Suppose you are a young teenage man (or you can choose teenage woman if you prefer… I will choose the teenage male). There is a popstar who you think is just awesome. She looks beautiful on TV. She has a great voice. Her songs really speak to you, and you just know that such soulful singing expresses a beauty that lies within. But, sadly, you live in Nowhere, Kansas. The girls there have stringy hair and pimples. People you meet are grumpy and mean…, or fake. Your friends are untalented, uninspiring, and with little vision for the future.
So you go to college, get your degree, and get into the production side of the music industry. In a few years, an amazing thing happens. You get to work on the technical side of an album of the popstar that you loved when you were in High School. It was amazing… wonderful… at first. But then you start noticing problems. Like the women back home, she has blemishes as well. She looks so ordinary without makeup and Photoshop. She doesn’t sing so well without good audiomixing and Auto-tune. You also discover that the beautiful words she sings are from the mind of another. She just sings them, and her thoughts and words are not nearly so inspiring or commendable on their own.
Hopefully, by the time you have had your youthful fantasies smashed, you have already learned that the world (and the people in it) are much more complicated and ambiguous than you first thought. It would be horrible to get such a huge “reality check” before you are ready.
This story/parable is a model of Religious Exoticism. A person is raised up in a certain religious setting. It may be okay when one is young, but as one gets into High School and College, one begins to notice problems. Your church (or some other religious body) is full of hypocrites. They don’t live up to high beliefs. They seek to justify their pettiness with religious bumpersticker language. They, frankly, are a bit embarrassing to be around. BUT… then you run into people from some fringe religious group. You had never even heard of the group (or at least met an adherent) when you were young. But now you run into them in college, or on the Web, or TV, or bookstore or wherever. They seem nice and friendly. They express spirituality in a new and fresh way. They are sooo non-hypocritical. Their words are deep and like fresh water to your jaded soul.
This is religious exoticism… the fascination with religions or religious beliefs that you are generally unfamiliar with. (It is the religious equivalent of Xenophilia, the idea that other cultures are wonderful while your own “stinks”.) It is commonly driven by a dissatisfaction with the religious structure one is presently in. It is pretty common. The New Age movement (along with Neo-pagan groups) have grown in the US drawing from people in Christian religious groups who have felt turned off by the actions and beliefs of many of its members. Religious exoticism can draw people from Christianity, but it can also draw people to Christianity. Here in the Philippines, college is often a place where students come into Evangelical churches (as opposed to some countries where college is where one “loses one’s religion”). The attraction of Evangelical Christianity is that it is so different from what they knew before. In Muslim lands, quite a few become attracted to Christianity because it is different from the faith and society they were surrounded by. That is one reason that many Muslim converts are not interested in the contextualized church (C4 or C5). They were looking for something decidedly different from the culture and faith structure they were in.
On the other hand, the (perhaps) more common attitude is Religiocentrism. I am not speaking soteriologically here (not talking about attitudes regarding salvation). I am talking about religious bigotry where “our” faith and religion and its members are good, and everyone else is evil, selfish, and nasty.
We often see both forces come into play. After the 911 tragedy there was an outbreak of religiocentrism where all Muslims were lumped together as violent terroristic jihadists. I had a friend who was a Lebanese-American Christian who told me, immediately after 911 that he was going to have to shave his beard. I thought that was funny. But then soon after, some in Arizona killed a Sikh man because they mistakenly believed his clothing and turban identified him as a Muslim. This is very ironic considering how many centuries the Sikhs were mistreated by their Muslim rulers. Anyway, my non-Muslim friend did shave his beard. He was right. Some Americans looked at him and saw a Muslim man (although he wasn’t) and felt that he must be a bad man (which he wasn’t).
Countering this religiocentrism, Muslims in America began marketing their faith as the “Religion of Peace.” Some of course would see that as funny with Al Queda, Hamas, and other violent groups espousing Islam as their faith. But that is ignorant. (Would Christians want to be judged by the worst examples within their faith. Living in the Philippines I cringe every time I hear an American describe the US as “a Christian nation.” From over here we see the filth, materialism, and violence exported by the US. It is no surprise that many Asians think that Christians are morally lewd and violent.) So rejecting the Muslim label of “Religion of Peace” because of the worst examples of their faith is simply religiocentrism… a form of religious bigotry. It is quite possible that others did take the label seriously, however. Perhaps some found Islam inviting because it is the “Religion of Peace.” This also is flawed. Islam does espouse peace, but so does most major religions. Islam certainly does not place a higher value on peace than most other religious faiths. Additionally, their founder was not a particularly peaceful man, and the four great leaders after him were not men of peace either. History shows Islamic societies as being no more peaceful than other groups. To simply accept a statement from another religion without examination because one is unhappy with certain aspects of their own faith community is religious exoticism. This is also a form of religious bigotry.
We see it elsewhere as well. Many will remember back in the 1960s and early 1970s with the growth of the Nation of Islam among African Americans in the US. Some rejected their birth name (slave name?) and took on an Arabic name. It was not so much an acceptance of a better faith structure as it was rejecting the racial bigotry and slave history of Christians in the United States. The fact that Arab traders practiced slave trading of Africans with at least as much gusto as their European counterparts was either not known or not focused on. The fact that there is a tendency towards pro-Arab racial and cultural bigotry in much of Islam was, likewise, not known or focused upon.
Of course it is not just between Christianity and Islam. Many Americans are convinced that Buddhism expresses a special type of peace and non-violence. Buddhism, like most religions including Christianity, express peacemaking as a virtue, but Buddhist societies have been as much prone to violence as other societies (activity in recent decades in Sri Lanka and Cambodia are obvious examples). The stereotype of Buddhism as a peaceful religion is built off of a level of ignorance… unable to see the blemishes from a distance. Neopaganism movements also seem to draw from an extremely limited understanding of pre-Christian pagan beliefs.
So why did I say that reliocentrism and religious exoticism are two sides of the same coin?
1. Both are built on ignorance and stereotyping.
2. While neither can truly be solved, they can be weakened through interfaith dialogue.
By the way, I am not a relativist. I am a Christian because I believe in Christ and His message to all. Because I believe in Christ as my Lord, Savior, and example, I recognize that Christianity as a religion has many many many problems… because a religion is made up of people…. people with many many many problems. Because of this understanding I believe we need to honor Christ by recognizing our own weaknesses truthfully. Such recognition also requires us to see the strengths and weaknesses of others and other faiths based on truth.
Honestly recognizing the strengths and weaknesses in other faiths can help us recognize our own strengths and weaknesses better. That is good.