Evidence is pretty damning, and not only going back in history but current conflicts appear to carry elements of religious/ethnic discord. History also testifies though that religion is by no means a necessary ingredient. In fact, "officially" atheist regimes as the Stalinist USSR and People's Republic of China have been responsible for some of the greatest suffering and sheer numbers of people killed. Today, North Korea is officially atheist but has spun its own theology to further personality cult rule -- state religion is invented or redefined to accommodate the perpetuation of the ruling order in many countries, then and now. However, if organized religion is not exclusively responsible for war, nonetheless, it is fair to ask does it justify our loyalty at least for preventing conflict and killing? More fundamentally, does organized religion tip the scales for peace over war?
History Evidences the Religious & non-Adherents as Tyrants/War Mongers?
If you are reading this article to see which religion is called out as more blameworthy or which one will be projected in a ray of light as most righteous, then you will be disappointed, and perhaps your own identity acts more as bias rather than liberator of prejudice. We can go down through the litany of history. Even before the brutality of the Crusades, we have to question the reflections upon genocide, systematic killing of children and women as well as men, that in the Holy Books of the Monotheistic religions presumably was sanctified by God in the conquest of the "Promised Land." The New World was subdued through the extermination of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, all presumably part of Manifest Destiny and a "Greater Plan." Protestants and Catholics waged wars of genocide against each other for centuries in Europe. The Potato Famines were a systematic effort to thin the Catholic Irish population. The Nazis spun a brew of Christianity and the occult as mythology/theology and inspiration for war and mass murder -- the Holocaust was the most notorious of a bad lot. Shinto-Buddhism similarly played a role in the motivations and notions of genetic superiority in the abuses of Imperial Japan before and during WWII. Of course, a fair question is how much of this has been left in the heap of history, something in the rear-view mirror or does it ride with us hauled along like a pick-up truck unable to unload obsessions, prejudices, myths and real or imagined grievances.
Religion Harming or Healing?
Today, Al Qaeda seeks to reinvent Islam while claiming to be returning to the fundamental and old glories. In Myanmar, a Buddhist monk is both ring leader and inspiration for a campaign of ethnic cleansing directed at Muslim and other minorities. (See ethnic cleansing of Rohingya)
Hindu extremists have been responsible for similar pogroms in India. Decades-old civil war in Sri Lanka pitted Hindu versus Buddhist. The Israeli-Palestine divide is fueled by conflicting claims to history as well as territory. Religious zealots promote their claims to the exclusion of the other, as if one is chosen for favor and the other for eternal despair by God. During the conflict in Bosnia & Herzegovina, paramilitaries sent to plunder, murder and rape were blessed by priests as they embarked upon a "holy task." The fight against a despotic dictator in Syria has devolved into a religious conflict most frequently pitting Muslims against each other. Similarly from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and the Horn of Africa, Muslims fight with coreligionists and those of other religions, ostensibly for the favor of God. Fatwas have been directed at "non-believers," sinners and/or apostates without regard to either veracity or responsibility to respect free and open debate.
Religion though has been both inspiration and ideology for commitment to fellow man. For some this has translated into a devotion to peace or at least a refrain from war. American independence recognizes that all men are born with inalienable or God-given rights, even if application lagged actual practice/observance, (and it took another Civil War to end slavery in its legal form.) From the Quakers, to the Jehovah's Witnesses to Mohammed Ali, conscientious objection to war was based in religious theology. From Gandhi to the Dalai Lama, non-violent resistance and civil disobedience have been advocated as an alternative to repression and injustice. Recent Popes have sought to correct past wrongs some committed in the name of the Church. Acknowledging persecutions of Jews and others, the Inquisition, and the Crusades, Pope John Paul II established a course of reconciliation among the globe's religions. Pope Francis appears to be following through and beyond with a message that touches to the core of empathy and a universal connection. Still, there are some who project the term "Crusader" as noble while defining "Jihadist" as ignominious. (In fact both terms have similar meaning as well as potential for misuse.)
United Nations as Platform:
Along with the many diplomats at the United Nations, religious leaders will also gather every General Assembly over the last decade and more ostensibly to promote the values of the organization including human rights, respect for diversity and peace. There undoubtedly is some success in such gatherings, from the UN Millennium World Religious Leaders Council to efforts to organize an Inter-religious Council for the UN. Former Iran President Mohammad Khatami launched the "Dialogue of Civilizations" in response to Samuel L. Huntington's vision of eternal religious conflict in the "Clash of Civilizations." This initiative though may have been more successful if the Islamic Republic of Iran had been recognized for a more progressive human rights record.
Branding of Religion:
Religious leaders of different faiths do recognize that their influence may be waning, perhaps not so much due to the rise of secularism as failures to impress the contributions of organized religion in promoting respect for differences even if perceived as deviant. While the terminology is generally flowery when religious leaders come together for conferences and interfaith dialogue, the exercise may be different and divisive when speaking to their flocks: "We are God's chosen, and they are somewhere still searching for the true message." This brand differentiation though may be akin to arguing in today's world which record player is better. There is a hunger for the message and inspiration toward peace within and among people. Many still seek guidance and perhaps discipline of action and motive. Humility, respect and ethical behavior are timeless messages but some would argue that their is too much obsession with ritual, presumed words/acts of blasphemy, and sexuality as if righteousness is born out of overt exhibitions and rises with denial of our loins. Sometimes the delivery does seem a bit outmoded as the record player even if the human failings persist
On the Shelf, Outmoded and Out of Mind?
I'm not ready though to write off religion. That would be presumptuous and arrogant on my part. I'm not inclined to judge other's needs and satisfaction by my own. The existence of God is even further beyond the purview of this article and should be left to each individual to discover or not the rationale and/or faith in a Supreme-Universal Being. No quarrel with Atheists although I find it an oxymoron when some among the latter can also act as zealots in promoting their belief system, and also see atheist communism's abuses. Religion is something that a large segment still seeks as hope for the beyond and guidance for life on this earth. As such, it can be a force for peace and good as well as rouse into conflict. There should be no blank pass though, especially if the UN is used as a platform (The UN maybe be employed by some more to promote their own religious brand than work toward shared human goals.) The world envisioned by the UN Charter is one of diversity, mutual respect, education and opportunity for all (including women,) where the rule of law and justice prevail as well as peaceful resolution of potential conflicts. Increasingly, we also have to look beyond relations among peoples and toward greater respect/care for our Planet and all that is living. Religion does not need my approval, but it could increasingly stay on our shelf, like an old record only called upon in moments of nostalgia and ceremony. If you do not agree with me, by all means do not. In no way do I claim to speak on behalf of God and can only hope for the Supreme Being's inspiration and Blessings in this writing.
PHOTO: World Religion Symbols