What fascinates me about the comparative study of religion and religious history are the similarities across time and cultures. Although the content of beliefs may change, again and again we see the same WAYS of believing and thinking. It is the WAY people believe, and how those beliefs work inside an individual's world view, that I find intriguing -- the true universal element of religion. I am less interested, now, in WHAT people believe, and more interested in the WAY they believe. Somehow, I think this way of examining human belief sets is important to defusing the religious and political conflict we are witnessing in our modern world.
As an example, from the days of Jesus all the way to St. Francis of Assisi, people with leprosy were shunned and avoided. The frightening physical manifestations of the disease were horrifying to see -- stumps of arms and fingers, horribly disfigured people, lesions and sores. It is easy to understand why people would be scared to be around, or in close contact, with lepers. As we know, lepers were often ostracized, forced to live outside the community, reviled and avoided by the "good" people of society.
In those days, leprosy was thought to be caused by sin. If a person had leprosy, it was because they deserved it. They were thought of as morally corrupt individuals, and their sins brought the disease upon them as punishment from God.
Neither Jesus nor St. Francis seemed to believe this, as both are known for healing or working among lepers. Of course, we know today that leprosy is a disease caused by a type of bacteria. So in retrospect, we know that people who believed lepers were sinners, and therefore deserving of the disease, were factually and historically wrong.
I see a similar kind of thinking among the so-called conservative and pseudo-religious wing of the modern Republican party. People of this ilk state plainly that poor people are poor because they deserve to be poor. They argue that gay people should not receive civil rights protection because their lifestyle is an "abomination against God." They argue that social support programs like Food Stamps and Welfare should be eliminated or reduced because, in their estimation, the recipients are not really deserving, or worse, are defrauding the government. Although the content of these beliefs is different, the structure of the beliefs are strikingly similar to thinking that lepers were being punished for their sins. It is a way of thinking based upon an assumption of moral superiority and self-righteousness. It is a way of thinking that "God loves me despite my flaws, sins and shortcomings, but God punishes you because you deserve it." This kind of thinking led some people to proclaim AIDS as a punishment for homosexuality. It is thinking on the same spectrum as that which led the Nazis to segregate, persecute and exterminate millions of Jews during World War II.
This way of thinking is making modern day lepers out of economically disadvantaged people in our nation, and around the world. It is creating life threatening circumstances and dangerous social environments for gay people here and across the globe. It underpins a very selfish effort by certain sectors of our populace to blame the victims of economic disparity. It is, perhaps, a psychological projection of their own evil natures and intentions onto people of differing socioeconomic status, or differing sexual and gender orientations. It is very much the kettle calling the pot black.
It demonstrates that WHAT people believe changes with history and social context, but HOW they believe remains surprisingly consistent. If we hope to disrupt this kind of behavior, this hypocritical self-righteousness and self-piety, we need to examine it more closely; we need to understand why this kind of believing is a persistent feature of human thought.