At a recent event in my suburban Boston town, a Sikh acquaintance asked if it were okay for her and her family to visit my Jewish temple. Of course, I responded. I was at first surprised that she thought she had to ask. Services at our temple are open to anyone.
Then I thought of my own preparation to visit a Sikh temple, known as a gurdwara, as part of research for my book, Faith Ed., about public schools’ efforts to teach about the world religions. I knew very little about Sikhism or the religion’s worship practices. I read a book about the religion. I chatted with a Sikh I knew for advice. I scrutinized the Sikh temple’s website for hints. I too would’ve been hesitant to just show up.
Making visits to other houses of worship does not come naturally for most of us. Yet now, more than ever, it’s critical that Americans attempt to learn about other religions and meet people of other faiths.
There is some evidence that hunger for such knowledge is growing.
Harvard University last week rolled out a new series of free, online courses on world religions taught by Harvard and Wellesley College scholars. Each course is four weeks. The first course, which began last Tuesday, “Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures” drew more than 20,000 people in the first week. By the second week, the enrollment had risen to 26,400 from more than 160 countries. Roughly 65 percent of the participants came from the United States.
Several students who signed up posted messages on Twitter that they were motivated by their concern about the current climate.
Very excited to join Harvard's free #religiousliteracyx course. Lets spread knowledge and discourage ignorance!
— Emily Scott (@emilyfoxscott) March 2, 2016
— Karen SchulmanDupuis (@karensd) March 2, 2016
It’s not just presidential candidates spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric that’s at issue. Thousands of Americans have cheered them, and other religious minorities have been targeted, too. There have been beatings and shootings of Sikhs. There have been swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti discovered at public schools. We can and should respond with outrage to such acts, but we can also help teach each other about our different faiths.
The online courses, which I am taking, offer a great way to learn about religions and their nuances. But they can’t help but miss one aspect — the unforgettable experience of seeing a house of worship different from your own.
When I arrived for that visit at the Sikh temple, the religious school principal acted as my guide. She advised me to cover my hair with a scarf and take my shoes off before entering the worship hall. Sitting on the carpeted floor on the women’s side, I watched as an occasional worshiper went to the front, clasped hands, and bowed and knelt in front of the holy book, known as the Guru Granth Sahib. Nearby, two men played harmoniums while a third musician accompanied them on tabla drums. Dressed in white, the men sang prayers in Punjabi. I could not understand the words, but the sight was beautiful and familiar. Like in my own temple and in mosques and churches I’ve visited, a community of all ages came together to pray. And like in my own temple, people were welcoming to a stranger, whether he or she was of their faith or not.
It was easy, I admit, for me to recruit a guide for my visit to a Sikh temple. I was a journalist used to contacting strangers and being the stranger. Those who are more shy can consult “How to Be a Perfect Stranger, The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook.” Edited by Stuart M. Matlins and Arthur J. Magida, the book is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The No. 1 reason for creating the book, Matlins told me, was the growth in interfaith marriages and blending of people from different faith traditions. People needed guidance about attending ceremonies in different houses of worship, and the book provided tips to avoid embarrassment or giving offense.
The diversity of religions in America has increased as has the proportion of those who observe no faith at all. Consider that nearly a quarter of Americans now affiliate with no religion, and that the Christian share of the population has fallen from close to 80 percent to 71 percent since 2007, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. The percentage of those in non-Christian faiths has risen slightly from less than 5 percent to 6 percent.
Along with that increased diversity is heightened fear of the ‘other.’ “Since Sept. 11, so many religions have been painted as dangerous, as invalid, as the bogeyman which some day will arise and wreak havoc on our nation,” Magida told me. “One way to reverse that misconception is to experience in flesh and in our very own eyes what transpires in another house of worship.”
President Barack Obama knew that when he made his first visit to an American mosque in early February. He was sending the message that we are not a Christian nation despite views to the contrary. We are a nation of many faiths, and we should not fear any of them. We can let ourselves remain ignorant or dare to enter each other’s religious homes.
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former education editor for the Boston Globe, is the author of “Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance.” Find her on Twitter @lindakwert