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Lions Roar : January 2003
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 91 WHEN RELIGION BECOMES EVIL By Charles Kimball HarperSanFrancisco, 2002; 240 pp.; $24.95 (cloth) THE FUTURE OF PEACE: On the Frontlines with the World’s Greatest Peacemakers By Scott A. Hunt HarperSanFrancisco, 2002; 347 pp.; $24.95 (cloth) REVIEWED BY RITA M. GROSS IN A LIFETIME of studying and teaching religions, I have been sad to note that they may well do as much harm as good to humanity. Despite their ability to comfort, give meaning and promote peace, religions also have an ability to propel human beings into horrible deeds. Taken together, these two books suggest that if there is to be a future for peace, religions cannot be allowed to degenerate into forces promoting aggres- sion and warfare, rather than peace and wholeness. All too frequently, religions condone, foster or even encourage vio- lence, so long as it is in the service of the correct belief system. Even religions which strongly advocate non-violence frequently spiral from disagree- ment to condemnation of each other, though they may be closely related and share many common ancestors and teachings. What allows religious groups to promote violence when such atti- tudes seem so counter-intuitive to most of us? It is often claimed that conflicts between religious groups are actually about politics or eco- nomics. While it would be foolish to overlook the material causes of conflicts between religious groups, one wonders how much fuel for conflict would remain if the parties claimed the same religious identity: at least some of their propensity to promote violence and scorn for those who arrive at different conclusions must be found within the religions themselves. In his provocative and useful book, Charles Kimball isolates five warning signs that religions are in danger of promoting violence. He says that the exclusive- or absolute-truth claims often made by religions are the main culprit behind religious violence and much of the violence in the contemporary world. I agree with that assessment. Religions are at least as likely as any other social group to divide humanity into “us” and “them,” and to demonize the “other.” Exclusive-truth claims are common, if not universal in religions, so to understand how religion can promote peace rather than violence, we must explore how these exclusive-truth claims come about, and how their potential to promote violence and evil might be defused. Religion can be an intimate affair about which people become quite passionate because it touches their very core. Perhaps naturally, people want to believe that they have made the best possible choice regarding something so central to human wellbeing. People often feel that theirs is the “best” partner, the “best” family, the “best” pet ever, and usually rec- ognize that others feel the same way about their partner, family or pet. But when people speak this way about their religion, they frequently mean something else. They mean, “My religion is the best altogether.” In other words, they not only regard their religion as absolutely valid in their lives—they claim universal validity for it. Others should also come to view it as the best religion, they claim. Religions frequently indoctri- nate their members in that evaluation and discourage positive evalua- tions of other religions, regarding religious diversity as unqualifiedly neg- ative, due to major errors in human judgement. Sober assessment, however, leads to the conclusion that, even if it were desirable to do so, religious diversity will not be eliminated. We do not even need to appeal to the obvious plurality of major religions to prove this point; the persistence of conflicts within religions demon- strates that people simply cannot agree on how best to articulate and practice religion. But why is that a problem? Why should it matter to me if my neighbor believes something very different about the nature of ultimate reality than I do? Frequently, religions have put forth that something basic is at stake in religious claims and that those who make “mistakes” are in serious diffi- culty. Countless religious debates in which the stakes were, among other things, forced conversion to the winning side, religious wars and accu- sations of heresy, demonstrate that disagreement over deeply held reli- gious convictions makes people uncomfortable, to say the least. In fact, the dilemma of our world may be that, though people usually prefer to live among those who are like them, that luxury is no longer possible in most cases. We must live among those who see the world very differently. Unless religions begin to provide their members with tools for coping well with religious diversity, instead of continuing to encourage them to think of their religion as the best universally, reli- gions will continue to become evil in the ways that Charles Kimball details in his book. Historically, the monotheistic religions have experienced the greatest difficulty accommodating religious diversity, for obvious reasons. If there is one universal deity which reveals itself and its directives to human beings, it would seem logical to conclude that the deity would not send dif- ferent messages to humanity, especially messages that are mutually exclu- sive. Thus, it is no surprise that the most fundamental quarrel among the three major monotheistic religions concerns which really has valid revelation. If a monotheistic religion emerged into history later, it considers its predecessors to be obsolete; if it emerged earlier, it considers later reli- gions to be usurpers. Kimball’s book details numerous examples of monotheistic religions coming into conflict with each other and other religions because of their beliefs about their own exclusive validity. The contemporary conflict between Islam and Christianity is only a current version of such ancient hostilities. While it is true that grave economic and social issues pro- mote contemporary conflict between Islamic and Christian nations, many on each side of the conflict view the other religion as the main prob- lem. Easing the economic and social problems leading to these conflicts reviews When Good Religions Go Bad