Recent events have raised the question once again as to whether religion has greater negative impact than positive in our world. While many religious people (myself included) like to think that a part of religions role should be to bring people together, there seems to be abundant evidence that religion can also serve to divide us. Love and compassion are at the core of most of the worlds religions. And yet acts of scorn, hatred, and violence are carried out in their name. Is this an inherent feature of human religion? Or is there hope and possibility for kinder, gentler religious practice?
Religion, at its best, provides an avenue for standing in awe at lifes wonders and mysteries, for finding meaning and for developing an ethical way of life grounded in virtues like gratitude, generosity and compassion. In doing so, each religion articulates its own particular foundational truths and understandings. As Charles Kimball writes in When Religion Becomes Evil, In every religion, truth claims constitute the foundation on which the entire structure rests. However, when particular interpretations of these claims become propositions requiring uniform assent and are treated as rigid doctrines, the likelihood of corruption in that tradition rises exponentially. Such tendencies are the first harbingers of the evil that may follow.
When religious people place more importance on the specific doctrines of their faith than on the guiding spirit that underlies them; when they insist that only they are correct, and those of other religions are all wrong; bad things can follow. As Kimball notes, (R)eligious convictions that become locked into absolute truths can easily lead people to see themselves as Gods agents. People so emboldened are capable of violent and destructive behavior in the name of religion.
But while Kimball recognizes the capacity of religions to become evil and destructive, he does not resign himself to the idea that such consequences are inevitable. He asserts, for instance, that a human view of truth, one that is dynamic and relational, enables religious people to embrace and affirm foundational truths without necessarily solidifying the words into static, absolute, propositional statements.
In other words, it is possible for me to practice my religion, and for you to practice your (very different) religion in an atmosphere of tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and even respect and understanding.
This is the approach of Interfaith Initiative Centre County, a local organization that, in the words of its mission, aims to foster compassion, charity and goodwill, and to build a healthy interfaith community by promoting respect, understanding, cooperation and friendship among Centre Countys faith communities and their individual members. We recognize our differences, but respect each others religious paths. The group sponsors numerous gatherings and programs intended to create opportunities for dialogue between and among faiths and to model healthy interfaith relations.
One such gathering, to which all are invited, is an interfaith picnic on Sunday from noon until 4p.m. at Sunset Park. In addition to being an opportunity to socialize and get acquainted, the picnic will mark both the United Nations International Day of Peace and the International Day of Prayer for Peace. I hope to see you there.
Rev. Mark Hayes is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County, 780 Waupelani Drive Ext. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.