There is perhaps no examination of the self that is more important than the consideration of our spiritual beliefs and how these ideas and values affect our religious practices and our daily lives. Although this was not the case historically, in most contemporary North American societies, religion is not a dominant aspect of identity, whether individual or communal, that affects people’s daily lives (Pierotti & Wildcat, 2000). Rather, North Americans’ consciousness about religion tends to be limited to once or twice a week, when people come together to share in rituals that reaffirm their faith and values.
In this regard, North Americans might be anomalous when compared to the majority of the world’s inhabitants. As I traveled around the globe with the military, I was exposed to other societies and cultures in which religious consciousness is infused into almost every aspect of people’s daily lives and is even embedded deeply in their social and political structures. Through this unique opportunity of learning about other people’s religious beliefs and practices firsthand, I not only developed an appreciation and tolerance for religious diversity, but I also became more conscious about my own spiritual beliefs and religious practices, ultimately resulting in making a renewed commitment to the Christian faith within which I was raised. In this sense, I believe that I have fulfilled the cycle of learning as described by Kolb, moving through the phases of concrete experience and reflective observation to abstract conceptualization and active experimentation (Kolb, Boyatzis, & Mainemelis, 2001).
As a member of the American armed forces, I was fortunate to be stationed at military bases in countries where I might not otherwise have had the opportunity or motivation to travel independently. My career with the military took me to countries as far away as Japan and as unknown and seemingly mysterious to me as the Middle Eastern nations of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt. When I arrived in each country, I, like many of my military colleagues, tended to view each nation and its people monolithically, based only on my limited knowledge of the country, knowledge which was largely formulated based on reports I had heard in the mainstream media. I exhibited a tendency to view everyone in the host country globally, rather than to recognize the diversity that existed among people. It was only as I was exposed to people from each culture through my concrete experiences with them, whether through work contacts or during leisure time, that I began to notice more subtle nuances that affirmed the complexity of each country, its people, and their variety of beliefs and practices. In this stage of concrete experience, I was simply gathering information based on direct contact with people in the host cultures. Later, I would begin to compare this information against my existing fund of knowledge through the process of reflection, often arriving at new conclusions.
Through the accumulation of diverse experiences in different countries and upon active reflection in each nation and about each experience, however, I also began to understand that there is, in general, a stronger sense of religious identity in many other nations when compared to the United States. Perhaps it is because the United States is a country of immigrants that there is the tendency for religious identity tends to exhibit greater diversity, more diffusiveness, and less overt expression in most Americans’ daily lives. Although there are notable exceptions to this observation, one can argue that, in general, the citizens of many other countries in the world, especially in Asia and in the Middle East, demonstrate an integration of religious beliefs, values, and practices into their daily lives and even into their social customs and observations, as well as their political cultures.
For instance, in Japan, Buddhism is one of the predominant and traditional religions that are practiced. Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan from Korea, which, in turn had inherited the religious tradition from China, in A.D. 522, was initially resisted by Japan’s imperial officials (Eliot, 1993). Over time, however, the philosophical tenets and religious practices of Buddhism were not merely adopted by the majority of Japanese people, but also came to influence modern Japanese culture and values considerably (Eliot, 1993). Buddhism calls upon its adherents to exercise a certain degree of restraint with respect to the pursuit of individual desires, and emphasizes the importance of choosing a life path that is cognizant and respectful of the larger community and the world within which it is located (Eliot, 1993). Other core beliefs of Buddhism that have influenced modern Japanese culture include the exercise of empathy and compassion towards others and an effort to remain present in each moment. If one looks carefully at Japanese culture, it becomes increasingly apparent that the spirit of Buddhism, if not its very practice, influence Japanese society and Japanese people’s ways of being significantly.
Perhaps the influences of Buddhism on Japanese culture that are visible to the attentive observer are far more subtle than the influences of Islam on the majority of Middle Eastern cultures, at least the ones to which I was exposed during my term of military service. In the Middle East, religion truly seems to pervade daily life and is inculcated and embodied in the institutions and infrastructure of these countries. For me, seeing this fact in person—rather than merely hearing about it and trying to understand it intellectually through news reports—was both fascinating and frustrating. In the United States, the founding fathers of the country attempted to introduce and implement provisions that would clearly define a line of demarcation between the church and the state. Laws and a sophisticated system of checks and balances are just two ways that the constant vigilance regarding the separation between the church and the state is accomplished.
In Middle Eastern countries, however, the very notion of separation and church and state seems to be a non-issue. In fact, the contrary is true; to the outside observer, it appears that the state and the church are closely linked in the Middle East, that they are, possibly, totally indistinguishable entities in many ways. As in Japan, religious beliefs and spiritual practices exert a strong influence over daily life in the Middle East; unlike Japan, however, religious beliefs and practices seem to be institutionalized throughout these countries. One example of the way in which religious beliefs are institutionalized on a social level is the enforcement of sharia law (Moghadam, 2005).
Critics of sharia law, including Moghadam (2005), condemn the degree to which religion and social life have become intertwined, seemingly inextricable. Specifically, feminist critics and human rights activists, including Moghadam (2005), question the legitimacy of interpretations of ancient Islamic texts that have led to the creation and maintenance of rigid and restrictive social roles, especially those roles that have been instituted in the form of unquestionable gender norms. Moghadam (2005) observed that the strict interpretations and applications of Islamic beliefs have resulted in circumstances that “have not been kind to the women of the Middle East” in particular (p. 425). As an example, Moghadam (2005) cites the use of the burqa, the full body and full facial covering that many Muslim women are compelled to wear in public, as just one of the numerous social expectations and laws that are enforced by some Middle Eastern governments as a means of supporting and perpetuating the Islamic faith. As a result, Moghadam (2005) observed, women are forced by these circumstances to devise subaltern strategies for contesting the perceptions (and realities) that they are “victimized, passive, and traditional” (p. 425). Unfortunately, the Western world has largely perceived adherents of the Islamic faith either as extremist zealots or, in the case of many women, oppressed individuals living in a society where the line between church and state is non-existent.
Although these daily expressions of faith throughout Islamic cultures are often portrayed by Western media as bizarre and even pathological (Haddad & Smith, 2002), they are normative for the members of other societies. In fact, in many cases these daily expressions of faith are, at their core, a continuation of centuries-old traditions that have defined the most ancient nations and societies (Haddad & Smith, 2002). It is important to remember this fact and to avoid imposing Western values and opinions upon other cultures. Seen within this light, the spiritual beliefs and religious practices as expressed in other countries became less aberrant or strange in my point of view. In fact, the longer I lived in these countries, especially Japan, the pervasiveness of religious ideologies became normative.