Last February, Huffington Post Religion launched with my post "Dear Religious (and Sane) America." It was a call for sanity within the religious discourse, arguing that we could disagree without demonizing one another, that people of different traditions and no tradition could learn from one another, and that sane religion was crucial to a productive and peaceful 21st century.
Nine months later, Jon Stewart has hopped aboard Huffington Post Religion's sanity bandwagon with his Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall.
Well, better late than never.
The Rally to Restore Sanity (and Stephen Colbert's counter-rally to "keep fear alive") will be great fun. Of course, at the root of good comedy is uncomfortable truth. Sanity is sorely lacking in America, and fear seems to be growing as the prime mover in our debates. This is a political problem, but it is also a religious one. My hope is that the Rally to Restore Sanity will also be an occasion for sane religious people to find time to celebrate and promote sanity within religion.
So what is sane religion? The word "sane" comes from the Latin sanus, which means "health" or "healing." Sane religion, then, is religion that, regardless of differences in understandings of the Divine or metaphysical beliefs, promotes a healthy personal life and creates positive relationships among the people of the world. Sane religion is productive and allows for clear thinking and a mind free from rage, suspicion and hatred.
A 20th-century roll call of sane religious leaders would include the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mahatma Gandhi, and Pope John XXIII, all of whom found sustenance from within their respective traditions to increase liberty, peace, and justice at a personal, communal, national and international level. Sane religious people include the billions of regular people of all faith traditions who are good citizens, welcome the neighbor who is different from them, volunteer for community service and offer comfort to those in need. Religions and religious people can be a vital source for good and a productive element within civil society, but only when approached sanely with our minds tethered to compassion and our passions moderated by intellect.
Of course we have far too many examples of "unsane" religion: Pat Robertson blaming the Haiti earthquake on a "pact to the devil," Glenn Beck equating social-justice-minded Christians with Nazis, Christine O'Donnell running for the Senate on an anti-masturbation platform, and William Boykin telling a church congregation, "I knew my God was bigger than his," referring to a Muslim. I don't mean to say that Robertson, Beck, O'Donnell and Boykin are mentally unbalanced; I don't think they are. And I don't think that they mean to do harm. They are making these pronouncements out of their own worldview, which they have every right to do. However, I do not think that the religion they are promoting is sane in the sense of being healthy and productive. The comments of these Americans are at best trivial and at worst dangerous for a peaceful future.
In more extreme cases, when terrorists and militants use the Quran, the Bible, the Torah or Hindu scriptures to promote an agenda that condones violence and destruction, we are faced with the hard truth that what we teach within our religious traditions matters. There are destructive and dangerous texts in every religious scripture, and every tradition has its history of oppression. Yet within the same holy texts are passages that have inspired great acts of compassion and justice and which have been the building blocks of every major civilization. Religious people are faced with a stark choice between sane or unsane religion -- and the stakes couldn't be higher. Let's rally for sane religion!
While we are at it, let's rally for sane atheism, as well, for people who affirm their point of view and promote rationality and enlightenment principles without making blanket statements about other people who don't have exactly the same worldview. Sane atheism and secular humanists know that there can be reasonable and productive people from every corner of society, and that atheism can promote good as well as bad. Let's rally for productive and positive atheism and secular humanism! Just like sane religious people, sane atheists must affirm that everyone does not have to believe the same thing for us to live side by side in peace.
One final point, but perhaps the most sane point to remember, is that we can all be unsane at times. Even Jon Stewart rolled a clip of his own over-the-top musical tribute to Glenn Beck when he announced the rally. By its inclusion, he reminded his audience that all of us can lose sight of the imperative to live a sane political life and engage in sane discourse. Religious people can be too serious and forget to poke fun at ourselves and laugh. Religious people who attend the Rally to Restore Sanity should look at ourselves to make sure that our own behavior fits sane standards of productive engagement with the "other" and represents a profound search of the best wisdom our traditions have to offer in the areas of peace, love, virtue -- and joy.
See you on the Mall!