On the treadmill at the gym about 6 oclock one morning, a friend greeted me with this question: Can anyone say that religion is really a positive force in this world, or does it just serve to divide people?
Always (well, almost always) up for a philosophical discussion, whatever the time of day, I dove into the topic there and then.
Well, believe it or not, I said to him, I used to think just like you that religion was at the root of many of the worlds wars.
After all, I came to adulthood in the 1970s, and being of Irish descent, was very conscious of the long, agonizing conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, not to mention the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.
Since that time, religious strife has sprung up all over the world among Christians, Muslims, Jews, Animists, Buddhists, Hindus, even zealous Communist partisans (who seem almost religious in their faith) and between various sects within religions. I agreed with my friend that religion has, to all appearances, played a divisive, even intentionally war-mongering role despite the fact that all major religions (including officially atheist Communism) see themselves as avenues to peace and brotherhood!
Yes, I said, religion seems to have played a terrible role in the world if you look at the surface of many conflicts.
Then I continued: But can you tell me any war where they are actually fighting mainly over theological differences that is, actual difference in religious belief between people rather than over ownership or access to land or property or resources, political or economic power, a place in government or equal rights?
Civil rights or liberties, or economic or political power are denied one group or another and religion, like ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, etc., is one way of labeling people, some of whom have been denied rights or have themselves denied rights to other groups.
Religious belief is strongly tied to peoples sense of identity. And religious loyalties can be misused and people manipulated even whipped into murderous frenzy by irresponsible leaders hungry for power, especially those who twist scriptures toward violent ends.
My own religious tradition certainly has its share of shame. After the first 300 years in which Christians were largely nonviolent, like Jesus, religiously based violence happened far too often.
That said, extremist, power-hungry ideologues and fundamentalists of many faiths and sects, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and more, continue to manipulate people and whip up murderous fervor around the world, provoking remembrances of past shames or present injustices among people.
But responsible religious leaders of all faiths, including members of Interfaith Initiative Centre County, have worked assiduously to foster mutual understanding and appreciation among religious groups. Elements common to all major spiritual philosophies love of God and love of (care for) the neighbor have come to the fore as guiding principles. These twin principles underlie the Golden Rule (Do to your neighbor only that which you would like done to yourself) and have much to offer the world of politics and economics for the furthering of peace and justice and the ending of conflicts throughout the world.
Sarah Malone is convener of Interfaith Initiative Centre County. Readers may write to her at interfaith email@example.com.