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The recent heated debates and arguments over the building of an Islamic Center in New York, as well as the clashes in other parts of the U.S. over the planned construction of Islamic structures, exposes an irrational fear of Islam. It also reveals a lack of religious literacy that Americans have about Islam, and for that matter about religion.

Such ignorance only increases our misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of the world’s fastest growing religion to the point that we will not even listen to moderate Muslims who desire to integrate into the religious fabric of America as a part of making this country stronger.

Take for example the recent remarks by the Tennessee lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate, Ron Ramsey. In a town hall meeting in Chattanooga, Ramsey, after towing the Tea Party line about how socialism is ruining our country, took questions from those gathered in the room. One gentleman’s query had to do with what he thought to be a national threat, as he put it, “the invading of our country from the Muslims.” He looked to Ramsey for what he would do about this threat.

Ramsey’s initial response suggested that he agreed with the man about the threat of Muslims invading our country. Ramsey continued by expressing concerns about the building of a mosque in Rutherford County in Tennessee before he stepped back to say that he is in support of the First Amendment to the Constitution stating, “I’m all about freedom of religion.”

With this statement, Ramsey had an opportunity to affirm his belief in the Constitution, regardless of whether he agrees with the teachings of Islam or not. He had the opportunity to affirm in public his ardent belief in the First Amendment that protects the religious rights of all, but he did not.

Instead, Ramsey went on to mischaracterize Islam, even to the point of questioning its status as a religion. In his own words, “You can even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, or a cult or whatever you want to call it.”

While this is only one example of religious illiteracy, particularly about Islam, I am sure that the sentiments expressed by Ramsey are felt by millions of Americans who would rather continue to remain ignorant about Islam so that they can continue to stereotype Islam as a religion of radical hatred and evil.

Protesters against the building of the Islamic Center in New York have expressed their attitudes against learning more about Islam through signage that reads, “All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9-11.”

In his book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – And Doesn’t” (2007), Stephen Prothero argues that while Americans are the most religious people in the Western world, we are perhaps the most religiously illiterate. He states that the “private and public lives of Americans are awash in a sea of faith. Unfortunately, however, Americans’ knowledge of religion runs as shallow as Americans’ commitment to religion runs deep.” To put it bluntly, Prothero believes that while we are very religious, we are very ignorant about religion. I happen to agree with his conclusions.

How should we respond to such religious illiteracy?

The most obvious answer to that question is that we must gain at least a basic knowledge of other world religions. Such education about these religions will help us avoid stereotypes and untruths that can only lead to a dehumanizing of adherents of that religion. However, such knowledge needs to be accurate.

Listening to the fear-mongering politicians and pundits does not offer any one of us a chance at learning the facts about another religion. However, reading reputable books on religions and befriending and conversing with people who practice other faiths are two significant actions we can take in solving our problem of religious illiteracy. But our motives for such learning ought to be authentic as well.

While some Christian churches offer classes about world religions, these often only serve as a pretext for evangelism, and the focus usually concentrates on finding problems within a particular religion in order to win an apologetic argument.

We need to recognize the intrinsic value of learning about other religions for the purpose of being better informed world citizens who are not simply interested in converting others to our religion. Those who seek to learn about other faiths should hold authentic desires to listen to and learn from those of other faiths.

We also need to gain an appreciation of the value that all religions contribute toward the betterment of humanity. The great world religions are ways of approaching the human search for ultimate reality and for how we are to live as humans.

Some, but not all of them, express such reality in terms of a divine being. These various religions have different ways of understanding God, the human problem and how to remedy that problem. These differences are significant and therefore should not be overlooked, and we should not treat religions as if they are all the same. But each one offers much good to the world. For sure there are those who practice hatred and violence in the name of their religion, but at the same time, there are people from all faiths who act with love and goodness.

Through our gaining knowledge about the religious beliefs of others, we can reach a place where we can acknowledge both the similarities and the differences between various religions.

Though they are vastly different, religions seek the common good of humanity. Keeping interfaith dialogue focused on the common good, while at the same time having open and honest discussions about religious differences, can help us balance the truth and value of our own religious faith while at the same time acknowledging the truth and value of the faith of another.

This is not a foolproof solution, but through thoughtful engagement and conversations, we can at least cultivate a more authentic understanding.

Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.

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