My father-in-law recently had a remarkable experience, one which strongly shows the mutual affinity between all shamanistic religions, as well as the value of religious diversity and tolerance.
My father-in-law volunteers at a local archaeology museum, where many artifacts from local Native Americans and indigenous cultures around the world are carefully preserved. He is frequently employed in sifting and cataloguing these artifacts: totems, masks, pipes, sheilds, and the like.
Recently the museum added a new wing. A great many treasures were to be moved from storage into the new wing, where they could be displayed. But it occurred to the museum curators that they should check with the cultures that produced the artifacts to make sure that their display would not be offensive.
Among the treasures to be moved were Maori artifacts, created by the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. Unfortunately, there are very few Maori living on the eastern searboard of the United States. The museum made a call to New Zealand to ask for advice.
“It would definitely be offensive to display the artifacts without acknowledging and thanking the ancestors,” said the Maori consultant they contacted.
“But what can we do?” asked the museum curators. “We can’t perform a Maori ceremony ourselves, and we have no local Maori we can ask.”
“Get some local Native Americans to do it,” suggested the consultant. “They will know what to do.”
So they did. A local elder was asked to come, and he graciously agreed. Since there were not enough local Native Americans to perform the complete ceremony, a number of people of European descent were asked to participate. My father-in-law was among them.
The ceremony opened with purification via smoking sage, and continued with pipe smoking and salutation to the various directions. For my father-in-law, whose religious feelings are a very private matter (he was brought up Protestant, but his own daughter has little idea of his leanings), it was a powerful and moving experience. Then the group asked permission of the Maori ancestors to display the holy objects, giving respect where it was due.
For me, the fact that the Native American ceremony was sufficient for the purposes of the Maori shows the deep similarity between all shamanistic, ancestor-based religions. Despite the fact that these religions evolved completely independently on opposite sides of the world, still they were similar enough to be substitutable in important ways. The same can’t be said for, say, Christianity and Zen. They are different kinds of animal entirely. Why this might be, and what its implications are, will become clearer later in the “How to Choose a Religion” series.
My second take-away message here was how important it is to foster tolerance of different religions. This whole situation would have been unthinkable just a couple of generations ago. The rights of the followers of the shamanistic religion would simply have been ignored. As this example shows, religious diversity is good not only for the minority, but for the majority.