Thursday, 5 March 2009
Is Religion the Cause of Conflict?
In an address given in Singapore in 2007 Rowan Williams presented a persuasive and novel answer to the question of religious violence in society. Secular society accuses religions of fomenting violence because of the tendency of religions to claim absolute, and irreconcilable, religious truths. The Enlightenment correctly saw that the claims and counter claims to truth of differing religious perspectives cannot all be absolutely true. While that observation seems basic and self-obvious, the erroneous conclusion on the part of secularism since has been that religious belief must therefore be considered private belief and personal opinion, without any absolute truth claims. Religion, so the argument goes, is a conditional loyalty, subordinate to the loyalties demonstrable from neutral, natural reason.
It is important to recognise that any belief, whether allegedly private or public, can be used in the cause of conflict, violence and war. Democracy doesn't like totalitarian competitors, and the greatest genocidal maniacs in history have all been atheists: Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot (the last by percentage of population.) Any and all beliefs need to be put into the public domain, and in this light examined for their public truth. Moreover, part of this scrutiny should include the resources each constellation of beliefs has for resisting conflict and war. Christianity has two related resources. The first is Jesus himself. His teaching is notoriously difficult to twist into an ideology of war. The life and death of Jesus were consistent with his teaching, even to the point of forgiving his persecutors and those who mocked him.
The second resource (not exclusive to Christianity) is belief in transcendent truth. This is utterly inconsistent with the relativism of our age. Truth is not dependent on our belief in it, or practice of it. It is beyond and greater than our belief in it or action on its behalf. Indeed, because the truth is transcendent, Jesus was able to die, even suffering a death that, perhaps to him at the time, seemed to mean the complete failure of his mission. The truth will win out, and to put it bluntly, if we have irreconcilable differences I don't need to shoot you to resolve the difference in belief. Without a belief in the transcendence of truth, it is difficult to see how war can be avoided. he Bolsheviks, good atheists that they were, were at least consistent at this point.