As long as humankind is inspired by the notion that there is a Deity, that some form of metaphysical reality exists beyond our finite world; and this unearthly principle also has the ultimate power to penalize or reward our actions and can decide the kind of future we may have beyond our mortal days–then we can be sure we will also always have religion.
I suspect this same innate ambition which drives us to believe we are all immortal will also insure that we will always have wars which begin over religion. In fact, history is replete with examples of such conflicts—conflicts over one man’s “vision” that his religion was right and all others were wrong. It’s the age-old fallacy of humankind—there’s always some guy or some group out there who believes he/they have dominion over the “truth” about Deity.
The reality is that errors will be built into ALL faith systems for no other reason than the interpretations of faith are always man-made. So what’s all the fuss about over who’s right anyway? If we can accept and understand that we have “errors” in our own faith (we just don’t know where they are), and equally accept the same of other faiths, why would we want to “fight” over a mistake? If you’re going to fight over something, fight over something that you can prove – something that has certainty. In the meantime, be satisfied that “you” have discovered what is “true” to you and don’t demand that others agree with you.
The Golden Rule is a common thread of most all religions and boils down to a really simple principle. We are to live our own lives without dictating our understanding of Deity to others. Live the example others will want to emulate; always taking concern for the one stone in the quarry that we actually control and shape–our own rough ashlar.
One would certainly think that hastily applying dynamite to all the rough ashlars at once is more counterproductive than allowing each to shape his own ashlar at his own pace. Yet, as simple as this may seem, there appear to be some fundamental problems with it as a solution in an era of religious terrorism.
First, I would suggest that, while we have heard the Golden Rule stated in every religion in the world; the rule is, in reality, an insipid truism that has no force of law and certainly no force of meaning to a terrorist. The terrorist always calls on the religious authority of his faith as his rule of law. God becomes his sanction to kill or maim. In fact, most terrorists would never kill except in the name of God.
Further, since most monotheistic religions of the world were born before the New Testament era (an era which at least suggested that God was a God of Love), the more prevalent historic ideal of sacred authority is based on the premise of God’s role as a warrior. As an example, the Thirty Years War (a war fueled by religious hatred between protestants and Catholics–1618-1648), left more killing and devastation behind it than any event since the Black Death. It created the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which was the first legal instrument calling for the separation of church and state. It didn’t matter that much that the wrecking of Germany, for instance, was brought on by cynical leaders. In their hearts, most of the combatants believed they were carrying out acts of piety. When the war ended, many cities had less than half the population they had before; many towns had only one-fifth.
The conflict left a mark on the West that cemented our attitude for church-state separation. In fact, the fundamental reason the West has worked so hard to keep religion out of dealings between states and nations is precisely to banish religion from the repertoire of acceptable reasons to wage war.
But as the world turns more religious, more adherents of the great faith systems, particularly the newer cults, seem to be placing violence back in at the heart of their beliefs. As the economic and political state of countries get poorer and more unstable, a platform exists to spread sectarianism. This is the kind of seed that often brings extremists to the forefront of those who will kill in the name of God. And it is important to understand that we are not dealing here with the traditional ethical rules of war. When a war is waged by a perceived sacred mandate, we can be sure there will be little compromise from the true believer about the sacred. There is one God; one Truth.
Tolerance is not an intrinsic part of any monotheistic religion because the outcome of a conflict cannot be ambiguous. When the issues are sacred demands, there can be no bargaining. The believer cannot compromise on the will of God. Killing becomes an end in itself. The extreme believer wants a lot of people dead and may not care whether a lot of people are watching, as long as God sees that what has been done is in His name.
The Bible’s division between those who belong and those who don’t belong makes it natural to see life as war. We all know the imagery of battle occurs throughout the Old Testament. This same violent imagery is also a part of the earliest Islamic writings. Raiding is common, people are killed, and blood feuds are pursued. God’s angels intervene on behalf of the Muslim combatants.
The point is that scriptural emphasis on warfare in the world’s great religious traditions has armed successive generations with powerful mental images of an embattled world. The community of the faithful is perpetually in crisis, or at least on the edge of one.
There is even a growing sect of American Christians who also embrace the notion of a cosmic war. More Christians are becoming fascinated with apocalyptic speculation and with signs that the events depicted in Revelation are at hand. Books based on prophecies in Revelation are being sold to millions upon millions of folk. A recent Time/CNN poll suggested that fifty-nine percent of Americans believe the future will unfold in accordance with Revelation. The fact is that whether we see it in our church pews or not, we are a more religious country today than we were when we were founded. The new approach to Christian fundamentalism is that the coming war is a war to create God’s government on earth.
We can be sure the attack against America on 9/11, 2001 was an act of consummate religious devotion. Those who committed it were deeply pious. They expressed their motives in indisputably religious terms. And they saw themselves as carrying out the will of God. To them, the hijackings were the performance of a sacrament, one intended to restore to the universe a moral order that had been corrupted by the enemies of Islam and their Muslim collaborators.
The reality of 9/11 was that the motivation for the attack was not political calculation, strategic advantage, nor wanton bloodlust. It was to humiliate and slaughter those who defied the leadership of God. It was to please Him by reasserting His primacy. It was an act of cosmic war. What appears to most of us to have been senseless violence which violated all our known treaties about war, actually made a great deal of sense to the terrorists and all those who sympathize with them. For them, the act of killing was an act of redemption. Our modern notion of separate realms of the religious and the secular is simply inconceivable to a religious zealot.
How then can a simple and dignified ideal that we follow the Golden Rule find application in an eastern religious system, or even a Western fundamentalist system that almost universally agrees to some form of struggle for the sake of God? Can any moral and ethical system of thought improve mankind if it cannot find a venue where the duality between Toleration and Liberality against Fanaticism and Persecution cannot be reconciled?
As challenging as it seems, it really does come down to the Golden Rule. No one knows with certainty what Deity has in mind and therefore can have no divine sanction to condemn the faith of others, marking them as heretical. Likewise, there is no moral or ethical basis to approve of any actions that endanger the peace and quiet of great nations, or their people, by indulging in a fancifully imaginary philanthropy, imagining one’s self to be “different” enough to be separated and self-proclaiming in one’s holiness.
Such activity can be more harmful than the ambition of kings. Such intolerance and bigotry have been more repeatedly harmful to mankind than ignorance and error. Surely it is better that we know that our “truths” are not perfect and accept these errors than to live under persecution. How absurd it is to think that when we cannot even understand our fellow man, we can begin to expect to understand Deity in any uniform manner. Torturing and killing other people simply because they do not think and believe the way we do is indeed an absurd thought~ and should be to all men.
The gist of all this is that it is perhaps a much better aim to simply offer moral progress rather than dogma to the world. Just as we each individually grow by unlearning what we learn before we “see the light,” mankind is also growing. It, too, can outgrow its own childhood and never go back. It is, after all, only human laziness that gets in the way of such advancement.
The object is to be a good man. The good man does the good when he gets the chance, often because he has the chance. He does it because he wants to – he loves the duty- and not merely because some law (by God or by man) commands him to do it. He is true to his own mind, his conscience, heart, and soul, and feels very little temptation to do unto others in a way he would not like to be done unto. He really does keep coming back to the Golden Rule.
And such men are found in all religions over the world. This is how a society becomes free and does the work it is meant to do.
Old theologies and philosophies of religion of ancient times may no longer suffice. We must advance. The duties of life are to be done. There are errors that we must replace with new truths. There are great wrongs and evils that must be righted and outgrown.
Why is it that mankind can’t seem to learn from history- from our past atrocities? Why do we continue to ignore these powerful warnings of the unspeakable evils which follow from these past mistakes and errors in the matters of religion? What religion can actually invest the God of Love with such cruel and vindictive passions, of such man-made ideas?
Man has never had, nor will he ever have, the right to usurp the unexercised prerogative of God and condemn and punish another for a different belief. No man is entitled to positively assert that he is right where other men who are equally well-informed hold a directly opposite opinion. Each thinks it impossible for the other to be sincere, and each, as to that, is equally in error.
“What is Truth?” was a profound question, the most suggestive one ever put to man. But never forget that what once was believed, we now find incomprehensible. These startling insights give us a fresh glimpse of the human soul. If we cannot understand our own soul, much less the souls of all mankind, how can we expect to be able to have a full and error free understanding of the even more complex Deity which encompasses all souls? How can any one man possess such knowledge? None do.
This is why Toleration is so important. It is our chief duty, without which we stand for little. We can be tolerant of each other’s creed because each faith holds excellent moral precepts. One does not have to look far in any teaching to find “good” teachings. The common thread, again, seems to be the Golden Rule, and the goal is goodness and getting along with our fellow man.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves that intolerance of religious beliefs has afflicted the world worse than any other evil. All the treasure and human labor we’ve lost throughout time in such silliness would be enough to have now made the earth and all its inhabitants a Garden of Eden.