This week I had an experience that I usually have several times every fall. I took my little group of World Religions students to the local Hindu Temple for a talk and tour by a member of the Hindu community. The man who had given us our tour the last couple of years was out of the province and a woman I hadn’t met before greeted my students, showed them the temple, and talked for about 45 minutes about what Hindus believe and how they worship.
As we returned to school and over the next day or two as they talked about the visit and handed back their response sheets to me, I noticed the same absolutely predictable formula that I see every time I do one of these visits (I routinely take groups to a Shambhala Buddhist meditation centre, to the synagogue, and to the mosque as well as to the Hindu temple). Because the woman giving the tour was warm and friendly, students came away with a positive impression of Hinduism. I’ve seen this over and over — a friendly, likable presenter leaves students with the impression that theirs is a good religion, tolerant and promoting positive beliefs. If the presenter comes across as dismissive, judgemental, or rude in any way, students come away with a negative impression of the religion. They focus far less on what the religion actually teaches, than on the demeanour and attitude of the person telling them about it.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to me after years of growing up in church and hearing “You are the only Bible some people will ever read,” and “Your life is preaching the Gospel According to You” and similar slogans. But it struck me with extra force after a week when a few eyebrows were raised by a “Christian” billboard (sponsored by Answers in Genesis) appeared among the flashing ads in New York’s Times Square:
I wonder how many people have ever looked at a billboard and said, “I’ve been wrong all along! There is (or isn’t) a god!! I must change my entire worldview!!!”
I don’t think billboards are an effective way of changing the way people think, or even the way they view our religion (or lack thereof). And although I would hope that most people who are moving either towards or away from a particular religion give it more thought than my World Religions students give to a one-hour field trip, I do think my students are essentially on the right track. More right than the billboard-makers, at least.
There is simply no more effective “advertisement” for (or against) any religion or belief system, than the lives of the people who practice it.
That’s not to say that a lot of people around me are going to suddenly say, “Trudy seems like a decent person; I should become a Seventh-day Adventist!” It may be as simple as the fact that a well-lived life with genuine kindness and concern for others breaks down barriers. I’ve written before about the fact that the prejudice many Christians have against atheists never had a chance to get a foothold in my mind because of the loving and generous spirit of an atheist family member. The best defense against the belief that “all Muslims are terrorists” is a getting to know a decent, honourable Muslim neighbour or co-worker. And yes, if you’re a Christian, the best advertisement for your Christianity is not the pamphlet you distribute or the billboard you pay for, but the life you live.
This week’s social-media news out of the US has included not only the billboard kerfuffle, but news stories that have made me at the same time proud of one fellow Seventh-day Adventist who holds a high profile in American life, and embarrassed by the views of another high-profile Adventist. And that, along with the visit to the Hindu temple, has made me think a lot about how I represent my faith to those around me. No matter what your belief — or lack of belief — you probably underestimate how much people judge that belief system based on what they see in you. And, of course, in me.