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Religious tolerance: karma, Christ, whatever?

By Christian Smith


There was a time in American culture, only a few generations ago, when religious differences were major. Baptists were not Methodists, and both were definitely not Presbyterians. Catholics were absolutely not Protestant, and Protestants doubted that Catholics were even Christians. Jews and Mormons were whole other species. Non-religious Americans were beyond the pale. And Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus were heathen living in faraway places. The problem with that world, we now see, was the destructive bigotry, misunderstanding, conflict and sometimes hatred that went with it. Let us call that world one of sectarian conflict.

We have come in America today to a very different world, which we might call liberal whateverism. This outlook reacts against sectarian conflict by dramatically discounting the claims of religion. The more aggressive side of this view asserts that religion per se is pernicious and should be eliminated or radically privatized. The more accommodating side says religion is fine as a personal lifestyle commodity, but that religious inclinations are ultimately arbitrary and should not be taken too seriously.

I have been studying the lives of American teenagers and emerging adults for the past decade. Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood describes the larger world in which liberal whateverism makes sense. Many emerging adults have few considered moral bearings, are devoted to mass consumerism, routinely become intoxicated and engage in casual sexual hook-ups, are civically and politically uninformed and alienated. Our story is not a tirade against “kids these days.” It is about wider, deeper problems in American society and culture — concerns that should trouble liberals and conservatives — which show up in disquieting ways in the lives of youth.

Liberal whateverism was obvious among most of the emerging adults we studied. About 10 percent were militantly atheistic. But the vast majority opted for the more accommodating “whatever” default. Anyone could take religion or leave it. It was an individual “opinion” that didn’t matter much.

Most interesting was the belief of a significant minority in “karma.” This meant to them simply the idea that, in some mysterious way, good and bad people would get what they deserve in this life. Few emerging adults know anything about the religious traditions that seriously teach karma. “Karma” is simply a reminder that they should try to do the right thing and a substitute for anger or revenge against bad people by believing they will soon get their comeuppance. Karma is a way to try to sustain justice in our moral universe without having to appeal to a personal God or a real judgment day.

As a sociologist, I view this belief in karma as socially functional and psychologically therapeutic. But I doubt it works over time. Good and bad people do not always get what they deserve. Sometimes the wicked prosper and horrible things happen to good people. Without a metaphysical view explaining the reality and power of karma, belief in its mysterious capacity to achieve this-worldly justice can easily slide into cynicism. And from most faith perspectives, pop karma is shallow, naïve and perhaps even disrespectful to the religious traditions which teach it. Claiming it as many emerging adults do is somehow like stealing candy from the Bhagavad Gita giftshop.

Is there not a better way for all of us to take religion more seriously without descending into sectarian conflict? That is one of the most important questions of our day.

I think we need to reject both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism and commit ourselves instead to an authentic pluralism. Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square — while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that “all religions are ultimately the same.” That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private “opinions.” It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime’s too-easy blanket affirmations of “tolerance” of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated.

We as a society and a culture have much to learn about ourselves from teenagers and emerging adults, both good and bad. One of those things, I believe, is the need to get beyond not only sectarian conflict but also liberal whateverism, to a more respectful and just world of authentic religious pluralism.

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Social Research, Principal Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion, and Principal Investigator of the Science of Generosity Initiative. His books include Souls in Transition, Moral, Believing Animals, Soul Searching, and Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.

A version of this article appeared on the Huffington Post.
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  1. Tammy Pearson

    Dr. Smith,
    I read an article that quoted your Huffington Post article and was intrigued. I am a 49 year old believer who will be teaching about 200-300 youth this summer for one 50 minute session at a youth camp in Louisiana. These students, for the most part, are in secular schools and do not have worldview training. I think the “Karma, Christ, or Whatever” will catch their attention, but I’m not sure what I need to incorporate into that 50 minutes for the most impact. I would love your thoughts. I may be the only one to actively prevent them from becoming “whatevers.”
    Sincerely,
    Tammy Pearson

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