I grew up in a small town in the Bible Belt. There were only a few more residents in my hometown–800–than students in the high school I went to–about 700 (my high school was in the county seat, with a population of 5000, which is still equivalent only to about two big-city high schools). Until I was in my teens, I thought the only two religions that existed were “Baptist” and “Methodist”; and I was none too sure as to what the differences between them were, aside from their names. As with most small-town, Bible Belt kids of the 70′s, I put in my time in Sunday school and vacation Bible school, though I avoided actual church services on Sunday like the plague (I went–was dragged, actually–to church maybe two three times before I was eighteen, and went about two or three times more, all of which were funerals, between eighteen and twenty-six).
I did have an old children’s literature book that my mother had had in college, which had a few of the Jataka Tales, as well as a Hindu myth or two, in it. Thus I did have some exposure to other religions and cultures in my youth, though in a spotty and inchoate way. I was very much into Greek and Norse mythology, of which I read reams, but those were not living traditions (well, not then, anyway, as far as I knew), so for the purposes of discussion here, I leave them out.
When I was eighteen, I moved off to a college of 25,000 in a city of (at that time) 100,000 that was 130 miles from my home, in a part of my home state that was very much different from my hometown, both geographically and culturally. By this time, in the process of researching a term paper on Islam in my senior year of high school (the Iranian Hostage Crisis was still in the news then), I had read Huston Smith’s classic The Religions of Man (since renamed to the more gender-inclusive The World’s Religions). I had resolved to learn as much as I could about all the major religions. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty, I read the King James Bible and the New English Bible, as I have discussed elsewhere. Meanwhile, as has been mandatory for overly intellectual middle-class white kids since the 60′s, I read books of Asian wisdom in my freshman year at college (between the ages of eighteen and nineteen). Specifically, I read (in what order, I don’t recall) the Koran, the Dhammapada, the Dao De Jing, and the Bhagavad Gītā (henceforth I dispense with the macrons, since the book has become sufficiently well-known for its title to have become partly Anglicized). Read the rest of this entry