People Are People First
I have studied and taught about religion for decades. What has leapt out at me time and time again as I look at the religions of the world are their similarities. Sure, religions are different. They have different creeds. Different practices. But there is a basic humanity shared by members of all religious traditions. Human beings want to be safe. They want to be happy. They love their family and friends. They also fear the unknown and things that may threaten their safety and loved ones. These are all basic human feelings and behaviors. We see them in all aspects of human culture. Religion is one reflection of human culture and we see these desires and fears expressed in religions.
When I have taught comparative religions and philosophy of religion, I tell my students that the primary thing to keep in mind when studying religion is that people are people first and they are whatever religion they are second. We are all human beings and our similarities far outweigh our differences. People are whatever their particular religion is second–after their basic humanity. Some students are surprised by this idea when I present it the first day of class. Some are dubious of the idea. They have been raised to focus on differences. Most, though, come to see the reality that people are people first and they see how keeping that in mind helps us understand people and religion.
Understanding that religion is an expression of people attempting to understand their world grounds religion in its cultural environment. We then see religion as a human expression, like numerous other expressions. This opens up religious behavior to our inquiries to see cultural patterns. Regardless of an individual’s particular religion, they express their humanity in their religious behavior. Religious stories allow people to connect with their history and identity. Religious rituals express people’s hopes for a better future. Religious gatherings and festivals express people’s desire for community. In all of these religious expressions, we see more similarities than differences. A Hindu festival and a Catholic ceremony are essentially the same at their core. They are different expression with different colors and sounds, but more importantly, they are people being people.
When we forget that people are people before they are their religion, problems arise. Believing that another person’s religion makes them radically different justifies discrimination against them. Taken to an extreme, people in different religions are seen as less human. They are declared irrational, delusional, and evil. Forgetting that people are people first leads to hostility and violence.
That people are people first extends to all other aspects of human culture. You are a person first then everything else that you are after that: your nationality, your color, your gender, your religion, your politics, and so on and on. If you forget that, you lose your humanity as you dehumanize others.