Wheel of Misfortune: Religion, Conflict, and Cooperation

Religions exist on a continuum from deep contemplation and thoughtfulness on one end to superficiality and vanity on the other.

By Ted Mitchell
Published March 01, 2006

"Prove all things: hold fast that which is good."
--1 Thessalonians 5:21

Many people have struggled with the influence of religion on conflict and violence. Surely everyone has heard the argument that much historical cruelty has been and continues to be inflicted in the name of God.

At the same time, religion is also a force for peace and non-violence. How do these claims coexist and which force is more powerful?

I suggest that every religion exists on a linear continuum from deep contemplation or thoughtfulness to pure superficiality or vanity.

Believers who seriously consider the content of holy writings must realize that they are dealing with ever-changing translations of ancient languages. These are modified owing to evolving understanding of language and must always be influenced by the context of present culture.

Given these facts, it might not be clear as to whether text from an ancient culture very different from our own is intended to be interpreted concretely or metaphorically. The reader must be careful not to take verses out of context and to be constantly aware of internal inconsistencies.

Seeing the big picture of these writings is important to the thoughtful believer, not only in a search for truth but as a personal, moral guide to living a virtuous life.

The vain believer is primarily self-centered, and consciously or not attaches themselves to what they want to hear. Out-of-context interpretations combined with "tribal" groupthink can become a powerfully divisive force. A political form of this kind of thinking has recently been called "truthiness".

The thoughtful believer will never be quick to judge others or to restrict their freedom. They will use their faith as a tool to promote peace and discourage division, realizing that even the subtlest label or religious symbol can be a flashpoint for conflict.

The vain believer boldly dismisses others based on failure to conform to the group-defined ideal. Dehumanizing and demonizing can easily follow, and these are used as tools to pull their own faith group together, like the false camaraderie that otherwise divergent people can feel in wartime from exposure to a common enemy.

The thoughtful believer ministers by way of example and never attempts to enlist others by persuasion. Their personal belief does not require approval from others.

The vain believer is infatuated by group cohesion and actively gathers others to their flock. Alone, they are weak and uncertain.

Perhaps no single person embodies these extremes of the continuum, but takes a portion from each position. I regretfully think that the modern Western resurgence of religion has moved considerably towards the vain, self-centered aspect. This explains much in terms of lack of progress towards world peace.

I have implied no difference in "depth" of faith with respect to this continuum. The most dangerous position is that of the deep believer of the vain variety - you could call this group "extremists". Examples are much of the U.S. religious right and the Taliban. For these people, religion is a badge of pride and a weapon of superiority over others.

To understand the contribution of religion to conflict or harmony, you could think of each major faith having a separate, linear continuum from vain to contemplative.

Now, arrange these as spokes of a wheel, with "contemplative" at the hub and "vain" at the outer rim. Place more closely related spokes next to each other and the most unrelated ones at opposite ends of the wheel.

It now becomes easier to see that people close to the "hub" will find that their views of the world and actions in dealing with people are very compatible. In contrast, those of the more vain variety may see things backwards compared to others near the opposite rim.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, for these groups to find anything in common except their ignorance and hatred of each other. The only way to bridge the gap is to come to the centre of the wheel, that is, move away from vanity and superficiality toward humility and thoughtfulness.

Otherwise, choose the stagnant, righteous and certain path and destroy the other. But then the wheel falls apart.

Now to make things interesting, I will add another spoke - atheism. Although there is no meaningful organization within this group, there is a similar continuum between the vain and the contemplative.

Individuals near the hub are thoughtful, ethical types, who despite their disbelief in God will actually find themselves with a great deal in common with some extremely devout, contemplative believers.

Perhaps this "spokes of a wheel" analysis need not be limited to religion. Every issue generates ideologies with groups of followers.

Those who choose to pursue facts, imagination, thoughtfulness, and consideration of others will be near the hub. Despite superficial differences, they will be able to agree on much more than they might expect.

Conversely, those with a self-centered, righteous, superficial approach will be unable to make any progress with their opponents except towards escalation of conflict.

Everyone has a choice of dealing with life using depth or superficiality. The former leads to cooperation and peace. The latter results in tribalism, us-versus-them divisiveness, and violence.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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