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We/They: Divided By Beliefs

From the book Broken Bridges: Building Community in a World Divided by Beliefs, by Chris Highland ~

An amusing cartoon pictures a man standing at the entrance to heaven reading a sign that says, “Welcome to Heaven: Keep Your Religion to Yourself.” The angel next to him explains, “Ironically, that’s what makes it so peaceful here.”

The cartoonist hit the nail of truth on the head and raised an interesting question: What would happen if people kept their beliefs to themselves?

We all have a variety of beliefs about all kinds of things. Should we restrain ourselves from talking about anything we feel strongly about? I don’t think so. I think the point of the cartoon is simply that religious beliefs tend to stir the pot and can often hinder rather than create peaceful, harmonious relationships and conversations.

Many would say they feel “called” or even commanded to share their faith. They would be disobeying God if they kept their beliefs to themselves. I used to think this way. I remember passing around a booklet of “spiritual laws” that began by claiming, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It seemed like a nice thing to say, except the next “law” stated that we are all sinners who deserve punishment for not loving the loving God. The subtext of the “wonderful plan” was, “Love me, or else.” Believers like me could never keep our faith to ourselves because we wouldn’t be faithful.

Other believers may not show their religious feelings outside their place of worship. Their rituals, songs, sermons, and prayers are displayed within the walls of sanctuaries. When they exit their worship services, there isn’t any meaningful way to tell what their beliefs are. They may wear a religious pin or necklace, or place a bumper sticker on their car, but generally their faith and beliefs are kept personal and private.

Some people of faith would say they don’t need to talk about their beliefs because their life shows what they believe. Their faith is mostly non-verbal. They do good, compassionate work, and maybe they’re motivated by faith, but they don’t make a big deal of it.

An attention-grabbing crossover concerns those who wear religious clothing, not necessarily to flaunt their faith—it’s just natural for them to wear it in public. We may think of a Catholic nun in the grocery store making a purchase from a Muslim cashier wearing a headscarf. Maybe we see two men on the street both wearing small caps. Is one a Jew and the other a Muslim? If so, what kind of Judaism, what branch of Islam?

Here’s something to consider: What if we had to guess what someone believed? What would the world be like if we couldn’t tell what religion someone subscribed to because no one advertised or talked about it?

Now that I’m a freethinking Humanist, this is something I like to test. I might be in a group of believers, reasonably and respectfully discussing some issue, and no one knows I’m not “one of them.” Unless someone starts talking about the sacred or the supernatural, there is probably no way anyone would know a non-believing secular individual is in their midst.

I find this both comforting and instructive. When we put aside the “flags” we wave (i.e., the labels and identities we like to display), what’s left? We’re just people; people sharing the same communities and often the same concerns. We’d love to say we’re a member of this or that group. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of our affiliations. It’s just that as soon as we start proudly self-identifying, the potential for division and misunderstanding arises. Instead of a collaborative environment, we may find ourselves in a W/T mode (We/They).

The history of religion reminds us of timeless, recurring messages — and these are not quiet or subtle messages:
“DON’T keep your religion to yourself!”
 “Let your light shine for all to see.” 
“The Word must be heard!” 
The message is loud and clear: Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, let everyone know you’re a believer, one of God’s own. You must let them know what you have, and they don’t have.

Aren’t these sad and stressful messages? Why so much pressure to “proclaim the word” when there’s so much more goodness to spread instead.

Not long ago, I spoke with an elderly clergyman who told me he knew Martin Luther King, Jr. They both served churches in the Atlanta area back in the 1950s. Some parishioners of this retired minister didn’t want anything to do with Reverend King and didn’t even want his children in their church school.

As I talked with this soft-spoken gentleman, he asked about my background. I gave him the thumbnail summary about leaving the ministry and becoming a freethinker. He seemed intrigued but didn’t ask more questions. As he went his way, I wondered if my openness disturbed him.

Religious talk has a way of doing that sometimes, and without intending to, can help create a world divided by beliefs.

Chris Highland is a former Protestant minister and Interfaith chaplain. His website is