Ask the Religion Experts. Does Religion Divide or Unite People?
Rabbi REUVEN BULKA is head of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and host of Sunday Night with Rabbi Bulka on 580 CFRA.
Yes. Religion both divides and unites.
It divides by the very nature of having different religions, which then become different faith communities, which are inevitably divided because of the differences. The divisions are tolerable up to the point that they become cause to vilify other faiths, and the members of those faiths.
Vilification of other faiths has often moved from verbal condemnation to wholesale murder in the name of God. If there is anything we have learned from history, it is that we must categorically reject the verbal attacks on other faiths, precisely because they are prelude to attacks less verbal and very physical.
Within the faith community itself, the embrace of a specific faith may unite the community of its adherents under the common faith banner. The cynic will argue that such unity is also achieved when people are brought together by common membership in a golf club, or a bowling league, or any other shared endeavour.
It is also true that within individual religions, it is not unusual for denominational friction to prevail. Name any major religion, and you can bet the house that there are serious divisions within that religion.
The good spin on this is that the adherents to the faith take their faith very seriously, and look carefully at what the faith demands of them. Once they are convinced of the specifics of their faith obligations, they will reject any other interpretations as distortions. The distorters are then branded as being outside the pale, not true representatives of the faith, and worthy of contempt, if not worse.
Since we agree (I hope) that unity and togetherness are prime values, then, whatever faith we embrace, we must ask whether the divisions and subdivisions are important enough to justify divisiveness. Once we ask that question, we are at least on the road to making wise decisions.
Rev. RAY INNEN PARCHELO is a novice Tendai priest and founder of the Red Maple Sangha, the first lay Buddhist community in Eastern Ontario.
The simple answer is both. Religion isn’t one monolithic entity. It is not something you either accept or deny, nor something which acts in a single homogeneous way. It is a vast and multi-faceted, multi-cultural, trans-historical phenomenon which grows and changes, over time and nation, as an expression of the people who practice it. As one might expect, something so varied has the capacity to both bring people together and to create divisions. History will verify that.
‘Religion’ is really more of a verb than a noun. It is an activity, and the activity that we call ‘religion’ can be described in many ways. I am fond of the definition proposed by Thomas Tweed in his Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Tweed begins with the assertion that “religions are not reified substances but complex processes”. He proposes that:
“Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and supra-human forces to make homes and cross boundaries.”
The last phrase is central to this question—religions are about making a home and crossing boundaries, about finding a place and moving beyond it. So, religious activity is that which brings us together into a space we call our home—be that physical, like a Promised or Pure Land or a symbolic one. In this sense it unites us.
However, as Tweed notes, religions which stop at homemaking becomes stagnant, rigid and ultimately irrelevant. Consequently it must, of necessity, also mean crossing boundaries, that is challenging whatever limits we tend to set on ourselves as humans. The fundamental religious questions begins, as the Zen tradition poses, with “who is this”? Religious practice, certainly in the Buddhist context, continues to ask that question over and over.
Religions, then, fulfil their purpose when they both unite us, that is, give us a sense of home, completion, resting place and identity. They also must divide us, in that they call us to question ourselves, our resting place, our comfort zone, and challenge ourselves with questions which relentlessly dig deeper into the mysteries of human life.
Rev. GEOFFREY KERSLAKE is a priest of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Ottawa.
It is evident from history that religion can do both.
Sadly there are many examples, not only from earlier times but also current events, that sectarian clashes and faith-based violent extremism can be the source of much pain and suffering. But it would be inaccurate to suggest that religion is the cause of all (or even a lot) of the disunity and conflict in the world.
On the positive side, there are many examples abroad and at home in Canada of different religious faiths working together to promote the common good based on shared values. This column in the Ottawa Citizen is one example of many faith communities communicating their beliefs on common questions in open and mutually respectful dialogue. Another very practical example is the City of Ottawa’s Multifaith Housing Initiative.Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/interfaith-dialogues/36542-does-religion-divide-or-unite-people.html
For true cooperation to exist, however, the different faiths must agree on the freedom of every person to choose their own faith and to be free to practice it.
The Catholic Church teaches that: “the right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities. This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the juridical order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2108)
When people of faith respect the right to freedom of religion and work together based on shared values towards a common goal, it is evident that genuine religious belief promotes tolerance, mutual respect and reinforces the commonly held belief that we need God in our lives if we are to be true to our God-given human nature.
BALPREET SINGH is legal counsel and acting executive director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
There’s no doubt that religion has been a divisive power in the world. But the Sikh Gurus taught that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, was born in 1469 at a time when society was deeply divided on religious lines. He saw that people were being oppressed and hurt in the name of religion. Guru Nanak taught that a person cannot be religious until he or she is first compassionate. He said that religion without compassion is as impossible as the child existing without a mother.
Guru Nanak rejected the traditional religious and caste divisions and said that all are equal and loved in God’s eyes. In his travels across the world, Guru Nanak taught that the concepts of equality and compassion could be given a practical form with practice of seva or selfless service. Because God resides in every soul, he encouraged his followers to serve all of humanity without distinction. Guru Nanak began the practice of langar or the community kitchen where everyone is invited to share a meal as equals. The Sikh Gurus established communities in which people of all faiths were welcome and they openly rejected the communalism of the time.
The tenth and final human guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh declared “recognize the human race as one,” and said “all of humanity is one, to see it as separated and different is a delusion.”
Today, Sikh Canadians continue to strive to perform their obligation of seva. They have expanded the concept of langar into projects such as the Seva Food Bank in Mississauga or the Guru Nanak Free Kitchen in Vancouver which serve the homeless and those in need regardless of their religion or background. The Sikh community was also recognized by Canadian Blood Services as one of the most active blood donating groups in the country.
With these efforts, the Sikh community hopes to show that religion can be a positive force in the world which unites people and inspires them to love and serve others.
JACK MCLEAN is a Bahá’í scholar, teacher, essayist and poet published in the fields of spirituality, Bahá’í theology and poetry.
During his talks in Paris (1911-1912), following his liberation from 40 years of exile, persecution and house-arrest, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), the son and successor of Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, spoke these words which are a direct and succinct answer to today’s question: “Religion should unite all hearts and cause wars and disputes to vanish from the face of the earth, give birth to spirituality, and bring life and light to each heart. If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion. All the holy prophets were as doctors to the soul; they gave prescriptions for the healing of mankind; thus any remedy that causes disease does not come from the great and supreme Physician” (Paris Talks, p. 130).
In ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s prescription, the Prophets are considered to be divine physicians who prescribe various remedies to humanity, through their divine teachings, as contained in the world’s holy books. If the remedy is refused or abused, that is, if the so-called religious use religion as a pretext for coercion, discord, killing and war, then clearly they have put themselves at odds with the purpose of their own scriptures. Religion then becomes a perversion of the purpose for which it was originally intended.
For a Bahá’í, the phrase “holy war” is an oxymoron. The first scripture revealed by Bahá’u’lláh after the declaration of his mission to his closest followers in a garden outside Baghdad (1863) was the categorical annulment of any “rule of the sword”. Bahá’u’lláh exhorts his followers to abandon religious fanaticism and prejudice and “to consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship” (Tablets, p. 35).Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=36542
In the past, religion has both divided and united humanity. In this day, it should serve the cause of unity for the followers of all faiths.
KEVIN SMITH is on the board of directors for the centre for Inquiry, Canada’s premier venue for humanists, skeptics and freethinkers.
No surprise from my corner. Religion, at least when the human species messes with it, is divisive. It’s polarizing citizens in the Middle East, America, Europe and certain Scandinavian countries.
It’s also happening in our province. Fortunately, in typically Canadian fashion, the issue has not resulted in the loss of human lives as much as a loss of human rights. I’m talking religion, schools and secularism.
Ontario will soon be into election mode, as if we’re not already. McGuinty, the self-professed education premier who doesn’t like to talk about contentious education issues, will be fighting for his political life. Perhaps he’ll talk during the election. He’s got some explaining to do.
One of the most divisive issues in our province is within its sole publicly-funded, faith-based school board. I’m talking the abuse of children’s rights, particularly gay kids, as a result of religious dogma. This brand of religion believes homosexuality is a disorder and any attempt by students to form a gay/straight alliance is forbidden. There are increasing cries from citizens to not only de-fund, but also to take them to the Human Rights Commission.
Even our public school system has divisive issues. Recently, we found another brand of religion to be using important classroom time to pray. They’re not only segregating themselves from their fellow students; they position young menstruating girls at the back of the room. Other faith groups have demanded equal time.
The only solution, Mr. Premier Dad, is one secular school system where kids of various faiths, and those of no faith, can unite in an environment that promotes mutual respect and understanding.
I recognize the rights of others to practice their religion; the diversity makes our province fascinating. But it should never take precedence over being human first.
RADHIKA SEKAR holds a PhD in religious studies and taught Hinduism courses at Carleton and University of Ottawa. An aspiring Vedantin, she is a devotee of the Sri Ramakrishna Mission.
Swami Vivekananda stated that while all religions claim that they can unite the world in a single universal faith, there can in reality be no such thing.
Particularly in monotheistic religions that are built around the teachings of a historical figure which require absolute belief and adherence to dogmas. Such faiths generally insist that theirs is “the only way to salvation,” and shun or demonize those who believe differently from them. History is testament to the gory results of attempts such to unify everyone under a single “true” faith.
Unity can be achieved only through tolerance and acceptance. Emphasis should be on individual growth rather than blind adherence to dogma. It is quite possible for people of different faiths to coexist harmoniously when differences are viewed as merely providing a basis for examining similarities.
Thousands of years ago, the Rig Veda declared: “Truth is one, but sages call it by various names.” Vedanta (and Yoga) recognize varying approaches to God, and considers each one to be true and valid. Conflicts are due more to doctrine and dogma than to the reality of spiritual experience.
Vedanta does not depend on a person or persons, but upon principles. At the same time, there is room for millions of teachers, but each one must be an illustration of the principles. “The glory of Krishna is not that he was Krishna, (i.e. a historical figure) but that he was the great teacher of Vedanta. If he had not been so, his name would have died out of India in the same way as the name of Buddha has done.”
Thus it is the song and not the singer that is of import. The singer is merely the embodiment of the message.
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