Religion encompasses both the tenets of a faith and the ways those
beliefs are interpreted and acted on by people at any given time and
place. It can respond positively to many of the world's troubles, and
all too often can be the cause of violence and suffering, says a
University of Maine philosopher whose extensive research includes the
area of philosophy called the phenomology of religion — the nature of
religious experience, symbolism and myth, and how to interpret
All major religions, East and West, have essential teachings that
sound like the Golden Rule, says Douglas Allen, a professor of
philosophy and one of the world's foremost scholars of Gandhian
philosophy. They all talk in some way about peace, love and
compassion, and are critical of hatred, violence and humanly caused
suffering. Yet throughout history, violence and intolerance have
stemmed from religion, and most wars have been given religious
In our post-9/11 world, violence in the name of someone's god is
particularly pervasive. The question, Allen says, is why in our
contemporary world does the dark side of religion seem to be dominant?
In a modern world full of ambiguity and doubt, where contradictions
can be found even in a traditional touchstone like religion, militancy
and fundamentalism increasingly fill a void, he says. It's easy to
understand the attraction — and the danger.
Militant religious groups offer followers a clear identity and a
sense of community with like-minded believers, says Allen. They also
define the enemies — them, the "others," those unlike us, the
nonbelievers — who stand in their way of attaining a "higher good."
"If you regard the others as evil, then the options are to tolerate
or to eradicate evil, and the model we're increasingly seeing is
adversarial," says Allen. "The result is violence and hatred that is
threatening to destroy humankind."
In 2003, as president of the Society for Asian and Comparative
Philosophy, Allen took the lead in organizing an international
conference, "Comparative Philosophy in Times of Terror." There, he and
colleagues from around the globe explored what philosophy can
contribute to our understanding of the terror, terrorism, violence and
insecurity that increasingly dominate our discourse and our lives
psychologically, economically, politically, militarily, culturally and
The goal was to determine if philosophical analysis of the
relations between religion and violence could suggest alternatives to
conflict, leading to greater nonviolence, peace and justice.
That conference inspired a book, edited by Allen, Comparative
Philosophy and Religion in Times of Terror, published last September.
Each chapter, written by a different philosopher or religious scholar,
offers insights from the teachings of great thinkers — from Aristotle
to Zen Buddhists.
To understand the complex relationship between religion and
violence, Allen says, one has to look beyond the abstract spiritual
and ethical ideals of a given faith to how it actually functions and
is expressed in a society. While religions might claim to be inspired
by an infallible higher power, imperfect human beings practice them,
"If you look at the world today, religion is mainly a negative and
destructive force when it comes to compassion, peace and goodwill.
Some of the dominant forms of religion, from radical Islamic
fundamentalism to radical Christian fundamentalism, hold a similar
view: We are good. Everyone else is sinful and evil. God is on our
side and not on the side of the evil others."
Such intolerant views justify the use of righteous violence because
"you don't make peace with forces you consider evil," Allen says. "You
must defend yourself against them and even use violence to destroy
them. The evil is like a cancer that you must destroy before it
But along with traditions of intolerance and hatred, in most
religions there are strong traditions of love and acceptance of and
respect for people of other faiths, Allen says. The trouble in today's
world is that peacemakers and those who seek to follow these positive
aspects of their religions are increasingly marginalized and silent,
drowned out by the more vocal, aggressive and often well-funded
Particularly disconcerting are the negative voices that shape
policy and support war, says Allen, a longtime peace and justice
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Allen has lectured
extensively on Mohandas Gandhi's views of violence and terrorism. In
addition, he has had numerous publications on Gandhi's philosophy,
including a Gandhi chapter in his book on philosophy and religion in
times of terror. His newest book, The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi for
the Twenty-First Century, will be published this November.
"Gandhi strongly refutes the terrorist position," Allen says. "He
would speak unequivocally on how terrorism such as we saw on 9/11 is
unjustified and must be opposed. But he would maintain that, to
prevent such acts, we must try to understand and deal with the
underlying causes of terrorism."
What comes out of an analysis of Gandhi and other philosophers is
the need to see the common denominator — humans — in all the world's
"We must show that we care about the well-being of other people,
appreciating what's good and, through dialogue, appreciating what all
of us are saying," Allen says.
Through constructive dialogue and mutual understanding comes
greater compassion and nonviolent conflict resolution. And that must
involve having empathy for how those different from us have been
socialized in this world.
Allen believes that one of Gandhi's greatest contributions was his
attempt to broaden the world's understanding of the nature of
"Murder, torture and other forms of physical violence are only part
of it," Allen says. "Violence also can be economic, psychological,
cultural, religious, linguistic. We have seen over and over how
violent language can inflame hatred and intolerance."
Gandhi also spoke of economic violence in terms of humanly caused
poverty, exploitation and oppression as examples of "the structural
violence of the status quo." He maintained that anyone who is aware of
such conditions and profits from them or does nothing about them is
complicit in the violence.
Another reality is that opposing sides in religious wars are not
always people who pray to different gods. Sunni Muslims and Shia
Muslims kill each other in Iraq in the name of Allah. Not long ago,
Northern Ireland was a battlefield on which followers of Christ —
Protestant and Catholic — spilled each other's blood. The Middle East
is full of endless escalating violence by those on warring sides who
trace their religious origins to the same biblical God.
Gandhi, India's icon of tolerance and nonviolence, was assassinated
by a fellow Hindu because of Gandhi's commitment to interreligious
dialogue, Hindu-Muslim mutual understanding and harmony, and advocacy
of justice for Muslims and all other Indians.
Throughout history, Allen says, religion has been used
theologically and ideologically to perpetuate the status quo and to
justify nearly every form of violence. Religion also has been a
powerful force for peace, and he believes it can be today.
"If you are a religious person, you have resources within your
religion to be a peacemaker because all religions have ideals of
non-violence, tolerance and love."
Following that path means understanding the distinction between
religious pride, in the sense of treasuring what is truly moral and
spiritual in one's own religion, and religious arrogance, Allen says.
"You should be proud of all that is good in your religious
tradition," he says. "But be humble. Realize that you are an
imperfect, fallible human being, and you don't have an exclusive
understanding of the Truth with a capital T. Realize that there may be
other worthy paths to God or the Truth.
Recognize that others, both religious and nonreligious, have
incomplete but valuable truths. Through constructive dialogue, you can
learn from others, and this can help you to develop your own ethical
and religious understanding.
"If you really identify with a religion, it is your obligation to
try to purify your own religion, as Gandhi would say, so that it is
free of hatred, bigotry, violence and intolerance."
by Dick Broom
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