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).
The contention should not simply end with statement that the entire “Takfiri” sectarian problem within the Islamic world is the result of a trifle, but that all sectarian strife in the world is, has been and will be the result of a trifle rather than a true faith dispute. When evangelical Protestants declare that Catholics cannot be saved, they are excommunicating other people of their own faith over a trifle, and are therefore also Takfiris like the recently infamous Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
So, if differences over faith are not the real source of sectarianism and exclusivism, what can be eradicated in order to prevent violent sectarianism? The truth lies in an honest examination of the secular sources of violence between the different cultural groups in question. In Sri Lanka, there is tension between the Tamils and Sinhalese, the latter of whom include religious extremist preachers who identify as Buddhists. This is identical to the situation in Iraq, although the conflict in Sri Lanka is described as more “ethnic” than sectarian (the difference is trivial.)
In each community suffering from sectarianism, the problem is really always a unilateral extremist power ideology (in the same sense as “Hutu power” or “white power”) coming from one faction, with religion invoked in a clumsy and erroneous manner to justify atrocities against other human beings. These atrocities are motivated by a primal conflict over resources and are non-religious in nature, even if religion is invoked as a sordid attempt to dignify the atrocities. As such, religion cannot be blamed, but nationalist power ideologies can be blamed, which brings us to the real problem.
Always, religions are accused by their detractors of causing or excusing violence and military aggression, and yet nation-states are not accused so by these detractors. And yet, if we look at this problem objectively, religions are not involved in violence perpetually, but nation-states are involved in violence perpetually. Nation-states are based not only on perpetual application of violence through law enforcement, borders and armed force, but nation-states are known by modern sociology to be founded on the belief in arbitrary fictional entities – “nations”.
It causes wars. Note that militant atheists quite often level this very same claim against religion that can be levelled against the state with ever more forcefulness and validity. It is legitimate to assert that there are no “nations”. Nations are narratives invented (sometimes overnight) by political factions to justify their rule over a particular territory and receive the compliance of the people within it. Why is it acceptable for people to believe these myths that consume millions of lives, but harmful for people to believe in God as a benevolent entity favoring peace?
There are few examples to show religion causing war without the real cause being nationalist aggression and pride, but every example of war has involved nationalist aggressors of some variety. If there is a false idea to be censured for causing hatred and war, it could only be the continued earthbound power ideology that one nation can be superior or more deserving than another. While there are many people quick to remind us that religious authorities must be barred from politics, we see too few calls to ban the misguided system of pride that has caused all wars and has sent millions of men to their graves. While it has shown its merits in preventing faith-related persecution by governments, the barring of religious guidance from the halls of power has not done anything to prevent wars. The belief in nation-states as vessels for legitimate interests, by comparison, has led to all wars.
What must be added to this conclusion is that religiosity is increasing in the world, and is a source of consolation to the millions most afflicted by war and poverty. While this happens, the Nineteenth Century nation-state is rapidly losing legitimacy and loyalty. Our states are failing to maintain their cultural homogeneity which had secured confidence in the myth of the nation, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected by means of communication, education, migration and transport.
In the midst of so much uncertainty, one thing is certain: religious faith as we know it will outlive the state as we know it, and such an inevitability makes the political future more dependent on the construction of beneficial relations among religious communities than among states. In this sense, religion holds an indispensable key to world peace that no state will ever possess.
Harry J. Bentham is a futurist author based in Britain. His background includes a degree in Politics and Religious Studies, and membership in the prestigious scientific Lifeboat Foundation think tank since 2013. As the author of several science fiction and political science books, his commentary has also gathered increasing attention and praise at over 40 diverse publications. Other examples of his work have featured at the academic Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) and the tech enthusiast h+ Magazine. He also currently updates his own biweekly web magazine through ClubOfINFO Circulation. To read more from Harry, visit his column, L'Ordre.