When thinking about the role religion plays in the world, it is important to look beyond examples of religious conflict. This is not to say that religious differences do not lead to contention, because they sometimes do. It is to say that religions do not inherently and inevitably lead to conflict, and religious division is not necessarily violent or negative as a force in the world. In fact, religious institutions play a catalytic role in social progress, serving as a common unifying force to mobilize people.
There is not a single violent conflict that can be explained in purely religious terms. Individuals within a society are far too complex to ascribe any specific behaviors solely to the influence of one force. Socioeconomic, cultural and political factors deeply impact both the role and development of religion it is never the sole cause of any succession of events.
Overall, religion has been a force for good. Many of the great social activists in recent times have been deeply inspired by religious faith and communities. This long list of leaders includes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mohandas Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama. Not only are these individuals all activists, but many of them collaborated with each other in fighting for various social causes in their communities.
Religion can also be a powerful tool for organizing. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is a very powerful and secular network of grassroots community organizing affiliates. IAF came to Rochester in the weeks following the riots of July 1964 to help the African-American community organize. In Rochester and all around the country, the IAF has often worked with religious communities to produce change, taking advantage of previously existing structures of unity and organization. As this outreach demonstrates, religion clearly offers utility to diverse societies by spiritually empowering and physically organizing people who need to make their voices heard.
Religion does not simply increase cohesion within groups that already derive unity from other sources. It can also be an interface for solidarity and amity that is indiscriminate to divisions such as ethnicity, race, land, language and economic standing. Recent examples include the outpouring of support from religious communities to areas ravaged by natural disaster regardless of who would benefit. Religions have traditionally offered services to promote literacy, economic development and access to medical care.
Faith can also drive science and innovation, as the improvement of the human condition is a goal shared by many religions. Because of its relevance to understanding people and their behavior, religion offers an additional bridge between the known and unknown. As instruments of academic examination, faith-based histories and paradigms can provide insight into other disciplines such as history, psychology and other social sciences.
Conflict on some level often predicates learning and change. A leading theory in social psychology is that of cognitive dissonance, the motivation to reduce the uncomfortable feeling of holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously by changing or rationalizing attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Dialogue across lines of religious divergence offers a platform for that kind of growth. In fact, to deny conflict in all forms is to deny the beauty of human diversity and community. Philip Hellmich, Senior Officer for Strategic Philanthropy at Search for Common Ground, noted that when conflict ‘is approached constructively, it is an engine of growth and transformation.”
As social beings we must learn from each other in order to grow as people and as a society. In this pluralistic world, religion is a source of diversity and we must hesitate to assign too much of society’s problems on this vast and complex category. The challenge of our time is not to eliminate our differences, but rather to utilize and appreciate them.
Written on behalf of
Students for Interfaith Action.
Ashan is a member of
the class of 2011.
Slater is a member of
the class of 2010.