in a special, elect, amazing group, yet be able to interact with “them” and not make them wrong, bad, un-elect or evil? There is a way, but let me explain about religion first.
The reason religion can create so much fear is that the beliefs are of eternal consequence, in the mind of the religious person. Religion can make us more scared; and in this fear state, we are going to be less loving, tolerant and open, and more threatened. The more the other religious group insists they are right, the easier it is to interpret them as saying "you are wrong" — and that makes them a threat.
What you didn’t ask me was: How can I have safer, less-threatening conversations and relationships with people who have different religious beliefs or who see my beliefs as wrong?
The answer lies in removing the fear. Here are some ways to do that:
- Belief in God and a particular religion relies on faith, which Merriam-Webster defines as "a firm belief in something for which there is no proof." This is what makes religion tricky: there is no way to prove or disprove anything. Anyone can make any claim and you cannot prove them wrong. So, we must all — everyone in every religion — own the fact that our truth feels like truth to us, but is not provable. Instead of saying, “My church is the only true one," go with, “This is the only church for me.” It’s much less threatening.
- Make sure that when you hear about a person who has left your religion, you don’t dwell on or focus on fear for them, because you will be incapable of showing them love if you do. At any moment, you can either show up in fear or love, but not both. Choose to focus on showing them that your love, friendship, kindness and happiness doesn’t change because of anything they do or believe. If we all focused on being kind, warm and friendly to each other, we would all be living our religions too.
- Don’t judge anyone by their religious beliefs or which church they attend. Don’t assume that anyone in that group is any kind of person — judgmental, evil, deceived, righteous, honest, kind, lost or wrong — just because they are in that group. Get to know them and put their groups out of your mind. Know them as an individual.
- Don’t worry so much about which religion they belong to. Treat everyone the same. Honor and respect everyone’s right to believe their truth.
- If someone tells you they have changed religions and believe yours is false, say, "OK, I totally respect your right to whatever truth you believe in and I love you the same either way."
You can do this.
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