By Rudy Barnes, Jr., June 21, 2015
Two weeks ago we looked at the future of religion and found that Christians in the U.S. and Europe are leaving the church in increasing numbers (as nones with no religious affiliation). Last week we speculated that if Jesus and Muhammad met today they would agree that the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors as themselves—even those neighbors of other religions—is a common word of faith, and would expect their followers to do the same.
What about their Christian and Muslim followers? We don’t have to speculate on what happens when they meet. There is suspicion and hostility among Jews, Christians and Muslims today. Why can’t those People of the Book get along? Because many of them see the world through the prism of ancient holy books that they believe provide the perfect and immutable word of God—as if God had nothing more to say to humankind. This denies the living word of God and holds believers in bondage to exclusivist religions that defy reason.
Catholics may be the exception. As the Vicar of Christ the Pope provides encyclicals on modern issues, but the ancient scriptures, tradition and church bureaucracy can be as stifling for Catholics as for others. The reason why institutional religions resist change and compete rather than cooperate with other religions is institutional inertia. Until Jews, Christians and Muslims allow advances in knowledge and reason to liberate them from the bondage of their ancient scriptures and exclusivist beliefs, their institutional religions will wither and ultimately die.
But even if traditional religions die, God will not die. The nones who have left the church may have abandoned the gods of traditional religion, but most have retained faith in an eternal power beyond all powers that they have personally experienced and will continue on their journey of faith. New religions will continue to emerge, and perhaps some of the old ones will adapt and survive. Those that do will have to abandon the exclusivist idea that God favors their religion over all others, and conform their doctrines to concepts of libertarian democracy, while balancing individual freedom with the collective responsibility to provide for the common good.
Current trends in religion indicate that will likely happen in progressive cultures, despite surveys that indicate Christianity is declining in progressive cultures while growing with Islam in less progressive cultures. Current religious beliefs and values are diverse and constantly changing, despite the efforts of conservative believers to maintain the purity of traditional beliefs and doctrines. That is because religions invariably reflect their cultures, just as cultures reflect their religions; and progressive cultures will continue to produce diverse and dynamic religions.
Modern Christians vary from fundamentalists who believe the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God and that all unbelievers are condemned to hell, to progressives who believe the teachings of Jesus are the word of God and interpret those teachings using their experience and reason. The beliefs and values of Muslims also vary widely, ranging from the radical jihadists of ISIS to moderate and progressive Muslims who make an effort to conform their faith to the norms of libertarian democracies. In fact, the beliefs and values of Christians and Muslims are so varied that progressive Christians and Muslims often have more in common with each other than with fundamentalist believers in their own religion.
Individually Christians and Muslims tend to accommodate each other in their social and work environments, but collectively they are uneasy and suspicious of other religions. Examples are evident in a social media that promotes religious extremism. To counter the negative images of social media more interfaith dialogue is needed between moderate believers to promote interfaith understanding and build personal relationships that counter religious polarization.
In libertarian democracies it is a challenge to balance individual freedom with providing for the common good. Even if hate speech is legal, it’s immoral, and the misuse of that freedom undermines interfaith relations. At the other end of the spectrum apostasy and blasphemy laws in Islamic cultures prohibit any freedom of religion or speech. The trend is toward religious polarization rather than accommodation and reconciliation, but more personal relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims who share the same values can reverse this trend.
Complicating matters at the national level are U.S. military strategies that have responded to Islamist extremism with large deployments of U.S. combat forces. Many devout Muslims see such military interventions as a threat to Islam, and turn away from their traditional sectarian conflicts to confront the U.S. as a common enemy. Such U.S. strategies have attracted more converts to radical Islam and made it more of a threat to the U.S. and its allies, not less.
To promote peace, U.S. national security strategies must support moderate Muslims and avoid exacerbating the hostility of more fundamentalist Islamists. That requires a policy of containment rather than military intervention, supporting Muslim leaders who support the freedoms of religion and speech and oppose discrimination against women and religious minorities. Such a policy requires that U.S. security assistance in Islamic cultures is in the form of military trainers and advisors rather than in large deployments of U.S. combat forces.
In summary, for Jews, Christians and Muslims to overcome the divisive inertia of their institutional religions and exclusivist doctrines they must accept advances in knowledge and reason, oppose religious fundamentalism and support the individual rights of libertarian democracy so long as those rights are balanced with the collective responsibility to care for the poor and needy; and they must support moderate Muslim leaders in their struggle against extremist Islamism. If the great Religions of the Book can manage those reforms, they should be able to survive and contribute to peace in a modern world of religious diversity and cultural change; otherwise they will remain a source of conflict rather than reconciliation.
Notes and References to Resources:
On an encyclical of Pope Francis on the environment and related issues of poverty, see http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/06/18/what-you-need-to-know-about-pope-franciss-environmental-encyclical/.
On containment as a national strategy, see Walter Pincus, In Iraq lessons of Vietnam still resonate, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/in-iraq-lessons-of-vietnam-still-resonate/2015/05/25/86a20a82-00bd-11e5-805c-c3f407e5a9e9_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1; also Thomas L. Friedman, Contain and Amplify, at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/27/opinion/thomas-friedman-contain-and-amplify.html?emc=eta1&_r=0.