If you grew up in rural Ontario, you would probably agree that cultural diversity wasn't a core feature of your early life. This is certainly the case in the picturesque village where I grew up, a strongly-bonded community where families have lived for generations. While there were periods of my life when a family from India or Morocco might come to live in town, these periods were always short and extremely rare. Even today, if you spot someone in town wearing traditional attire, it's safe to bet that they have taken a short stop off the highway to refuel.
I attended school with the same class of students from the first grade until high school graduation. In many cases, our parents and grandparents grew up together as well. Considering how intertwined we are, it's only natural that a great deal of empathy exists in my community. For small town folks, empathy and kindness grow out of deep historical, familial, and community relationships. When donating to the local Food Bank or snowsuit drives, you usually know the families who will benefit from your charity. The familiarity between people in my town corresponds to a sense of shared destiny and responsibility towards one another.
In my first year of university I was suddenly living in a culturally diverse setting. I shared my dorm with a roommate from Hong Kong and friends from West Africa, St. Lucia, Equador, and Pakistan. It wasn't long before I realized that compared to the students from cities, I knew very little about the cultures and religions practiced by my new friends.
What I lacked in exposure I would soon make up through my desire to know my neighbors. My small town upbringing kicked in, and I knew that to have meaningful relationships I had to learn about the values, customs, and ideas that inspired my friends' lives.
From an introduction to Holocaust Studies to Buddhist Philosophy, I explored the world by reading sacred texts and histories. I learned about the virtue of honor and its metaphysical, moral, and social significance in East Asian traditions. I was exposed to Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism and became aware of the religious diversity in India.
I felt most out of place in my introduction to Islam. Not having grown up with Muslim peers, I had no point of reference. Aside from fleeting glimpses at the media, where I saw images of exotic clothing, languages, and customs, I knew nothing about the religion. That year I learned the major tenets of Islam and its important figures, rituals, and texts. Things that were once incomprehensible to me - headscarves, the prohibition of alcohol, and the demanding commitment of the five daily prayers- became significant topics to engage intellectually.
This class led to a personal breakthrough. For the first time, I was able to think about Islam in light of its own cultural universe, rather than judging it according to the standards of my own values and beliefs. To make things easy, we often define unfamiliar things with one simplistic characteristic. For example, I've heard many times that Islam is "violent" and Buddhism is "peaceful," though violence and peace are neither appropriate nor adequate descriptions of such vast and complex systems of belief. This experience showed me that the more familiar a topic becomes, the more we see its many layers, its meaning in different contexts, and its constant evolution. It was then that I realized the power of familiarity.
People often assume that the study of religion is for religious people, or that you should only study your own religion out of the concern that other traditions might challenge your beliefs. I assure you, education in Religious Studies does something far more sophisticated. It highlights the historical connection between religious communities, shared values, beliefs, and references. It also emphasizes the important differences that make communities unique. University courses on religion are not platforms to preach a religious message; they are opportunities to know the world and its people. The study of religion is a way to become familiar with the ideas, beliefs, and experiences that make people who they are. In other words, it is a way to get to know your neighbors.
Growing up in a small town taught me that familiarity and fidelity go hand-in-hand. In our globalized world we are constantly presented with opportunities to bridge gaps and build communities, but this can be difficult when on the surface people appear so different.
If my small town values have taught me anything, it's that through familiarity with each other, it is possible to extend the boundaries of our community and begin to imagine our destiny as truly intertwined. After nearly ten years, I continue to study religion because I know first hand the power of familiarity to promote goodwill and understanding.