Saturday, July 9, 2011

Monk for a month? Muslim for a Month?

After recently reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, next on my reading list is The Case for God by Karen Armstrong.  I find her story extremely inspirational.  She went from being a Catholic nun to being a comparative religion scholar.  Being that I once wanted to be a nun myself, I think it would also be fascinating to read Through the Narrow Gate, Revised: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery, although my previous dreams of being a nun are really another story for another day.  

I think that Karen Armstrong is one of the greatest heroines of religion and spirituality today because she focuses on the bigger picture.  Instead of focusing on what certain religions believe or don't believe, she focuses on the foundations of all religion, such as compassion, search for meaning and being a good person.  Not everyone agrees that these are the most important aspects of religion, but I do.  I think that programs like Muslim for a Month and Monk for a Month can help people see the bigger picture.

Yesterday I was browsing the Internet and came across this article in which Gwynne Dyer discusses the Muslim for a Month and Monk for a Month programs.  Dyer feels that religious tourism is disrespectful, wrong and unnecessary.  I respectfully disagree.  Personally, I would love to attend either one of these programs because it would deepen my understanding of religion and how other cultures approach it.

Although I already consider myself to be a Buddhist, I would love to participate in Monk for a Month because I'd like to educate myself a little more about Buddhist beliefs.  Other than a program like this, I don't think I'd have a lot of opportunities to meet with foreign monastics in such an educational context.  I would equally love Muslim for a month.  Maybe it's a sad statement about religion that people want to participate in these types of programs to learn about their own religions, but I think that learning about any religion through these types of religious tourism programs is better than remaining ignorant.  These programs seem like great opportunities to learn about Muslim and Buddhist beliefs.

In his article, Dyer suggests that it is insincere at best or blasphemous at worst to pretend to worship a god that is not from your own religion.  He also states that most religions believe that they are right and other religions are wrong and that it is wrong to believe in the god of another religion.  Reminds me of that viral email from the late 1990s about whether hell is endothermic or exothermic.  

Maybe it is because I'm Buddhist and believe in inclusive religion, rather than exclusionary religion, or maybe it's because I also attend Unitarian Universalist services, but I don't see the problem with a belief in and worship of multiple different concepts of god.  I doubt that participants in these religious tourism programs are forced or even asked to pray to a god they don't believe in.  Why can't one attend the program and during the prayer portions pray to his or her own god?  Is that blasphemous?

The key point about these programs is that they are not conversion programs.  They are religious tourism programs with a goal of education.  If you wish to make a religious pilgrimage or otherwise travel and study religion at the same time, is "wrong" to go on a pre-planned religious tourism trip instead of doing it yourself and making your own plans?  I don't think it's problematic to go the pre-planned route, but not everyone agrees with me.  Then again, not everyone agrees with me that the most important aspects of religion are search for meaning, compassion and being a good person.


Anonymous said...

I would love to spend time in a monastery for a short while to learn and full appreciate the way of life ... and in the process grow spiritually. Thank you for sharing this information.

Bev Sykes said...

I, too, wanted to be a nun...but having gotten past that (waaaay past that), while I think it would be interesting to discover a different way of life, could I really give up The Daily Show and Jeopardy in the search for spiritual enlightenment? Probably not. I am that shallow!

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