2006-08-03 / Editorial


By Robert Morton-Ranney

Religious warfare is back. There is fresh interreligious combat - Jews vs. Moslems in Lebanon and Israel - and intrareligious combat - Sunnis vs. Shiites in Iraq.

But no war is finally about religion. Remember, in our own little civil war, Presbyterians were hoping a divinity might help them kill Presbyterians.

Warfare is about a clash of ways of life. Each side claims that they are protecting their way of life in the face of dire threat. And each side claims the enemy is attempting to advance its way of life in a most unwelcome manner.

The coalition presence in Iraq was first announced as a search for weapons of mass destruction and has now morphed into the liberation of the Iraqi people from dictatorship so that they can enjoy the fruits of democracy.

A number of nations with ways of life very similar to ours have joined in our assumption that a society in which personal identity is based on tribal membership, and the balance of power is determined by the shifting of alliances between and among many tribes, would rather be one in which personal identity is based on the interplay between family history and individual choice, and the balance of power is determined by the success of competing marketing machines.

In other words, we're convinced that our way of life is better than theirs. And we just can't understand why anybody living there (or anywhere else, for that matter) can't see it.

It never occurred to us that just because some of them didn't like the former head guy didn't necessarily mean they wanted to do away with a social infrastructure that has largely been in place since before Brutus got that funny glint in his eye.

But what do we know? We're Americans. We think everything that happened before 1776 is just preamble. And we seem to think, some of us at any rate, that everything happening after is for us to determine.

So many people want to come here. We tend to forget that these persons are self-selecting. They are a tiny fraction of the total population in their home countries. We seem to prefer the presumption that this means everybody wants to be like us. And, after all, isn't spreading democracy just a way of helping people be like us without having to come here to do it?

How is this connected with religious warfare?

The sitting president told Congress in the run-up to Gulf II that liberty is "God's gift to humanity." It would be an assumption in the extreme to take this to mean the president sees the use of American military might as an avenue of divine intervention.

But atheists and agnostics everywhere will be disappointed by the need to recognize that religious vocabulary has not disappeared from public discussion.

Nor, in my opinion, should it. The problem is not that leaders large and small, noble and sordid, invoke their favorite name for whatever metaphysical entities might lie just off the edge of the conventionally accepted database.

The problem is that so often religious references are used as a means of rallying the masses for purposes that go beyond the scope of what religious traditions themselves attempt to address.

Religious language is a means of articulating understandings of life that, for many people, cannot be satisfactorily captured by other verbal sets. This is true for individuals and it is true for groups.

It must be discussed whenever and wherever there are serious attempts to address what it is to be human, and therefore it has a place in public discussion.

Still, I confess, I cringe whenever I hear a religious reference in the public sphere, whether undertaken by a politician or by a religious leader. And for two reasons.

First, because most media systems are not set up to allow for sophistication or nuance in the delivery of information. If ever there was an area that required nuance, religion is it. Even the most venerated of principles can seem trite and hackneyed when squeezed into a few seconds.

Second, it tends to give the impression that there is supposed to be only one way to understand religious life and only one way to express it. Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes studying any religious tradition can tell you that pluralism, a multiplicity of ways of understanding God and of expressing those understandings, appears within every religion and in every era.

Which is probably why the heart of every great religious tradition is the recognition and acceptance of those who are different from oneself.

Hmmm . . .

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