Stephen Hawkins: Religious sincerity, not gimmickry

An abundance of misguided religious commentary has been unleashed in recent weeks. Annu Subramanian’s column “Religious conversations, not cliques” in The Hatchet Thursday advocated for an Interfaith Services Center on GW’s campus to provide a common place for students of all religions to gather and discuss their faiths. But her misconception of the purpose of religion undermines the rest of her proposal, and reveals a common flaw in thinking about religion.

After depicting the religious ceremonies of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah, Subramanian proceeds to explain that “each religion [is] a recipe, yielding yummy cookies at the end of the day.” Such a portrayal is not only insulting to those who define their identity by their religious convictions, but it also woefully misconstrues the intent of religion as providing a wholesome (and tasty!) lifestyle. But religions are not just lifestyles. Religions are attempts at explaining reality, our origins, our history, our purpose and our future. Furthermore, the most salient religions in today’s public discourse are monotheistic and universalizing religions, whose respective claims to possess the word of God are contradictory and incompatible with each other.

Besides, how could a “hired spiritual leader” who might be a Baptist or an agnostic provide “guidance” for a Sunni Muslim or a Sikh – and who would seek it out? The reality is that religious people are often more different from each other than secular people. But unlike secular disagreement, when religious ideas clash it is often due to one god having commanded something different from another. Subramanian concluded that “a higher power” would favor the IFSC. Disregarding the hubris of the remark, I’ll endeavor only to say that the texts of the monotheistic faiths – I’ve read several of them in full – don’t appear to have much time for pluralistic, interfaith babble.

But this interpretation of religion as being merely a series of preferences is quite common – and worryingly so. For billions of our fellow humans they are literal, god-ordained demands that will determine their eternal well-being. As a formerly religious person myself, I can say that when eternal damnation hangs in the balance, a command from the creator of the universe becomes very persuasive. When this is grasped, it becomes much easier to understand why the religious might engage in behavior that the irreligious simply would not. Please, let’s not dilute the profound significance of religious convictions by lumping them all together and pretending they have fondness for each other. Far from being a “tour de force on campus,” it is a recipe for an entirely artificial concoction.

-The writer is a senior majoring in political science and international affairs.

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