I have a blog for a class I teach on World Religions. I posted this to that blog, and repeat it here.
A fuller title for this post could be "relating to people of other religions", but the title says what I want to say. We live in part of Manitoba that has a fairly high level of immigration. Once upon a time, immigration meant "more people like us" from Paraguay or Russia or Germany or Mexico. now it means people from all over the world. Filipinos make up the largest group of immigrants. Many others come from Asia and Africa. People who speak Low German and have a Mennonite background are no longer the overwhelming majority.
Christianity is still the primary religion represented among immigrants. But many from Europe are people who see their Christian or secular faith as so private that any question about faith makes them feel suspicious. Others from Asia and Africa are Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Although the overwhelming majority of Steinbach is still at least nominally Christian, we have many neighbours who represent other religions. How should we relate to them?
The European answer meshes with the Canadian approach: "Faith is private, and none of your business." I must admit that I have trouble with this approach. Private belief issues in public action, and refusal to admit who I am inside makes it harder for others to deal with the choices I make in public.
The desire to keep faith private is based in good sense. We see people around the world engaged in conflict, and faith seems to be an integral part of those conflicts. So we teach tolerance for all people and keep quiet about our faith. Does the fact of faiths in conflicts mean that we should keep quiet about faith or religion? I don't think so.
Many people in Africa and Asia are quite comfortable talking about religion, without assuming that the person they are speaking with must convert to their faith. The real roots of conflict in our world are political and economic. People then use religion to energize the conflict already felt for other reasons. What we need a primary commitment to peace and to respect.
Tolerance is such a weak word. Respect is much stronger. I can talk to you and listen to you respectfully. I do not need to accept that you are right, if I don't think you are; but I do need to continue to treat you fairly and respectfully.
As I said above, private faith results in public actions; so I would like to know what faith is behind the way that people live. I want to know if someone is a Christian or a Muslim, a Buddhist or an Atheist, and so on. I want to be free to say what i am (a Christian), without having my rights as a Canadian placed in jeopardy. I want to continue to respect and accept and work with all people around me, as Jews or New Age or whatever they are, with the freedom to say who they are and who I am. I want to relate to whole people.
A common concern is that such openness will lead to proselytizing. I suppose it might. Sometimes Liberal Party members try to convince someone from the NDP that he/she would be more at home in the Liberal Party. Is that a bad thing to do? Sometimes people who discuss bringing a a power line down the west side of Lake Winnipeg try to convince others that west is better than east. Is it wrong for them to do so?
It would be wrong to mistreat people with whom we disagree politically. One should not, for example, give less money to one school district than to another because it voted for the other party in the last provincial election. Nor should one break friendship with someone because the other thinks that the power line should be laid along the bottom of the lake. But we find out what is right and true in a free exchange of ideas in which we can say what we truly believe.
Religion is no different. We treat people from other religions as people. If we find they don't want to talk about it, we don't press the issue. If we find they are willing to talk about matters of faith, we may talk. At the least, we should be free to say who we are without embarrassment and without proselytizing.