The phenomenon called Religion can be discussed at different levels and in multiple contexts; one can talk about religion and God, religion and spirituality, religion and philosophy, religion and theology and many other associations. However, the one issue that is occupying more intelligent mental space than any other today is the impact of religion on world peace.The recent stand-off between the Pope and Islamic nations only serves to add another disturbing dimension to the issue.
There can be no argument that global peace is where human existence begins and ends. Without peace, the entire gamut of human achievement is rendered futile and meaningless. The world minus peace is equal to minus world. Now, where does religion figure in this equation?
More wars have been fought on the issue of religion than on any other account – a statement like this jolts and disturbs, because the pursuit of religion is supposedly a quest for inner peace; if religious strife is at the root of enormous conflict, what is religion doing to the world? The statement, however, is a statement of fact. Many wars, historical or contemporary, are conflicts between two religious groups.
Right through European history, religion has been a major war-trigger; the Crusades, the Turkish invasion of Europe, the Protestant-Catholic divide that was to later assume terrorist dimensions in the form of the conflict in Ireland, were all fallouts of religious intolerance and strife. The recent bloody wars in Afghanistan, East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan and the present conflict in the Middle East are all rooted in Christian-Muslim conflict.
However, whenever the head of any religious institution or entity is asked about his religion, his emphatic statement will invariably claim that his religion is a religion of peace and abhors all violence; when Islam is a religion of peace, why are Shias and Sunnis killing each other as well people of other religions? When Christianity or Judaism does not advocate bloodshed, why are Christians, Muslims and Jews slaughtering each other in the Middle East?
If we look at the evolution of various civilizations we find that human beings have always lived in groups and have fought with each other for control of resources. Before the evolution of states or nations, religion served to unite early societies, and offered them greater reach and bargaining power vis-Ã?Â -vis other societies. In the absence of any law and order mechanisms, religion laid down the laws. Religion also had a huge functional responsibility of keeping a semblance of discipline and order among warring tribes, and it served to impose a binding code of conduct in the absence of a basic legal system. The promise of heavenly rewards and the fear of hellish punishment were powerful triggers and controllers and played their part in toning down the excesses of an otherwise extremely primitive society.
Gradually, however, the control of religion passed into the hands of those who were considered ‘sacred’ or the priests; often these people were at loggerheads with the head of state or the governing council, leading to a continuing feud between Church and State which was a constant feature of English and European history, among others.
Religion can be perceived and experienced at different levels. Just as human life can be lived on the physical, rational, intellectual and spiritual planes, religion can be enunciated at various levels of abstractions. At the lowest level is the ritual level, at which conformity to the established religious practice is enforced without any question. At the highest level of abstraction religion is blended with spirituality and universalism and becomes a quest for truth and peace. The so-called mezzanine tiers are occupied by people who need the bonding and affiliation that religion offers, but are uncomfortable with the rituals and try to break free; these levels are the most populated.
Religious fundamentalism operates at the lowest level; adherence to tenets and teachings of the past is demanded without a thought about their relevance in today’s world. When societies ignore the fact that the lower levels of religion were created by a far less evolved mind in order to control and manage a very primitive and unruly community, when some groups attempt to live by the letter of their religious texts, a conflict arises between the world of reason and that of literal fundamentalist religion. When a system that has been in vogue for hundreds of years finds that it is unable to keep step with a dynamic environment then there is bound to be a confrontation between followers of the system and the environment they live in.
Religion-triggered conflict is a complex phenomenon to understand. In some instances the strife is purely owing to religious intolerance, as in the Crusades and the Irish civil war, among others. Very often, the underlying reasons of apparently religious wars are a combination of political allegiances, economic disparities, ethnic feuds, religious issues and others. In today’s world, wars are no longer about ideology; they are all about precious resources like water and oil, and the contest is all about hegemony and control of these resources. In many cases, however, it is seen that the feuding groups organize along apparently religious lines because they find it easier to galvanize support under a religious banner.
It may be certainly argued that most of the large-scale bloodshed of the last century was not based on religion, but was perpetrated by men and nations with atheist ideologies. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung have been responsible for the death, suffering and displacement of millions and millions of people. Defenders of religion argue that it is not religion per se but the exploitation of religion by certain vested interests, and the denial of fundamental human freedom that is the cause for wars in the name of religion.
An important validation platform for any system or phenomenon is the extent to which it has advanced human welfare and peaceful coexistence. If one were to evaluate religion on these criteria, its track record is not at all enviable. So in this era of science and rationalism, increasing secularization and individualization of society, where does religion fit?
Religion should be relevant to all those who believe in it, but at its highest level of abstraction, not at its lowest. In other words, wherever religion can be experienced as a means to greater individual spirituality and communal harmony, it can bring substantial benefits to our unquiet world. Religion must lead to a comprehension and appreciation of universal divinity instead of promoting narrow divisiveness
The urbanized developed world cannot be held hostage to theories and dogmas created in medieval times. Religion has to factor in development and progress if it has to be significant today. It is a fact that if wars based on religion were to end, or at least be reduced, the world would be a far more peaceful place. For this to happen, religious leaders and opinion makers have to be first convinced that war brings ruin and peace brings progress, and that it is in their own interest to choose war over peace. They must also understand the need to upgrade the fundamentals of their religion so that these are in sync with the times. The social, political and economic dynamics of the world today are so deeply interwoven and so interdependent that religion cannot be considered a factor in isolation, but has to be viewed in conjunction with issues like education, employment, technology and commerce. Once the realization is achieved that religion can be used to only foster progress and not foment war, the world would have a far greater chance of peace than ever before.