Understanding Religious Conflict in a World of Religious Diversity

Michael York
Bath Spa University College

Religion provides many people a means for recognising value and meaning while navigating the vagaries of life. To this end it becomes a major resource for most people on this planet. But concurrently, religion also becomes a major source of conflict such as we see between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, between Hindus and Moslems in Kashmir, and between Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka. The collective human psyche has been recently further scared by the demolitions of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan, the statue of the Cosmoplanetary Messiah of the Monastery of Mandarom Shambhasalem in France and the World Trade Center towers of New York. All of these have been acts of religious animosity. This talk will delineate the world's four major religious positions - the Abrahamic, Dharmic, Secular and Pagan - in attempting to understand the religious diversity of our planet in which the regression of religiously motivated strife occurs. 

Religion is among one of the more contested of human enterprises. While people of different persuasions each have their own understandings, even for the academic there is no consensus for an agreed definition of what constitutes religion.  One of the earlier academic understandings was presented by Tylor in his book Primitive Culture where he defines religion as “belief in spiritual beings.” While this is helpful, it does not go far enough and nor does it allow for some Buddhist and pagan expressions that we might otherwise understand as religious.

Before proceeding further, I wish first to present some other definitions that have been suggested possibly to enable us to come closer to articulate what we otherwise appear to understand implicitly without necessarily knowing why. For instance, Stewart Guthrie, in an article published by the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (35.4; 1996), suggests that “Religion is a form of anthropomorphism. Facing an uncertain world, we interpret ambiguous phenomena as what concerns us most. That usually is living things, especially humans.” From another angle, Ronald Hutton in his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles considers that religion consists of an offering up of prayers, gifts and honour to divine beings who operate quite independently of the human race and are infinitely more powerful than it.”  These are interesting understandings but ones that, along with Mensching’s (“Religion and the Holy” in Schneider: Religion, Culture and Society), “Religion is experiential encounter with the holy and the responsive action of the human being influenced by the holy,” are offerings that resonate with us but are nevertheless perhaps too selective and allow us at best an understanding of some religions but not all.

The classic sociological understanding is that of Emile Durkheim who claims that “Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices, relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden; beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them.” Contrast this with Thomas Luckman’s “Religion is the capacity of the human organism to transcend its biological nature through the construction of objective, morally-binding and all-embracing universes of meaning;” with Robert Bellah’s understanding of religion as “a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence;” with Clifford Geertz who sees it as “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating concepts of a general order of existence, and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic;” and, finally, with Erik Fromm’s position on religion as “any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.”

Now have all those definitions made the subject any clearer? Unlike the religious person or devotee, the academic is constrained by his or her position as an objective scholar not to pass judgement on the subjective validity of any given religion. While often we fail to live up to the demands of our trade and do indeed make value-judgements  - and often negative ones that may tend to dismiss religion as a human endeavour alone, I will agree with Fromm, Geertz and Bellah that religion is something that frames our perceptions.

Consequently, despite the various understandings and disagreements concerning either what religion is or what it does, I have been influenced principally by the British sociologist Bryan Wilson who recognises religion as a concern with humanity, the world and the supernatural. Building on this recognition, I have come to consider any particular religion as a shared attempt to identify the nature of humanity, the world and the supernatural and the relationships between them in terms of meaning, value and validation. I would like to stress here that foremost religion is something that is shared with at least more than one other person. If a person were to have a completely personal and private religious perception that no one else shared in either actual or virtual reality, such a perception would be a form of schizophrenia or madness. A singular worldview that no one else could comprehend places the holder of that view into a position of extreme isolation. This is not to say that founders of new religions – whether Christianity, Buddhism or Islam initially or more recent faiths such as Christian Science, Theosophy, Scientology or Aumism – would not be classified as mentally ill had they not attracted to themselves others who resonated with and came to understand their unique insights. Religion is a social phenomenon. Where faith and belief may be private, religion is not. It is accessible even though the routes of access may differ considerably from one religion to the next. But if the founding leader could inspire no one else to see what he or she saw, there would be no recognition of the individual as a religious figure but instead simply as someone possessed by lunatic delusions. Such people may be those who straddle this world and the otherworld, they may be iconoclasts who inhabit the innovative margins of everyday reality, they may be profound intellectuals and sensitives, but without their talents being augmented by the charisma of persuasion and enlightenment for others, no religion as such can arise from their special insight.

So my first point that I wish here to repeat is that religion is a shared phenomenon. The numbers of sharers, however, for any given religion may vary enormously. The members of a tribal collective may be no more, for instance, than a hundred or so people, but whether a small Native American community – or one among the indigenous inhabitants of Africa, Asia, Siberia, Oceania – they constitute an identifiable religious understanding that is shared and practiced between them. On the other hand, in its broadest sense, Christianity is a religious spirituality that is shared by roughly one-third of the population of planet earth. The Moslem community consists of another fifth of the world’s people, while twelve percent of humanity is Hindu and maybe six percent is Buddhist. With all these, we are speaking of huge numbers, and within each of these major world religions, we encounter an overwhelming proliferation of division and separation into distinct followings that exist vis-à-vis their larger collectives in various degrees of tension and possible conflict. But in all cases of what we are permitted to understand as religion, we will find a group of people who share a basic understanding between themselves concerning the supernatural, the perceptible world and the relationship of human beings to both.

So my second point is to elucidate and stress that what is shared is a position on these three basic fundaments. In other words, some religions deny the reality of the physical world seeing it instead as illusion or mâyâ – a product of cosmic or individual deception. Here we find many of the schools of Hinduism as well as Mahayana Buddhism. On the other hand, another religious position similar to this is that of Gnosticism which accepts the reality of the material but see no value in it. Here too we find Theravada Buddhism. All of these religious outlooks here, these particular religions, share an attitude toward tangible, physical reality. If they do not deny its ontological reality, they at least deny its importance. They deny ultimate value to the material.

A different religious position, however, is one that denies either the reality or value of the supernatural. Here we have atheism and some forms of paganism, materialism and humanism. Once again, Theravada Buddhism and, in an ultimate sense, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhisms as well may be seen in this light. These are religions that do not recognise a supreme creator or God. And while we tend to accept Buddhism as a religion despite the fact that it differs from what most of us consider as religion (such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism), my argument is that Marxism too is a religion in that it takes a position on the identity and nature of the supernatural. It too assigns meaning and allocates value on the basis of how it posits the identity of and relationship between the world and humanity and, in this case, a denial of supernatural reality.

So now I come to my third point, namely, once we understand what religion does for it to be religion, we can recognise that human nature is by default a religious nature in one way or another. We may all be differently religious, we may see things differently and practice differently, but we are all doing ‘religion’: we are all understanding ourselves as entities or phenomena in our universe – a universe that is mechanical and without enchantment for some, or a universe that is under grid by miraculous, non-empirical powers and/or beings for others. Whether we consciously focus on it or not, whether we are aware of what we do or not, whether we pay attention and reflect on these issues or not, we are each of us involved with life and where it is taking us. We are each concerned at some level of awareness with our place and raison d’être within the cosmos. This concern or involvement is religion. Religion is the understanding of this concern that we share with others. Our understandings may vary hugely, but to the degree that any given understanding is held by three or more people – whether they meet together physically or whether they simply have the same understanding wherever they might be on this planet and whether they are ever aware of each other – we have a religion.

OK, so now that we have come, hopefully, to an understanding of what religion is and what it does, I want to sketch for us what I consider to be the major religious options that the world entertains. In other words, I am looking at the world’s major religions and wishing to understand these both by their numerical strength and by their divergent theological positions.

I have already mentioned that Christianity is the religion of approximately one-third of the world’s population. Islam is followed by a separate fifth of the people of this planet. Both of these faiths are Abrahamic, that is, they claim the biblical patriarch Abraham as their founder. This places them, along with Judaism, as the three religions of the Book. Together, they represent half the world’s population, and they all posit an understanding of a personal creator God who is other than humanity and the world, who is a transcendent supreme being. Humanity is, from an Abrahamic perspective, always a subservient creation to an omnipotent and omniscient reality beyond space and time.

Another major religious position, however, is what we can label as Dharmic. The Dharmic religions are those of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Once again, as with the Moslems, we have here a collective faith position of another fifth of the world’s people. The Dharmic position is one that either rejects the tangible world as an illusion, a creation of mâyâ, or at least as something of no intrinsic value. The godhead, however, is not in itself a personal being – though it may include personality or even many personalities – but ultimately something that transcends all creation and all or any attributes inherent within creation. Unlike the Abrahamic search for salvation and the happy afterlife, the Dharmic faiths seek personal release from all desire and limiting identity. As a rule, these faiths tend to be more tolerant and inclusive of diversity – arguing that while the paths are many, they all ultimately come to the same Truth.

The third basic theological position, again one of approximately a fifth of the world’s population, is one that many of us would not consider to be ‘religious’ per se. These are those that I would label Secularists, and my argument is that they are religious in the sense that they have taken a position on – or in this case against – the divine as an independent and operative reality, and, it is within this understanding or rejection that they seek to locate value and meaning. And what I want to stress here is that whether we agree with such people or not, their position does not automatically mean that they are non-ethical or immoral people. Often, quite the contrary, and whether we agree with communism, humanism or the other Secular forms, most often these non-theological philosophies are nonetheless sincere attempts to secure a better and more equable  condition for humanity as a whole. And while Secularists include bone fide atheists, whether Marxists, materialists, humanists, etc., by-and-large they are simply agnostics – people who have either not been able to make of their minds or people who do not concern themselves with what the rest of us consider as spiritual matters. But however we wish to classify the Secularists, they represent a segment of collective human thought, and I argue that they must be taken into account in any hope for a cosmopolitan, tolerant and viable world of diversity and cooperation. They too have a legitimate seat at the world’s theological roundtable.

But another seat within the global religious forum is that of the Pagans, those who appear on the Aumist pyramid as the religions naturelles. Officially, these are much smaller in numbers than the Abrahamists, Dharmists and Secularists – comprising perhaps 6% of the world’s population. While this number may sound small, it still represents a substantial proportion of people, and just for purposes of comparison, the religions of Judaism, Baha’i, Sikhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism, all together, are represented by less than one percent of earth’s inhabitants. The Pagans, however, are chiefly the native faiths of China, Japan and Korea as well as the indigenous practices of Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. There is also a contemporary Western pagan movement, but when we talk of numbers, this is to date comparatively infinitesimal. The Pagan faiths, however, tend to honour the divine as immanent rather than transcendent, as plural rather than singular, and as something to be approached through nature rather than in any rejection of it. These are organic faiths that are often dismissed erroneously by others as unsophisticated. They tend more often than not to seek rebirth rather than to escape from it. They value life, nature, the world and the human endeavour – all of which they see as spiritual. Consequently, for the Pagan, there is no separation of the spiritual from the whole and no denial of the whole as an illusion.

So now that I have sketched what I consider the four major religious alternatives as the Abrahamic, the Dharmic, the Secular and the Pagan, I want to conclude with a few additional observations. There are of course attempts to fuse these different traditions. For example, Sikhism attempts to combine Abrahamic and Dharmic understandings, while Baha’i and Aumism may be seen as endeavours to bring three if not all four together into a single spiritual understanding. These and other interfaith efforts at work in the world today are vitally important – all the more so because, at least in the West, religion is increasingly becoming something that each of us is no longer simply born into and raised to die within. Instead, in the modern era, religion is becoming increasingly something that we choose. It is no longer something that is an accidental result of where or to whom we are born but something that, in the fuller awareness of the spiritual options, we elect and choose between.

All the same, none of the major religious options are without blemishes. When we look at the religiously motivated strife in our world, the most immediate assumption might be to blame the Abrahamists (whether Christian, Moslem or Jew) for planetary conflict. But if we remember for a moment the difficulties currently faced in Sri Lanka, this is a conflict between the Dharmists themselves. In our day and age, Secularists (whether Communist Marxists or materialistic Capitalists) have engineered wars, revolutions and insurrections, while the ancient Pagan states were no less brutally imperialistic. With this recognition in mind, my point is that few if any of us are without culpability of one sort or another. We have all wronged and we have all been wronged. As a result, we have the choice and can continue to play the same ‘game’ and seek to retaliate and gain one-upmanship over the other, or we might start to become creatively innovative and find ways to cooperate and work together for a world that accommodates us all. If any particular religious and theological tradition appears to be more involved with dissension and strife than any others, this becomes an issue that we all must work together to understand why and possibly how to change.

There is one final point I wish to make. As I have tried to make clear, religion is increasingly about choice. Some of the new spiritualities such as New Age, Neo-paganism, Goddess Spirituality, Creation Spirituality and Human Potential appear to be reactions against more traditional, institutional religion. What I suspect these newer forms of spiritualities to be in fact are democratisations of religion. Why this is happening now or has begun at least in the twentieth century if not the toward the end the nineteenth century and only appears to be accelerating in the twenty-first century I would argue is a reaction to a growing awareness to the growing lack of democracy in Western society. The manner in which the present American administration seized power in an uncertain election and subsequently has legitimated its position through capitalising on the September 11th catastrophe, the growing realisation that the global decisions that are made are multi-corporate decisions made by bodies or institutions with no operative understanding of social-ethical responsibility, and the kind of disregard of the legal system even on local levels such as we witnessed in Castellane – a disregard fuelled by ignorance, fear and selfishness, the cumulative effect of all these behaviours amounts to a public disillusionment with democracy – at least political democracy. In such an atmosphere, people may be turning to more democratic forms of religion – as religion seems to be the one area that is still to some extent open and accessible.

With a press and media that have been conditioned and/or controlled by the corporate and vested interests that be, the general public has been encouraged to hold misconceptions about religious diversity and non-conformity. The argument that I would expect to hear against my contention that the new religions and the new spiritualities are democratic back-lashes to the loss of political freedom is one that would accuse, Mandarom Shambhasalem to represent a loss of freedom rather than an augmentation of it. The counter-argument to my own would be that any organised collective diminishes the burden of personal responsibility that we witness in such less structured spiritualities as New Age and Neo-paganism. But what these people fail to recognise is that followers of Hamsah Manarah’ teachings freely choose a unique spiritual pathway. Theirs is no less a democratic decision and affirmation. And to this end, we need to recognise education. This is what every bona fide religion will stress. For it is only in learning about the various possibilities and learning about them accurately that we can make authentic spiritual decisions and choices. It is only through education and understanding difference without being threatened by it that we can have true democracy – both spiritual and political. We must learn to recognise that religious diversity allows us to prioritise differently, to hold different things as valuable and other things of lesser or no value, but also to compete for the same things and thereby generate possible areas of conflict. Nevertheless, the icons, places of worship and various practices of Mandarom Shambhasalem portray clearly and accurately our world’s overall religious tapestry. Only through a return to the kind of education upon which democracy alone can thrive will we be all encouraged to have the eyes that recognise the overall beauty that is fundamentally inherent in this world tapestry.