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John Backman: Can Religion Make Us More Civil?

Feb 13, 2011 8:18:02 AM- huffingtonpost.com
I was glad to see civility make headlines last month, in the wake of the Tucson tragedy. If only the discussion had gone deeper.

The torrent of calls for civil speech and behavior, while admirable, barely touched on the questions that could turn those calls into action. Like most issues that suddenly burst into public awareness, civility may quickly fade back into obscurity without our addressing it.

So let's look at two of the questions. What makes us so uncivil? And what can we do to change?

In terms of causes, there's plenty of blame to go around. The warp-speed pace of our culture leaves no time for even the small gestures that convey openness and respect for others. Our casual approach to nearly everything, from dress codes at work to forms of address, seems to have dispensed not only with expressions of respect but respect itself. On a broader scale, many blame our political climate with its frequent personal attacks and refusal to give an inch. Others point the finger at religion, and for good reason: the track record of institutional faith -- with the Crusades, virulent anti-gay rhetoric, the destruction of temples and countless other horrors -- is checkered at best.

Yet religion is not a monolith. In fact, other aspects of faith can directly address the most fundamental cause of incivility: the one we glimpse in the mirror every morning.

The connection between ego and incivility is so simple to articulate and so difficult to resolve. I can treat you with respect, openness and honor if nothing blocks me from doing so. What usually blocks me is my own self-interest: my needs, my vested interests, my sacred cows. I can respect your need for coffee ad infinitum unless you're in front of me in line (and taking too long to place your order). I can respect your opinion as long as it agrees with mine. I can agree to your land use unless it deprives me of my comfort, whether you were here first or not. Yes, we have developed conventions for dealing with these issues -- taking turns, engaging in dialogue, negotiating agreements -- but the loss of civility is impinging on the ability of these conventions to work.

What if we address the issue at its root?

Here is where I believe religion can play a key role: many of the spiritual disciplines it prescribes have a way of detaching us from our self-interest. Buddhists and Hindus have known this for millennia. Our unhappiness, according to their traditions, stems from attachments to self in its various aspects: beliefs and thoughts, circumstances and social position, even our own bodies. A goal of disciplines like mindfulness (focusing one's entire attention on the present moment) and meditation is to free our minds from these attachments.

In Western faiths, spiritual practices aim less toward non-attachment than toward "reattachment" to someone or something outside ourselves. In the Christian tradition, silent prayer -- focusing solely on a word like Jesus or love -- draws us away from ourselves and into a focus on the Divine. The praying and chanting of sacred texts, like the Hebrew Psalms, in a fixed order focus our worship on thoughts that, as often as not, have nothing to do with our mood that day.

How can all this make us more civil? By shifting our most fundamental perspectives. As we pursue these practices, we relax our iron grip on our ego and the things that we think define us. We begin to see ourselves for who we are: one person among billions, with one person's set of perspectives and beliefs. We grow to see that the beliefs and concerns of others, even those who disagree with us, may have merit as well. We may still subscribe to our way of thinking -- even passionately -- but now it doesn't have a chokehold on us. That gives us the freedom to set it aside, however temporarily, to reach across divides and treat our "adversaries" with respect.

Now imagine what might happen if people of faith explored spiritual practices like these on a mass scale. It could, quite simply, make faith a tremendous force for civility and dialogue in our toxic public square -- a stark contrast to religion's often uncivil past. By taking up this call, we would be responding to one of the most fundamental imperatives of so many religions: to heal and transform the world.

Religion as a force for good. It is, I daresay, what the founders intended.

Read more: Dialogue, Hinduism, Religion, Mindfulness, Tucson Shooting, Non-Attachment, Christianity, Meditation, Spiritual Practices, Buddhism, Civility, Religious Tolerance, Religion News