It was a recent post of my esteemed colleague, Professor Clarita Carlos, that got me working on this piece. As always she posed an intellectually stimulating question with eminently practical entailments. Why is it, she observed, that most of the world’s religions profess the high values of justice, peace and brotherhood but are, quite paradoxically, the very reasons of conflict and of violence? If there were indeed a correlation, then one would be justified in entertaining the proposition—so damming to religion—that not only is it the opiate of the people but that which sows the detestable seeds of violence. I have taught and written on the philosophy of religion for some time now, and obviously, this is a question that concerns me, both as a priest and as an assiduous practitioner of phenomenology.
It is a fact that many of the major conflicts today are played out in a religious context: there is the Catholic v. Protestant rumbling that has refused to quiet down in Ireland, the Jew v. Muslim Palestinian conflict that has flared up after Trump’s surprise proclamation of a capital for the State of Israel, and of course the all too obvious Muslim v. Christian conflict in other parts of the world, to which we must add the rather interesting, if deplorable, development as of late: Muslim extremists v. moderates and progressives.
But what is it about religion that links it to conflict and to violence? Few religions, if any, teach the virtue of violence, and Ayn Rand who wrote on the virtue of selfishness, as did Mo tze in ancient China were thought leaders, not religious founders. Hick’s examination of the religious phenomenon allows him to recognize three levels of interpretation. One interprets on the physical level: the glistening drops we find on leaves early in the morning, we interpret as dew. Some interpretations are so fundamental that they are universal, other physical interpretations are more complicated and engender disagreement: what light really is, for example: particle, or wave. The next level of interpretation is moral, but this level presupposes the first. There are many who traverse the pedestrians’ overpasses in Manila, and many “interpret” the prone figures in rags as beggars with nowhere to go, completely mired in their privation. While some pass by nonchalantly, others stop by to drop a few coins. Ever so rarely, someone will stop to take them to sanctuary or to hospice care. The point is that while most do not interpret the situation as morally compelling, others do. As in the physical level, there will be arguments for one interpretation, as for its contrary, but there will always be an”epistemic distance” that never forecloses alternative explanations. The most comprehensive of all interpretative levels is the religious level, once more presupposing both physical and moral interpretations. Within this all-encompassing sphere, this overarching level of explanation every physical event, every noble, worthy and humane act of the moral agent is explained in relation to a Divine plan, design, scheme, purpose or initiative. The concrete forms of explanation are reposed in the narratives of each religion and systematized in their theologies.
Precisely because the religious interpretation is the most comprehensive, it is able to harness the deepest levels of the human sense of obligation and of commitment. Saddam Hussein will not be forgotten when the West threatened an invasion of Iraq: first, he called on his people to defend Iraq; second, he progressed to the moral level and characterized the conflict as one between good and evil; finally, he appealed to religion as rallied his people to champion the cause of God against infidels. He was tapping on the very nature of religion—as so many had done before him. One need not think only of the Crusades (which were certainly examples of the power of religion to stir peoples to armed action). One must also think of Muslim expansionism that triggered the Crusades, in the first place.
Religion then is not at all like affiliation or membership with some civil society or other, from which one can take a safe, existential distance when necessary. It has to do with the definition of a meaningful life, one’s existential concept of “the good life” (so fundamental to Aristotle’s thought), and one’s world of values. Ethics that are hardly anything more than the conventions of a profession do not hold much persuasive power. But when the ethical precept is born of religious belief, it becomes almost irresistible and irrepressible in its persuasive force! Any threat to one’s religion therefore shakes the ground from beneath one’s feet and really poses a “cosmic” threat in that in threatens to undo one’s sense of order, sense and purpose. It will be defended with fervor and with zeal.
That, of course, is true no only of religious, but of all attempts at providing comprehensive cosmic maps or of offering a zeitgeist. Marx’s attempt at a philosophy of history and his own version of Nirvana—the classless society—had the same effect. It so took hold of the imagination of the Bolsheviks and then of the Maoist insurrectionists in China that aside from the brutal execution of the Romanov Family and the numerous executions attending the purges, gulags also sprung up in the vast and bleak nothingness that was Siberia, and hundreds, if not thousands, lost their lives in the bloody purge of the Cultural Revolution. Several times in the past, the world came very close to the brink of disaster not because of religious dissension, but because of ideological fissures. And the writings of existentialists from the rubble of the two world wars should be ample proof that besides towns and cities, those lofty ideals whose colors nations flew and in whose name they unsheathed their swords were likewise in shambles.
The point to this all is not the suppression of religion, and much less, of its marginalization. Militant Islam is partly a result of the marginalization of religion. Militant Muslims—very like many fundamentalist Christians—are prepared to slash and burn, torture and maim, when they are convinced that the “infidels” are poised at converting the whole earth into a playground of unbelief. Religion is a stubborn phenomenon because the human person asks the perennial questions to which religion provides answers. And labelling religion as “irrational” only takes upon the conflict a notch higher because it forecloses any opportunity at dialogue.
What is needed is the insistence, in all religions, that there be a critical moment: that philosophers be allowed to ask critical questions, and that theologians be challenged to provide intelligible systematizations and to re-examine assumptions. On the part of secular society, what it must desist from is the outright rejection of religion as unworthy of engaging in dialogue and consigning all its precepts, particularly its ethical commands, to the dustbin of obsolescence. And in our contemporary societies markedly qualified by pluralism, it would be as deleterious to the cause of peace for the state to impose secularism—state-sponsored indifference if not rejection of religion—as it would be to make one religion prevail over others.
The sin really lies in turning difference to hatred, and making of “the other”, “the enemy.”