Religion: A Force for Unity or Division?

A case can be made that religion has done more harm than good. Think of the Christian crusades in the middle centuries where holy war was waged against Islam to ensure Jerusalem remained under Christian control. Tens of thousands died with little differentiation between combatant and non combatant.

The Spanish Inquisition is another stain on the conscience of Christendom. Non believers were forced to convert or die. Christians who didn’t conform to the narrow orthodoxy of the Catholic church were tortured for their heresy.

Today Christians and other religious minority groups in the Middle East are routinely persecuted by ISIL and other extremist factions within Islam. In my lifetime it is possible that no significant Christian population will remain in the land that gave birth to Jesus. Extremist groups within Islam also seek to purify their own by persecuting those they perceive to be heretics. Intolerance is found in other religions too.

A fair question is whether organized religion by definition is prone to extremism and intolerance. What do you think?

My answer? Yes and no.

The root of extremism is our human tendency to judge and separate. We gravitate to those who think and look like us. We group by race, tribe, nation, language, income, education, gender, political affiliation, by age and yes, by religion.

We label and judge directly in proportion to our ignorance of the other.

Extremism leads to xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and religious extremism. Atheists can also be dogmatic.

The antidote to extremism in its many forms is openness and humility.

Openness to the wisdom, truth and beauty of others. As a citizen of the United States it means letting go of my ‘American exceptionalism’. As a straight white middle-aged male it means listening to the stories of young and old, people of color, women, the LGBTQIA community.

As a Christian it means being open to the wisdom, truth and beauty that is found in other religions. This doesn’t make me less of a Christian. For example my own Christian prayer practice has deepened by being open to Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist approaches to prayer and meditation.

As we listen we discover at least two things: We have differences and common ground upon which we can stand.

In 1999 I attended a conference at Oregon State University entitled: ‘God at 2000’. The conference hosted by the theologian Marcus Borg focused on diverse concepts of God. Panelists were Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist. Each were asked two questions: What is your concept of God? What is your experience of God?

To the first question it was clear that there were significant differences (as well as points of agreement). However, when the second question was asked the responses were amazing similar. While details of individual stories differed the common ground was a sense of awe and humility that arose from their shared experience of that great mystery we call God/Allah/Spirit/Sacred.

It is this experience of awe and humility that can serve as unifier for those who claim a religious tradition. A sense that God/Allah/Spirit has brought all of us into being. This shared belief graces everyone with inherent worth and meaning. For those who believe like us and those who don’t.

This belief allows us to echo the Hindu greeting, ‘Namaste’ and the Quaker greeting: ‘The God in me greets the God in thee’. Both affirm that there is a spark of the sacred in everyone. To believe this is to treat the other with respect and dare I say, ‘love’.


About Kent Harrop

I am bi-coastal...I was raised in New England (Rhode Island) and for twenty years 1994 - 2014 served as pastor of First Baptist Church McMinnville, Oregon. In May 2014 I moved with my wife Tricia back to New England and serve on a team of ministers at the First Baptist Church in Beverly, Massachusetts. I love the beauty and geographic breadth of Oregon and the north shore of Massachusetts. A growing edge for me is the integration of the contemplative and prophetic life. Tricia and I enjoy gardening, camping and kayaking on rivers and ocean. We have two grown daughters who are strong, smart and adventurous. The purpose of the blog is to explore the relationship between faith and the wider culture. The views expressed here are my own.
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