Ahhhh yes, here we are again – The Holidays. Yes, yes indeed it’s that time of year when most of us travel hither and thither to be with our loved ones; to give and receive presents; and generally take some time to “breathe” and reflect on the year. In fact, sometimes the festive spirit of the season becomes too palpable – so real that I swear I can hear the sleigh bells a jinglin’ wherever I… oh wait, it’s just the muzak playing as I buy my tooth brush at the grocery store… and, oh… “oh, sorry ma’am!” – just ran into someone trying to dodge the animatronic elf outside “Santa’s Wonderland” in the mall…

And that’s my point: With all of the hullabaloo over presents, cards, Black Friday deals, New Year’s resolutions….it’s exhausting. And it’s distracting – from the aspects of our lives that often matter the most, and from the very reasons many of us celebrate this time of year to begin with.

No, no, no, I’m not going to go on about how we should celebrate and remember just the Christian, Jewish, or Kwanzaa religions traditions – this commentary is broader than that. What I do want to say is that there are ways we can all celebrate all religious traditions – or at a minimum, respect them. And I think there’s no better time to talk about religious acceptance than the holidays.

In many ways Christmas and Hanukkah today are symbols – both powerful and important. The word “Christmas” is actually a compound for “Christ’s Mass,” and while December 25th is meant to celebrate the actual calendar day of Jesus’ birth, the actual day (and year, for that matter) is a topic of much dispute among scholars. Hanukkah actually originated as a “festival of lights” to celebrate the successful Jewish Maccabean Revolt against the Seleuicid emperor Antiochus IV. There’s a lot of interesting history behind each holiday. But what’s most important, I think, is the symbol that holidays provide for many people, and indeed what New Year’s in a secular way provides: They are symbols of renewal, a bright future … in short, of hope. (They’re also a great excuse to eat good food, enjoy good company, and generally be merry for a few days off work!)

But it’s not all bundt cakes and Reindeer…. because there’s also the flip-side of religion today – the conflict-inducing patterns our societies have embraced. All-too-often today our mass media portrays the images of horrible atrocities committed in the name of various religions, while ignoring the billions of religious followers world-wide who do great deeds in the name of their faith. And with the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the resulting War on Terror, it can be easy to develop what social psychologists call an “us vs. them” or in- and out-group mentality. It’s easy for us to develop radical notions of what followers of “other” religions are like; what “other” religions think, feel, say, do, value, and despise. Before we know it, we seem to “know” all about “other” religions and anyone who follows them. We seem to “know” “right and wrong.” And those “not with us,” are “mistaken.”

There’s great danger in generalizing assumptions to entire groups of people based on limited information. It’s called stereotyping, and a quick glance at human history shows us only too well how easily false assumptions about “others” not only create religious intolerance but also perpetuate cycles of violence.

In fact, some social scientists have begun to find evidence that as humans we have a ”dual” capacity to both “value equality,” but then at the same time make judgments about “others” who are not like us. … And if we’re honest with ourselves, this “dual” logic probably exists in most of our minds. In fact, I’ll say it right here – I’ll admit it openly: While indeed I do hold high the civic and moral value of “equality for all,” if I’m honest with myself there have been, and likely always will be, times when I will make judgments of other people. … And I’ll do it based on what I know, what I value, what is comfortable for me, and what I have come to trust.

We all judge. As humans we have to do it to survive; to make “heuristic”-based decisions based on what information we have; to forward our internal life narratives. And few things speak more deeply to our sense of self, identity, purpose, or comfort than religious ideology. For many of us, our faith is our compass. Our faith is what keeps us balanced, directed, assured, and connected to others who believe the same. Our faith is our rock.

It is because of religion’s power in all of our lives that it is important to always seek to understand and respect those of faiths other than ours…even if we don’t have a particular religion. Because if we don’t, then we run the risk of “valuing equality” while still “judging others” in ways that produce division, strife, even violence over issues that run to the core of who we are as human beings. And so, in the spirit of the Holidays, let us seek to first understand. Let us commit ourselves to understanding and accepting that there will likely always be religious differences between the great peoples of our planet, and move on … in peace.

Why are some so scared of other peoples’ faiths simply because they don’t match ours? Why are some so angry over the beliefs of others simply because they disagree? Sure, there are social structures that in some ways oppress those of certain faiths: When’s the last time the United States elected a Muslim president? But the goal then should become to help create understanding, which doesn’t require judging those with whom we disagree. Judging only makes things worse.

I say all of this with two major caveats: First, I’d like to think that most people at least intend to view others’ religious views in an accepting and respectful manner, which is wonderful. But intention and follow-through are often two very different things. It is an established sociological principal that our ideals often do not match our actions when it comes to judging those “like” and “unlike” ourselves. Second, there’s a difference between “tolerance” and true “acceptance.” … I’ve met scores of well-intentioned people who “tolerate” those of other faiths, but never truly “accept” them – that is, never truly respect alternative perspectives as much as their own. The bridge between tolerance and total acceptance is a hard one to cross, one that takes years of introspection – but one that is vital to fostering a healthy, peaceful world.

So how can we make the leap? How can we, in this festive Holiday season, come to better “accept,” and so less judge, those of other faiths? I’d like to think that a few simple ideas might help:

1. Attend a service of another faith. – Yup, you heard me. Of course, I’m not saying that onemust do this in order to better understand and appreciate other religions, but it’s certainly helpful. For instance, some of the most eye-opening religious experiences I’ve ever had were while attending an Orthodox Jewish service in Washington, D.C., a Muslim service in a mosque in Cairo, and a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints service in Salt Lake City. Am I going to convert to any of these faiths? No. But did each experience give me a deeper respect for the faiths and lives of others? Absolutely. 
2. Seek out people from other faiths and learn their “stories.” – Most major faiths have many stories, fables, and otherwise legends that ground their ethic and give followers ways to relate to the world. Some of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had involved friends from other faiths sharing their stories and insights. It’s been said that the mark of an educated mind is being able to at once hold an idea and not necessarily agree. Put another way, a good discussion of contrasting viewpoints never hurts the participants unless they are scared of what they might find. So start a good debate – dive-in, and allow your mind to wander. I’ve always found that taking the time to truly allow myself to hear others’ viewpoints only humanizes those perspectives. And once humanized, it’s that much harder for us to morally judge others’ views. 
3. Speak out when you see fear driving conflict. – And this isn’t easy. Despite all the advances of modern society, and despite the proliferation of information over the internet, so many times in our “developed” era we still see large numbers of people rise up against those they perceive as “different.” People are afraid of what they don’t know, and ultimately that fear motivates violence as people attempt to gain a sense of “control” over their fear. But technology now bridges information gaps that used to drive and perpetuate the fear of cultures beyond our homes. … And now it’s time for society to move-on. I can’t emphasize it enough: All true social change starts at the individual level – and it starts with each of us. Try to become aware of when you judge others hastily, and most certainly try to be a voice of reason when you see others headed towards judgment based on fear. Write an opinion for a local newspaper, write to Congress, be a voice for those of other faiths and backgrounds, even if they don’t match yours.

There truly is a lot of strife in the world today – a lot of violence perpetuated by fear and misunderstanding and an unwillingness to accept alternative viewpoints. Religion is such an important aspect of so many peoples’ lives across the globe – and that’s why it’s so easy for us to let our cognitive biases shape our views on others’ faith.

Let me be clear: I’m calling for a sense of balance when we consider our faith relative to others’ – no matter how “right” or “correct” our faith seems to us, or how “wrong” or “incorrect” others’ does. It’s not just about tolerating those around us with different faiths, it’s about truly accepting them – loving them, as human beings and as fellow travelers on this journey we call life.

So in about a week, when we’re all snug and cozying up with loved ones, singing carols, opening presents, lighting our menorahs – whatever we do this Holiday Season – let us keep in mind that true acceptance will always be the ultimate peacekeeper behind the “peace and joy” of our cherished Holidays.

by Zachary Ulrich

Zachary P. Ulrich is currently a researcher for Pepperdine School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. He holds a JD, Masters in Dispute Resolution, and Masters in Psychology (Clinical). Zach is an alumnus of General Electric’s highly-esteemed Financial Management Program, where he held several financial analysis positions of increasing responsibility and completed a graduate-level education in business management and operations. He has published over twenty-five articles and commentaries on organizational conflict resolution and mediation psychology.