Religion offers a mixed bag. Most of the time religions have made a positive contribution to the societies in which they flourished. They have produced schools, universities, hospitals, the care of those who otherwise would have been left out. They have been responsible for many of our most important scientific discoveries. They offer stability and comfort, a safe protective community, and a vision of society’s highest ethical values. I speak here specifically of the three Arbrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each has a heritage rich in the best of cultural thought and life.
But there is also a dark side to each of them. While there is the romantic story of the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt, these wanderers became invaders and despots in the lands they conquered. The first thousand years of Hebrew history, detailed in the biblical books of Genesis to Chronicles, is mired in murder, deception and conquest. There is blood on almost every page. The depiction of Yahweh is more often as a tribal deity whose role was to protect his particular tribe. That sad story continues today with Israel’s occupation of land that is not theirs.
Christian history is littered with scandalous tragedies including the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the brutal conquest of Latin America, slavery and segregation in America, apartheid in South Africa and Hitler’s Deutsche Christen movement.
Islam was born in violence, and while most of its history has been dramatically positive, from time to time the darker side has emerged. Perhaps we are seeing the worst of it today with Islamic terrorism, the brutality of the Taliban, and full-blown religious bigotry.
In every case, religion turns sour when its adherents claim to have the whole truth, leading them to condemn all others outside the protection of their particular understanding of the deity. It is religion’s exclusivity that poisons all other relationships, and has continually proven to be disastrous. Religious fundamentalisms have caused more bloodshed than almost any other cultural dynamic.
While each religion has both its progressive and its dark sides, from time to time there is the eruption of a bigotry that pretends that the dark side is all there is to a particular religion. These diatribes periodically emerge in order to foster fear and hatred. It is the technique Hitler used as a path leading to the extermination of two-thirds of all European Jews.
At various times, and even today, it has been employed against Jews, Christians, and recently against Muslims. In any of its forms it is the work of bigots whose goal is the fostering of suspicion and hatred. Ignored are the contributions made by Islam that none of us could do without. Here are a few:
Trigonometry, Sine, Tangent, Co-Tangent Algebra and Geometry, Arabic zero, numbers, papermaking and publishing, physics and chemistry, mechanics, camera obscura, the theory of relativity — by Abu Bakr in the 8th century — advances , in industry, weaving wool, producing silk, pottery, jewelry, leather and perfume, poetry, music, and much more. The world’s most progressive cultures often came from Islamic lands.
While none of these advances and inventions negate the danger of modern Islamic fundamentalism, they are part of the cultural equation. Intelligent interfaith conversations recognize the positive contributions the various religions have made and still make today. The fact is that most Muslims are not fundamentalists or terrorists, either in the US or in many other parts of the world. Intelligent dialogue is the best way to counter the fundamentalisms which always poison religion. Ignorance of a culture is the first step in despising it.
In an age fraught with suspicion and negativity, it is important that we get to know members of other religious traditions. You may find they share your values, and that the heart of all three major religious traditions is compassion. Little in this world is accomplished by suspicion and fear. They are the seeds of violence and war.
Finally, if your own faith tradition shares the kind of fundamentalism that has poisoned history, think again about what narrow belief systems do to responsible interfaith and intercultural living.