When Does A Religion Deserve Our Respect?

Rev. Moon, the Korean founder of the Unification Church, whose followers are often called the "Moonies," died this week. Reflecting on his life and teachings, Kate Blanchard ponders how we respond to strange, new religious ideas – and argues for resisting our tendency to dismiss or ridicule them:

Moon did not invent arranged marriages; it is impossible to know what he believed; every new religion faces critique from older religions; and many social scientists now admit that any distinction between “cult-like techniques” like so-called mind-control, "coercive persuasion," and other more “normal” sorts of education or socialization, is in the eye of the beholder. In short, the Unification Church’s beginnings are not particularly radical when compared to other religions’ beginnings. So while it is certainly convenient (and mentally satisfying) to ridicule and dismiss, it also prematurely shuts down any meaningful reflection or conversation between different world views.

Our other choice—and, I think, a better choice—is to accept, even respect, others’ experiences as their experiences, even if they don’t make sense in our own world.

This isn’t easy, I’ll admit; Moon’s unbelievable autobiography, his later congressional coronation, questionable business practices, and family squabbles all put my posture of respect to the test, to say the least. (The Catholic Church and the Westboro Baptist Church do the same.) But ultimately I have decided to assume he was working in good faith. Not dismissing him as a charlatan doesn’t mean I agree with his teachings on sexuality or his economic behaviors; it doesn’t mean I believe he was anointed by God to do any particular salvific work on my behalf. It simply means that I must take Moon seriously, as if he were, well, an actual human being who tried to pursue happiness and avoid suffering, and who probably succeeded and failed at both in equal measure. I can empathize with him at that most basic level; I’ve never claimed to be God’s anointed, but I certainly say and do plenty of things that others question or that I later regret.