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In the Name of Their God


In the Name of Their God
UMaine philosopher reflects on the relationship between religion and violence

Douglas Allen
Douglas Allen

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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 religious meaning.

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 justification.

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 religiously.

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, he says.

"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 destroys you."

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 militants.

Particularly disconcerting are the negative voices that shape policy and support war, says Allen, a longtime peace and justice activist.

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 religions.

"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 violence.

"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
July-August, 2007

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