The failure of people of faith to stand together in the interests of peace and understanding has not only encouraged disbelief in God, but supports the claim that religion is an active source of harm in the world. However, throughout their history, it has remained a fact that the major religions have done more to unite the world than they have done to divide it. Further, there are strong grounds for claiming that the murderous sectarianism being witnessed in places like Iraq is of secular nationalist origins rather than originating from true belief.
The major religions have thrived on peace, not war, and the size to which they have grown is not a testament to the historic military might of their host nations but their capacity to communicate and inspire. To find the true cause of the divisiveness and sectarian aggression challenging the security situation in Iraq and the world at large, we must correctly analyze the ideological arrogance provoking violent militancy within the human community, as I shall do in this article.
Having mentioned Iraq, it is important to state that this essay is not exclusively focused on the schisms within Islam but within all the major religions. It is also important for me to state that I am writing this article from the standpoint of a secular thinker rather than associating with a particular religious tradition of my own. Because of this, my concern is the social and political efficacy of the religions rather than a desire to dispute or confirm the truth of any one of them.
Here is my challenge to adherents of all religions: the greatest confirmation of your doctrine’s truth and beneficence in the long term is going to be the capacity for the adherents to agree with one another and so dedicate themselves to attaining a peaceful and tolerant society. To encourage this outcome, we must consider the pluralistic theology of the late British theologian John Hick, whose hypothesis states that different religious sects all perceive the same divine reality. A God that is really the supreme power in the universe would surely be reachable and perceivable to all intelligences and cultures in the universe, which makes reaching God a task that is necessarily dependent on maximum communication and understanding. By extension, rejecting alternate experiences of the divine through alternate traditions is tantamount to rejecting contact with God.
In his essay “Who or What is God?” Hick posits, “Perhaps the ultimate light of the universal divine presence is refracted by our different human cultures into the spectrum of the different world faiths.” If we apply this idea to the problem of sectarianism, it means that only manmade cultural icons and marks drive opposing sects into attacking and rejecting each other’s rights. There can be no divine source of any claim that another person might be a religious enemy for having an alternative experience or understanding of God – such a claim is by definition false and man-made within Hick’s pluralist theology. No God with the wisdom to illuminate a path to enlightenment and unity would preach the idea of destroying another sect, so such disequilibrium can only be recognized as the result of human arrogance and an affront to the “universal divine presence”. Wherever a person preaches disequilibrium, the only reaction favorable to humanity and God could be to say that this preaching is self-defeating, as it can only support disbelief and can never lead to stronger belief.
If we take the example of the schism between the Shia and Sunni within Islam, we are looking at a purely political one. The schism did not emerge in anything of consequence to belief itself, but in arbitrary claims that one sect or another has the true answer to the question of leadership of the Muslim community. For this reason, it is a purely political and therefore secular schism, and yet those who place emphasis on it claim to be obeying the will of God. People who believe that religious truth is necessarily tied to faction, geopolitics, language, and the disputes of men are not referring to the divine in the sense understood by the larger family of religions, but to themselves and what they want for themselves. Of course, the schism within Islam is more complex than this, but it has only matured thus from the aforementioned political dispute.
Those who excommunicate (“takfir” among Muslims) others because they do not share their political views or power interests appear to have supplanted God with themselves, and are hijacking God’s name to condemn or justify certain political designs arbitrarily. There, we have the sole root of the sectarian problem – Takfirism. The fact that the problem is excommunication on political, cultural or other self-centered human grounds is a confirmation that the violence originating from sectarian schisms is not religious at all, but political. It is not concerned with truth but with the arrangements of power, so it has no connection at all to what has been ubiquitously acknowledged as the divine throughout every human culture (if we continue to use Hick’s rainbow analogy).