Paul Prather

So much to learn from people of other faiths

The Nov. 2 edition of The New Yorker magazine carries a review of Cass R. Sunstein's books, including On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done.

Elizabeth Kolbert's essay about Sunstein's work argues that the Internet has helped feed the widening, ever-angrier polarization of Americans.

The Web's bounty of information, rather than enlarging our world view, often makes it easier for us to cloister ourselves with those of like mind. We can selectively surf the Internet all morning and never encounter a thought different from our own.

"Left-leaning readers know, for example, that if they go to the Huffington Post or to AlterNet they will find stories that support their view of the world," Kolbert writes. "Right-leaning readers know to go to the Drudge Report or to Newsmax to find stories that fit their preconceptions."

The problem is that the more we associate only with people who believe as we do, the more entrenched our assumptions become, whether or not they're accurate. The more we interact with those who hold differing views, the more open-minded we become.

Even before the Internet, this phenomenon had a name among social scientists: group polarization. It's been documented in studies of high schoolers, feminists, proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage, people who are hawkish or dovish on war — and even judges.

"Democratic appointees who sit with other Democrats are, it's been found, more likely to cast liberal votes than Democratic appointees who sit with Republicans," Kolbert writes, "while Republican appointees on all-Republican panels are more likely to take conservative positions."

I'm certain that group polarization affects religion, too.

If we only commune with pilgrims who recite our specific creed, we constrict our understanding of God — even as we grow more certain of our own rightness.

If we're not careful, we become close-minded prigs. That danger applies whether we're liberal, conservative, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or agnostic.

No one owns the franchise on priggishness.

Including me.

When I became the Herald-Leader's religion writer in 1990, I could hardly have had a more insular view of religion. I spent my weekends as the pastor of a tiny Pentecostal church. I'd grown up as the son of a Baptist preacher.

Nearly all I knew of religion in general and Christianity in particular was the brand that is low-church, evangelical, theologically and socially conservative. Most of my friends, family and fellow churchgoers believed pretty much as I did.

I held all kinds of misinformed opinions about people who attended other churches, or no church, or who worshipped at synagogues or mosques. I couldn't figure out how so many folks could be so woefully misinformed about the Truth. My Truth.

The Herald-Leader's editors probably didn't realize it, much less intend it, but by moving me to the religion beat they financed my mid-life spiritual re-education.

Because I worked for a general-interest newspaper, I couldn't confine myself to writing about other Pentecostals and evangelicals. I covered every imaginable faith.

I attended holy-day services at Temple Adath Israel and the Cathedral of Christ the King. I lunched with Mormons. I sat in a mosque as Muslims offered up prayers. I studied the New Testament at a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) seminary. I drank tea with a Tibetan lama.

You name it, I met it — every working day for seven years. Whether or not I meant to, I learned. And learned.

I discovered that, contrary to what I'd always heard, Catholics didn't worship the pope or Mary. They held Jesus in as much awe as I did.

I found that Presbyterians or Episcopalians could simultaneously doubt a lot of the Scripture's details and yet argue strenuously for its divine revelation.

I found that nobody believes anything in a vacuum. People have reasons, often valid reasons, for worshiping as they do.

Incrementally, one interview at a time, my eyes opened.

I never left my church, denied my faith or burned my Bible.

But for a long time now, I haven't assumed I know all the answers. I don't assume my little sect is the only one approved by God. God is very big, I think.

The lesson I hadn't anticipated from the religion beat, and then couldn't avoid, is that it's enlightening to listen to those who experience God in different ways than I do.

I found I could listen without sacrificing my own beliefs.

If I'd felt so threatened by these people that I wouldn't even talk with them, it might have been a sign I wasn't worshiping from faith but from fear — a fear that I didn't genuinely believe what I claimed or a fear that what I believed would be proven false.

Well, if my beliefs were false, why should I keep on believing them? If what I believed really was true, why would opposing opinions endanger me?

Ultimately I found, by accident and circumstance, that listening, rather than hindering my faith, broadened and enriched it.