Let’s talk sense, not nonsense. There are no religions of peace and no religions of war. There are simply religions. There are, however, people – some of whom are predominantly peaceable, while others are predominantly warlike. Religions have been with us since our earliest hunter-gatherer days, and will always be with us – despite the current onslaught from the ‘New Atheists’. They are constructions of the human mind, ‘inspired’ by the emotional need to address the inevitability, in every life, of bewildering, disturbing and distressing experiences.
The human imagination has produced many, exceedingly varied, religions. They’re designed to help us find meaning in our world, purpose in our lives, answers for our most troubling questions, and consolation in our deepest sorrows. They profess to explain why there’s a world, and how you and I come to be living in it. They tell us what we should believe, how we ought to live our daily lives, and how we can soften the hard impact of illness, disability, ageing, natural disasters, bereavement and inevitable death. It’s no small wonder that they’re here to stay.
As constructs of the human mind, like Art and Literature, religions make use of symbol, allegory and metaphor, and contain myth, legend and folklore. They also include the ideas and insights of individual, charismatic, teachers. As human productions, they tell us a great deal about ourselves. They give expression to the best, and to the worst, of what we are and can be. Herein lies a problem.
If everything their scriptures say is regarded as entirely and unremittingly factual, there are going to be misapprehensions, with consequences less than helpful. If all these teachings are further regarded as being of divine, rather than human, authorship, and therefore to be unquestioningly accepted and acted on, the potential to wreak havoc, becomes even greater. History shows this to be the case.
Religions have inspired some people to live exemplary lives, to care about the problems and tragedies of fellow beings, and to challenge social evils such as poverty, slavery, discrimination and disadvantage. Religions have also given rise to some of our greatest works of Art, Literature and Music. Religions, however, have also fought among themselves with endless and bloody wars, crusades and slaughters. They’ve turned on dissident ‘heretics’ in their own midst, and burned alive thousands at the stake.
Religions, in their ‘sacred books’, sometimes commend and exemplify, tolerance, love, peace and altruism, but at other times condone, and even glorify, intolerance, hate, violence and self-serving. When they become ‘institutions’, they’re temped to develop hierarchies affording individual status and power, and discriminating between ‘clerical’ and ‘lay’, with the ‘priestly’ exercising authoritarian control over their people. Democracy sits ill with theocracy.
There are, then, no ‘religions of peace’. There are only religions – the scriptures and teachings of which are capable of selective use for good or for bad. Whatever is morally or ethically unacceptable needs to be filtered out, not swallowed whole. What matters most is the predominance, inside and outside of religions, of ‘people of peace’, who openly, actively and consistently reject any scripture, teaching or leader either condoning or inciting intolerance, hatred, violence, murder, terrorism or war. We can’t force that on others, but we can at least set an example ourselves.