For years I have been saying that one of the most important tasks for Americans in the 21st Century is to learn how to live in harmony in a society in which people practice many different religions.
We have a chance to show a violent and divided world how to do that.
To help us, we need many tools, including wise people who are religiously literate and can show us how to do this. But we also need written guides to educate us.
Until 15 years ago, we really did not have an up-to-date, comprehensive guide that describes for us how Americans practice the many world religions found within our borders. That's when the first edition of World Religions in America was published.
Well, much has changed since 1994. And now Westminster John Knox Press (the publishing arm of my Presbyterian denomination) has brought forth a fourth edition of this important book, edited by Jacob Neusner. Every chapter is updated and several new ones have been added to cover the Unification Church, New Thought and women and religion.
This is not just another version of, say, Huston Smith's guides to world religions or the Introduction to World Religions, edited by Christopher Partridge, or World Religions at Your Fingertips, by Michael McDowell and Nathan Robert Brown. All are useful books, but their aim is not to help us understand specifically how Americans practice these faiths.
Again, why is that important? Here's the way Neusner answers that question: "The future of America depends on the answer to the question, How are religions going to relate to one another in this country?" Exactly.
Now, I don't want to suggest that America is on the verge of sectarian violence as Baptists attack Methodists or Buddhists attack Mormons. Not at all. But the truth is, as I have said many times, that ignorance leads to fear and fear eventually can degenerate into violence. How else do you explain the Ku Klux Klan and its followers' belief that they were (and are) being just the right kind of Christians?
In the new book's chapter on Protestantism, the eminent religious scholar Martin E. Marty notes that about 50 percent of Americans are Protestant but he urges Americans of other traditions not to worry because "those. . .Protestants would never be able to form a single team to gang up on you. First of all, they have no reason to be angry with you; most of them have many friends who are not Protestant, and they would not want to hurt their friends. Even more of them would not consider religion the main reason to take sides on anything; race or income would more likely define who is 'in' and who is 'out.'"
Then Marty adds this: "There are two even better protections for the fifty percent of Americans who do not say that Protestantism is their religion. First, American law and custom make holy war difficult to carry out, and also irrelevant. . . .The other reason for protection, one that will help you understand your or your neighbor's Protestantism, is this: Protestants differ very much from one another. It would be hard to get them to agree on everything."
No doubt all true, but as we all know it doesn't take a unified crowd to make followers of minority religions in this country feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. It takes only a few bigots or a few people who act out of ignorance and fear.
Which is why I hope this newly revised book gets a wide readership, including you.
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AT THE CORNHUSKERS' EXPENSE
A University of Nebraska scholar was offering a session yesterday on the similarities between Nebraska football and the old Roman religion. Hmmm. I used to think the "N" on Nebraska football helmets stood for knowledge, but perhaps it stands for gnosticism.