Religion: Conflict or Compassion?

This coming fall semester, I am excited to be teaching my first university-level course: Introduction to Cultural Geography, at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. As I go about preparing my lectures for the course, I am finding one particular chapter from the textbook, Geographies of Identity and Difference, to be engaging, yet, at the same time, quite limiting (and, I believe, untrue).

The narrative from the chapter reads as follows: as humans evolved over millennia we spread throughout the globe and developed various unique place-based cultures and identities. As we came, and come, into contact with groups that our different from our group-the ‘Others’–the textbook claims that differences in culture (i.e., often religion and language) lead us to be suspect of one another, eventually precipitating conflict, and sometimes, full-fledged war.

At first glance, looking around at the world in which we live, the textbook’s narrative seems accurate. For example, as I write, Islamic radicals continue to kill innocent Christians in Iraq. However, the textbook fails to ask a very important question about these types of conflicts:

is it really religious differences causing the violence? Or, could it be something else?

I am not trying to get religion off-the-hook here. As a Christian, I am well aware (and very ashamed) that many, many people have been killed in the name of Jesus. But was/is Christianity the cause of these heinous acts?

Jesus taught his followers that the entire religious law could be summed up as follows: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.'” Based on these words, it seems pretty clear that Jesus is quite opposed to violence against ‘Others.’ (In fact, he taught that if someone hit you, you should offer that person your other cheek!) And, as theologian Karen Armstrong reminds us in her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, all of the major world religions include some form of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Religion (done right, of course) is meant to bring people together–to bridge the imagined gap between ourselves and those who seem different–and promote peace throughout our planet.

What I am suggesting then, is that religious differences do not cause human conflict. The real source of these clashes is something from much deeper with the human psyche: a fundamental fear of that which is unknown, both outside, and within, each one of us. In order to build a more peaceful world, we must realize that we have much more in common with the ‘Others’ in our lives than we might at first think. We are all human. We are all connected. We are all in need of compassion. Ironically, perhaps, religion and spiritual practice may actually be conduits through which these learnings can be realized.