I remember when I was in the sixth grade and my best friend was a boy named Joe who was a Jehovah’s Witness. I was still Catholic and believed Joe was going to hell so made it my purpose in life to point out the errors of his religion and convert him to the One True Church, which, as luck would have it, happened to be the one I belonged to. As it turns out, Joe felt the same way about his faith, so even as I was trying to convince him to join the One True Church, he was doing the same thing to me.

The odds were in my favor. Catholics celebrated birthdays and Christmas and Jehovah Witnesses didn’t. Plus, I told him, we Catholics could do anything we wanted so long as we went to confession every week. While I later learned that wasn’t exactly true, I believed it to be true at the time and almost had Joe talked into visiting the One True Church with me, but then he and his family moved away, and I never saw him again. I think of him often though, all these years later, and remember our playground disputes, each of us zealously defending a faith we had no say in joining.

Despite the differences in our faith, Joe and I both learned the one truth common to most faiths, that religion, at its heart, was adversarial, that for my religion to be right, all others were necessarily wrong, and that it was my job, nay my sacred duty, to tell them so.

The founder of Quakerism, George Fox, believed this so deeply, so fervently, he made it his custom to visit other churches, where he would stand and interrupt the sermon, arguing with the minister. This often ended in his arrest, which in his mind only verified the veracity of his beliefs, it being common among fanatics to believe any difficulty they suffer is an indication of God’s favor.

Since we’ve been diligent in our praise of Quakerism, it behooves us to acknowledge our shortcomings, hence this sermon series we’ve called What In the World Were We Thinking? Today, I would add to our list the tendency of early Friends to believe our relationship with other faiths was primarily adversarial. We believed that for us to be right others had to be wrong, and it was our sacred duty to inform them of their error.

Shortly after our founding, when Quakers were moving to America and experiencing persecution and even death, the founder of Rhode Island, the Baptist Roger Williams, promised Quakers they could find freedom in his colony and so Quakers flocked there. Despite William’s hospitality, George Fox wrote a triumphalistic pamphlet, circulating it throughout the American colonies, pointing out all the theological errors of Roger Williams and the Baptist faith. The pamphlet was called The Boasting Baptist Badly Beaten. And this is how we treated our protectors. What in the world were we thinking?

I’ll mention Jim Mulholland since he’s with us this morning. When Jim and I met in seminary, he was an American Baptist minister pastoring a United Methodist church and I was determined to turn him into a Quaker, because, you know, I thought we were the One True Church. I had a copy of The Journal of George Fox, which I gave him, urging him to read it, convinced it would cause him to see the light and become a Quaker. How could he not? So he read it, then gave it back to me. I asked him what he thought of George Fox.

“Pretty amazing, eh?” I said.

Jim, who had majored in psychology in college, said, “Honestly, I think he was nuts.”

When I pointed out that the word “nuts” could not be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders book, he nevertheless insisted Fox was two eggs short of a dozen. Now, some 36 years later, I find myself agreeing. There is something nutty when we require others to be wrong so we can be right.

With a few exceptions, this mindset is endemic in religion. We can fill a stadium or win public office denouncing people of other faiths, when interfaith gatherings can’t fill a conference room at the Holiday Inn.

What is it about religion that makes our relationships so adversarial, so antagonistic? Can it be religion’s tendency to deal in absolutes, in certainties, which leaves little room for cooperation and mutuality?

Here’s what I’ve been thinking: If religion is the vehicle for our moral growth, and that is what most religions claim to be, the arbiter of morality. We embrace that role. We took our children to church so they could learn a moral code. So if religion is the means by which we morally evolve, doesn’t it stand to reason that religion itself should morally evolve by growing out of its sectarian, absolutist tendencies and move toward a more tolerant humanism? What would this look like? Perhaps like this. We would no longer have as our goal the pleasing of God, whom we cannot see, whom no one has ever seen, but instead would have as our goal the betterment of our fellow humans, whom we do see and experience every day of our lives. If this were our goal, religion would no longer be adversarial, but cooperative. We would not concern ourselves with the perceived errors and heresies of others, but would keep an eye peeled for beauty and truth wherever they were found, with no regard for their origins.

I have little interest in any religion whose chief goal is the triumphant conquest of other faiths. Such religions will be the death of us all. But I am very interested in any social movement that fosters and promotes mutuality, compassion, and our ethical evolution. I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe God is not found in our ultimatums, in our final and uncompromising assertions, but in our curiosity, in our wonder, in our heartfelt desire to learn not just from those who most resemble us, but especially from those who don’t.