Interfaith Cooperation: An Invitation for All Beliefs

Elizabeth Sink

Interfaith Cooperation: An Invitation for All Beliefs on ICERM Radio aired on Saturday, August 13, 2016 @ 2 PM Eastern Time (New York).

2016 Summer Lecture Series

Theme: Interfaith Cooperation: An Invitation for All Beliefs

Elizabeth Sink

Guest Lecturer: Elizabeth Sink, Department of Communication Studies, Colorado State University

Synopsis:

This lecture focuses on one of those big things that we are told NEVER to talk about in polite conversation. No, even though it is an election year, the lecture isn’t about politics, or money. Elizabeth Sink talks about religion, specifically, interfaith cooperation. She starts by sharing her story and the personal stake she has in this work. Then, she shares how students on her campus at Colorado State University are bravely crossing faith and belief lines and changing the stories we most commonly hear about religion in US America.

Transcript of the Lecture

My subject today is one of those big things that we are told NEVER to talk about in polite conversation. No, even though it is an election year, I’m not going to focus on politics, or money. And even though it might be much more exciting, it’s not going to be sex either. Today, I’m going to talk about religion, specifically, interfaith cooperation. I’ll start by sharing my story and the personal stake I have in this work. Then, I’ll share how students on my campus at Colorado State University are bravely crossing faith and belief lines and changing the stories we most commonly hear about religion in US America.

In my life, I have occupied many, seemingly contradictory, religious identifications. In the most concise summary as possible: until the age of 8, I had no affiliation, I was swayed by some great donuts at my friend’s church. I quickly decided that church was my thing. I was drawn in by groups of people singing together, collective ritual, and genuinely trying to make the world a better place. I proceeded to become a devout Christian, then specifically, a Catholic. My entire social identity was rooted in my Christianity. I would go to church several times a week, help to start a high school youth group together with my peers, and helped our community in various service projects. Great stuff. But here is where my spiritual journey began to take a rather ugly turn.

For many years, I chose to adhere to a very fundamentalist practice. I soon began to pity non-Christians: negating their beliefs and in most cases attempting to outrightly convert them – to save them from themselves. Unfortunately, I was praised and rewarded for such behavior, (and I’m a first born child), so this only strengthened my resolve.  A few years later, during a youth ministry training trip, I underwent a very profound de-conversion experience, as I became aware of the narrow-minded and narrow-hearted person I had become. I felt wounded and confused, and following the great pendulum of life, I proceeded to blame religion for my hurt as well as every evil in the world.

Ten years after I had left religion, running and screaming, I found myself craving “church” again. This was a jagged little pill for me to swallow especially since I identified as an atheist. Talk about some cognitive dissonance! I found that I was seeking just the thing I had originally been drawn to at age 8 – an optimistic group of people looking to make the world a better place.

So thirty years after I ate my first church donut and traveling through a very complex spiritual journey so far – I currently identify as a Humanist. I affirm human responsibility to lead a meaningful and ethical life capable of adding to the greater good of humanity, without the assumption of a God. Essentially, this is the same as an atheist, but with a moral imperative thrown in.

And, believe it or not, I am a church-goer again, but “church” looks a bit different now. I have found a new spiritual home in a Unitarian Universalist Church, where I practice right beside a very elective group of folks who identify as “recovering religious,” Buddhists, atheists, born again Christians, Pagans, Jewish, agnostics, etc. We are not bonded by creed, but by values and action.

The reason I share my story with you is because spending time in all these different identities inspired me to begin an interfaith cooperation program at my university.

So that’s my story. There’s the lesson – Religion encapsulates humanities best and worst potentialities – and it is our relationships, and particularly our relationships across faith lines that statistically tilt the scales toward the positive. When compared to other industrialized nations, the US is one of the most religious – 60% of Americans say that their religion is very important to them. Many religious folks are genuinely invested in making the world a better place. In fact, half of America’s volunteerism and philanthropy is religiously based. Unfortunately, many of us have experienced religion as oppressive and abusive. Historically, religion has been used in horrendous ways to subjugate humans in all cultures.

What we see happening right now in the US is a shift and widening gap (particularly in politics) between those who consider themselves religious, and those who do not. Because of that, there is a tendency, to blame the other side, perpetuate stigmas about one another, and isolate ourselves from each other, which only exacerbates the divide. This is a snapshot of our current era and it is NOT a system that leads to a healthy future.

I’d now like to focus our attention, for a moment, on the “OTHER” side of that divide, and introduce you to the fastest growing religious demographic in America. This category is often referred to as “Spiritual-But-Not-Religious,  “unaffiliated,” or “None,” sort of a catchall term that incorporates, agnostics, atheists, humanists, spirituals, Pagans, and those who claim “nothing in particular.”  The “unaffiliated 1/5th of Americans, and 1/3rd of adults under 30, are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentage ever noted in Pew Research history.

Currently, about 70% of US Americans identify as Christian, and I just mentioned about 20% identify as “unaffiliated.”  The other 10% includes those who identify as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and others. Stigmas exist between these categories, and they often keep us from believing we have anything in common with one another. I can speak to this personally. While preparing for this talk, where I would “religiously out” myself as a non-Christian, I came face to face with these stigmas.  I felt ashamed to have changed my allegiance, and now am counted among those whom I once objectified, pitied, and outright bullied. I felt fear that my family and community I grew up in will be disappointed in me and afraid that I will lose credibility among my more religious friends.  And in facing these feelings, I can see now how I always throw extra zeal into all my interfaith efforts, so that when/if you might find out about my identity, you’d kindly over look it, because of all the good work I do. (I’m a 1st born, can you tell)?

I didn’t mean for this talk to turn into me “religiously outing” myself. This vulnerability is frightening. Ironically, I have been a public speaking instructor for the past 12 years – I teach about reducing anxiety, and yet I am literally at a fight-or-flight level of scared right now.  But, these emotions emphasize how important this message is.

Wherever you find yourself on the spiritual spectrum, I challenge you to honor your own beliefs and realize your own bias, and most importantly – don’t your belief and bias keep you from stepping across faith lines and engaging. It is NOT in our best interest (individually or collectively) to STAY in this space of blame and isolation. Forming relationships with people of different beliefs, statistically, makes the most positive impact in healing conflict.

So let’s look at how we can begin to respectfully engage.

Essentially, interreligious / or interfaith cooperation relies on the principle of religious pluralism. A national organization called the Interfaith Youth Core, defines religious pluralism as:

  • Respect for people’s diverse religious and non-religious identities,
  • Mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds,
  • and Common action for the common good.

Interfaith cooperation is the practice of Religious pluralism. Adopting pluralistic mindsets allows for softening instead of hardening of perspectives. This work teaches us skills to move beyond mere tolerance, teaches us a new language, and with it we are able to change the repetitive stories we hear in the media, from conflict to cooperation.  I’m delighted to share the following interfaith success story, happening on my campus.

I am a college instructor in the field of Communication Studies, so I approached several departments at my public university, asking for support of an academic course about interfaith cooperation, finally, in the spring of 2015, our university’s living-learning communities accepted my offer.  I am delighted to report that two interfaith classes, which enrolled 25 students, were piloted last semester. Specifically, students in these classes, identified as Evangelical Christian, Cultural Catholic, “kinda” Mormon, Atheist, Agnostic, Muslim, and a few others. These are salt of the earth, do-gooders.

Together, we took field trips to Islamic and Jewish houses of worship. We learned from guest speakers who shared their struggles and joys. We fostered moments of much-needed understanding about traditions. For example, one class period, two of my great friends of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, came in and answered every single question posed to them by my eager group of 19 year olds. That doesn’t mean everyone left the room in agreement, it means we left the room with genuine understanding. And the world needs more of that.

Students considered tough questions like “Do all religions boil down to the same thing?”  (No!) and “How do we move forward when we’ve just realized that we can’t both be right?”

As a class, we also served. In cooperation with several other student faith-based groups, we pulled off a wildly-successful “Interfaith Thanksgiving” service. With the financial support of our local Fort Collins Interfaith Council and other organizations, students cooked a kosher, gluten-free Thanksgiving meal with vegan options for over 160 people.

At the end of the semester, students commented:

“…I never realized that there were a lot of atheist people, because I did not realize that atheist people looked just like me. For some odd reason, I thought an atheist person would look like a mad scientist.”

“I was surprised to actually be angry at my fellow classmates for some of the things that they believed in…This was something that spoke to me because I realized that I was more biased than I thought.”

“Interfaith taught me how to live on the bridge between different religions and not on the far side of one.”

In the end, the program is a success from the perspective of students and administration; and will continue, with hopes of expansion in the next few years.

I hope I’ve emphasized today, that contrary to popular belief, religion is a thing that we should talk about. When we begin to realize that people of EVERY belief are doing their best to live ethical and moral lives, THERE is where the story changes. We are better together.

I challenge you to make a new friend with a person with different spiritual beliefs than you and together, change the story. And don’t forget the donuts!

Elizabeth Sink hails from the Midwest, where she graduated in 1999 with a Bachelors degree in Interdisciplinary Communication Studies from Aquinas College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She completed her Masters Degree in Communication Studies at Colorado State University in 2006 and has been teaching there ever since.

Her current scholarship, teaching, program and curriculum development considers our current cultural/socio/political landscape and advances progressive means of communication between differing religious/non-religious people. She is interested in the ways civically-based higher education affects students’ motivation for involvement in their communities, perceptions regarding their own biased and/or polarized views, understanding self-efficacy, and critical thinking processes.

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