On Faith: It's time to speak out against religious bigotry

On Aug. 4, the nation rejoiced at news that engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had landed Curiosity, its scientific vehicle, on Mars.

But we awoke the next morning to learn that a racist bigot had murdered six Sikh worshippers within their own sanctuary, or gurdwara, in Oak Creek, Wis.

Then on Aug. 6, a mosque in Joplin, Mo., burned to the ground, probably at the hands of an arsonist. We, as a species, are capable of great scientific and humanistic achievements — and immense evil.

How do we resist evil and bend the arc of the moral universe, in Martin Luther King Jr.'s words, toward goodness? It's not easy, as history makes clear.

Prejudice, for example, is like a virus to which all human beings are susceptible. I have had bigoted thoughts about racial or religious groups that seemingly came out of nowhere. And I suspect this is true of most of us.

The only way to fight back against these snap judgments is to stop them mentally in their tracks: "No, that's not accurate"; or "That's a huge generalization"; or "You know that's not how you would actually speak to the religious or racial 'other.'"

But prejudice and hate feed on the fear that another ethnic or religious group will threaten my security or way of life in some way. White supremacist groups, the kind that the shooter at the gurdwara belonged to, cultivate fear. They use the Internet and neo-Nazi music to infect the minds of mostly young, white males on hundreds of hate-filled websites, and at underground hate music concerts right here in Orange County.

Knowledge and education are indispensable to attacking hate. The media must do a better job of informing the public about the many beautiful religious traditions in our midst where people worship peacefully and assist needy members of their own communities and outsiders.

Mona Shadia's ongoing series in the Daily Pilot, "Unveiled: A Muslim Girl in O.C.," is precisely the kind of tonic to prejudice of which we need more.

We need similar series about Sikhs, Jains, Hindus, Buddhists and Zoroastrians, each of which has religious centers in Orange County.

Want to know more about these faiths? The Internet (Google, Wikipedia, etc.) can supply basic information in minutes, as can books such as Stephen Prothero's "Religious Literacy."

We could also use more resistance music, the kind that Joan Baez and Pete Seeger gave us during the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and '70s. Music certainly has the power to promote love and understanding rather than hate.

It takes courage to counter a bigoted comment at a dinner party or in an email from a friend. I have done the right thing in some cases and wimped out in others.

But the time has come for our community to resist the racist or religiously bigoted comments.

Thursday evening, the local Sikh community held a candlelight vigil of remembrance at its gurdwara in Buena Park that included moving speeches by religious and civic leaders from our county.

This, and the outpouring of support previously already shown to the Sikhs, is a form of resistance to evil.

We need more resistance and more of the thirst for justice that the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Muhammad and Guru Nanak, Sikhism's founder, demanded of followers.

BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD is professor emeritus of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton and lives in Costa Mesa.

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