11 religions in 7 days

Anne Bokma embarks on a whirlwind week exploring the world’s great faiths.

Download Article PDF

If you could choose to be born into any religion, would you pick your own or another? Me? Sometimes I wish I’d been born a Buddhist.

Instead of being raised in the dour Dutch Calvinist church where I was exposed to such limiting concepts as unconditional election (only a lucky few are predestined by God for salvation) and total depravity (humans are incapable of refraining from evil), I would have learned about the Four Noble Truths, a philosophical guideline for ethical happy living.

Rather than face the ever-present threat of hell, I could have aimed for nirvana here on earth. Instead of looking toward the heavens for answers, I would have been encouraged to seek them from within. “Be ye lamps unto yourselves,” urged the Buddha.

But one’s faith is usually an accident of birth. Most often, culture determines belief, and my parents were born in Holland, not Thailand. Then again, it’s probably misguided to be jealous of other religions. The Buddha himself included envy on his list of the 16 defilements of the mind.

Despite its appeal, I had until recently a very superficial knowledge of Buddhism. Ditto for every other major world religion. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Hinduism and Sikhism. I knew nada about less familiar religions such as Zoroastrianism and Rastafari.

There are more than a dozen mosques in my hometown of Hamilton, yet I had little understanding of what goes on behind their doors. I’d been inside a synagogue only once, for a funeral. I was as ignorant about world religions as I am about the World Cup.

So when Encounter World Religions Centre, an organization based in Guelph, Ont., that promotes religious literacy, invited me to spend a week in Toronto this past summer learning about 11 religions in seven days, I didn’t hesitate.

Executive director Brian Carwana pitched his Discovery Week with the descriptive marketing savvy of a travel agent: “Walk across the cool stone floors and soft carpets of some of the largest temples in North America, see the spectacular icons of Buddhism, Hinduism and Eastern Orthodoxy and feel the contemplative quiet and stark simplicity of an Islamic mosque and a Zen meditation hall.”

He promised I’d drink wine with Wiccans, dance with Hare Krishnas, stand shoulder to shoulder with Muslims during Friday prayers, see the room where Sikhs lovingly tuck their holy book into a four-poster bed and visit an Anabaptist megachurch that broadcasts sermons to thousands of Ontarians in over a dozen movie theatres.

Download Article PDF