News-Record.com from Greensboro, North Carolina yesterday reported on the 11th annual youth Interfaith tour, Operation Understanding. Sponsored by The National Conference for Community and Justice of the Piedmont Triad, Sunday’s tour took 400 middle and high school students along with adult volunteers to a Quaker meeting, a Jewish synagogue, and a Mormon church. At each stop the kids were given an overview of the religion they were visiting, and then were allowed to ask questions.
The sponsor, The National Conference for Community and Justice, was founded in 1927 for the purpose of fighting “bias, bigotry, and racism in America.” Formerly known as The National Conference of Christians and Jews, it became well-known among Christian apologists in 1984 when its Virginia chapter released a statement denouncing The Godmakers video as filled with “half-truths, faulty generalizations, erroneous interpretations, and sensationalism.” Though citing no examples, the NCCJ insisted the film’s portrayal of Mormonism was “a basically unfair and untruthful presentation of what Mormons really believe and practice.” The Godmakers has its faults, but the NCCJ did not do its homework. It therefore became guilty itself of “a basically unfair and untruthful” judgment against the film.
With that background enhancing our understanding of today’s NCCJ, this is what the organization says about their annual Interfaith tour:
“The goal of the Interfaith tour is not to attempt to convert people to other religions. We simply hope this experience will help students understand, appreciate and respect some of the differences in religions and styles of worship throughout our community.”
While this sounds like a worthy goal, the News-Record report seems to indicate an opposite outcome:
“NCCJ program specialist Betsy Harrington said the tours reminded her again that people are more alike than they are different. ‘There are just different nuances to how we practice (our faiths),’ she said.”
So is the purpose of the tour to help students understand the differences between the religions they visit? Or to convince them that there really aren’t any significant differences at all?
I’m all for people gaining a better understanding of our world. Understanding each other gives us the opportunity for meaningful dialog and deeper relationships. However, minimizing our differences does not lead to better understanding; it obscures understanding.
I like an illustration used by Greg Koukl (from Stand to Reason) when people suggest that all religions are basically the same. He draws two small circles and asks, “Are these two things basically the same?” The answer, of course, is yes. Then he labels the circles; one is labeled “aspirin,” and the other is labeled “cyanide.” He asks, “Now are they basically the same?”
The point is that differences matter. They are important. And in many cases an understanding of differences is essential.
The NCCJ program specialist came away from the Interfaith tour having learned that people and their religions are pretty much the same. Though Jews, Quakers and Mormons have fundamental differences in what they believe—to the very bedrock of who they worship—this adult concluded that it all boils down to a mere “different nuance” in the way they practice their faith.
If an adult was convinced of such nonsense by the Interfaith tour, how much confusion and vulnerability has it instilled in those middle and senior high school students?
What a shame.