Religious Pluralism: The Key to Overcoming Global Conflict and Achieving Peace

The only way we can reduce human conflict is to understand the human quest for liberation, knowledge, and finding the answers to the fundamental questions that have troubled us—Who are we? Why are we here? Where do we go from here?—is to acknowledge that we can access answers to these questions using a variety of means, under the guidance of a variety of spiritual and religious leaders, and as adherents to any of the world's faith groups.

The other facet of this argument is that those who claim God for themselves, or assert that their religious faith is the only one that paves the way to God contribute to human suffering and conflict by denying others the right to follow their own spiritual instincts, their God-given freedom to probe the universe as they wish. They do so by imposing hierarchies that categorize people as infidels or believers, saved or lost, devil worshipers or God-followers, and heathens or religious people. These exclusivist and monopolistic claims to God then pave the way to predatory proselytism, and the denial of agency to others—the "adhikara" (authority or ownership) and "ishta" (desired, liked)—guiding principles that shape the Hindu pursuit of transcending the mundane.

This argument is not new. In fact, I wrote a short piece for United Press International's "religion and spirituality forum" in 2006, which I think can describe why religious pluralism is essential to mitigating conflict in the world. Before we get there, we have to clarify what pluralism means. Swami Vivekananda said, "We not only tolerate, but we Hindus accept every religion, praying in the mosque of the Mohammedans, worshipping the fire of the Zoroastrians, and kneeling before the Cross of Christians, knowing that all the religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of them marking a stage of progress" (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, pp. 331-32). Vivekananda was stating something a hundred years before what Professor Diana Eck of Harvard and the Pluralism Project call necessary conditions for the practice of and belief in pluralism. Pluralism, for her, has to be "the energetic engagement with diversity . . . , the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference . . . , the encounter of commitments . . ." arrived at through dialogue.

In 2006 we had a visitor at Longwood University where I teach. He was a holocaust survivor. Jay Ipson, President and Executive Director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, came to talk to our students about love, hate, and bigotry. He began by asking the luncheon audience what it was that made Germans hate the Jews. One person said that maybe Germans learned it at home; another said that the media played a role; and yet another offered the hypothesis that maybe they learned it at school. I suggested that it was religion that was at the bottom of that hatred. He nodded his head, looked around, and asked us to consider that fact.

In the audience were a Presbyterian minister, a Catholic priest, and Christians of other denominations. People uncomfortably shifted in their chairs, and one person said that religions don't teach hate but people misuse religion. Is that true, Ipson asked, and he himself seemed to indicate that it might be so. Some others pointed out that there is much in religious literature that is problematic, if not hateful.

Ipson's story of survival in a Lithuanian Jewish ghetto, and of escape with his father and mother from the ghetto, while the rest of his family was sent to the concentration camps and to their deaths, made us all acknowledge the real import of religious discrimination. Ipson still retains a strong German/European accent but has a fine command of American colloquial English. His talk was precise, and he avoided the politically correct clichés that many modern speakers use to soften the horrors of the past, and the vulgarities of the present.

The holocaust survivor's story is important not only in the context of continuing anti-Semitism but it can also provide the context for pluralism, the lessons we can learn from Hinduism, and the concerns of Hindus, Native Americans, and others about the effects of predatory proselytism—aggressive and manipulative efforts at converting others through force, fraud, seduction, and lies.

At the end of his presentation, Ipson asked the audience what they felt were the answers to reducing conflict and hate. There were the usual suggestions of education, interfaith dialogue, acceptance, and so on. I raised my hand. Once again, there was some uncomfortable shifting in the chairs. I was, after all, the first one in the audience to say that some people learn hate from religion, and Ipson had acknowledged that. He also found that I was the one person in the audience who knew the group, other than the Nazis, who had mandated the wearing of a piece of colored cloth to identify the "other": these were the Taliban, who in Afghanistan had mandated that Hindus wear yellow-colored clothing to identify themselves as Hindus.

I said that I felt one of the fundamental reasons why there is religion-fuelled conflict is because of the claims made by some members of exclusivist religions: that they are the ones who know the true God, and that it is the command of their religions for them to convert the non-Christian and the non-Muslim. "As soon as you say that my God is not good enough for me, you get my back up, and that has fuelled insanity for the past two millennia," I argued.

The couple of Jewish friends in the audience nodded their heads as well as some of my secular-Christian colleagues and students. Ipson concurred with me.

Two days later the Presbyterian minister, who was in the audience, spoke to me. He argued that I could not falsify the claim that "Jesus was the only son of God," revealing to me, again, the power of well-circulated fallacies. I pointed out to my good friend that he was doing a confused reading of the philosopher Karl Popper's thesis that only that which is falsifiable is scientifically verifiable knowledge. Because I cannot disprove that Jesus was the only son of God does not mean that Jesus is the only son of God, I told my friend. It simply means that your assertion cannot be either proved or disproved, and so it is not a verifiable or scientific claim.

He then argued that it was his fundamental right, under American law, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that allowed him to spread the message of his God to others. I told him that I am all for freedom of speech, but that the freedom, if wrongly used to assert unverifiable claims, or to demean and demonize others' faiths led to conflict. Religion-influenced conflict, I said, is the biggest bane of humanity now.

I told him that it is not as if we could argue about the claims of automobile manufacturers, for example, that their cars and trucks are more reliable and provide better gas mileage than their competitors' cars and trucks. "Oh, but we can," he asserted. I asked him if economic analyses showed that Christians are healthier than Muslims or Hindus, or whether Christians earned more than Sikhs, or if Christians were more loving than Buddhists. It seemed as if he was about to mention Samuel Huntington's thesis about the "clash of civilizations" to argue that there was some kind of sociological or cultural evidence that indeed Christians were "better" than others, but we had to end our conversation. However, my friend is not the only one who believes that Christianity is directly or indirectly responsible for what we take to be the good of modern capitalism and free market economies: there are a whole host of Christians making that argument, and indirect claims to the superiority or uniqueness of their God.

I am a Hindu, and I believe Hindu traditions are pluralistic. I believe that they enable the individual to seek God through different means, on a variety of paths. One can choose to worship God in many ways, and have a favorite deity or many favorite deities. There are nearly twenty Sanskrit terms for the English word "god," and Western scholars who have studied Hinduism have been struck by the fact that the god that was praised in a hymn was praised as "the only one, the supreme, the greatest," and that this praise was not restricted to one god but to various gods in various hymns, indicating the belief that God can take many forms, but is one.

Hinduism has always represented both cultural and religious pluralism. The Rig Veda, the oldest extant Hindu text, is both local in its grounding and universal in its embrace of all humanity, including the whole cosmos. This old, universal view that constitutes Sanatana Dharma, did not present religion and spirituality as something unique and separate to the tribe or group. We do need to keep in mind, however, that what the sages and saints of yore provided for humanity were ways of understanding the primordial, and the lessons to make life meaningful. The lessons and practices of meditation, of discipline, and of sustenance and insight provided people with the practical and theoretical framework for daily living as well as fulfilling the human longing for salvation. This was the message that Swami Vivekananda propagated when he first arrived in the U.S. in 1893. And this was what he said when he spoke to mesmerized audiences in England in 1896:

To the Hindu, man is not travelling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth. To him all the religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realise the Infinite each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of these marks a stage of progress . . . (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, p. 17)

Ronald Neufeldt, in response to Vivekananda's 1893 speeches, asserts that Vivekananda was seeking for Hinduism a place at the top of the heap ("Reflections on Swami Vivekananda's Speeches at the World Parliament of Religions, 1893," Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies: Vol. 6, Article 4, 1993). But that is the reaction of the Western observer who cannot see the world except in hierarchical terms. Since Hindus don't seek to proselytize, to convert the other into their ways of being and believing, one should be able to acknowledge the power of their argument that all individuals and groups seek their own path to God without, in turn, reading it as some kind of supremacist claim to "god knowledge." As David Frawley argued in his address to the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue in March 2012,

We all inherently belong to the one religion that is the basis of all life. There are certain natural religious tendencies in all human beings: capacities for devotion, service or meditation, for example, which different religions adapt or mold according to their own views, considerations or compulsions. The ultimate goal of religion is to know the Divine, which is to know one's Self. This means that religious conversion is only an outer phenomenon and may be of no value at all. We are all inherently one with the Divine. Spirituality is a self-discovery, which is a shedding of outer attachments. This at least has been the Hindu approach through history, which has never embraced any aggressive form of conversion. A universal approach to religion should approximate this natural religion of humanity, with its efforts to relate to the sacred nature of all life and to discover the spiritual nature of one's own being. Hinduism to a great extent has been able to do this and most great Hindu teachers continue to strive in that direction.

Of course, I need not invoke the word "Hindu" or "Hinduism" here to make my point. The great sages of India recognized intuitively the paradoxical nature of claims and identities, and so sought to distance themselves from all labels and all affiliations. We can do that here. But we need to go beyond "faith" since Hinduism and Buddhism are experience and knowledge-based affiliations, and the label "faith" can only be loosely tied to them. What we can say, however, in closing is that unless we open up the field of faith to enquiry and stop marking our territory as the only "holy" territory, we will continue to live in a conflicted world. If we seek peace, then we should be willing to let go of our monopolistic claims to heaven and to God. If we wish to build a brotherhood and sisterhood of understanding, then we should be ready to stop our aggressive agenda to convert the other.

This is the slightly edited text of the remarks I made at the World Conference of Religions, in Washington, DC, on November 30, 2012.

First published on Patheos,


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