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Does Religion Unite or Divide Societies?

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When despots fall, religion plays key role in rebuilding societies: expert

Rashid Omar, Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, is an imam at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa. Omar’s research and teaching focus on religion, violence and peacebuilding, especially the Islamic ethics of war and peace and interreligious dialogue. The headline describes him as an “expert”. So when he was thus recently publicized in PhysOrg.com, a “leading web based science, research and technology news service”, saying “religion can play a key role in rebuilding societies after despots fall and violent, oppressive governments are toppled, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia”, is it justifiable for it to be treated as if it were some sort of research?

Surely there is nothing scientific about it, and someone at PhysOrg.com is spreading a message rather different from the website’s objectives. It is not science speaking but his own irrational commitment to religion. Is PhysOrg.com aiming for a Templeton grant?

We read there, in a piece by Shannon Chapla, that Omar thinks religion and religious people, so often considered part of the problem, can instead play key roles in rebuilding society:

In the midst of the worst kind of barbarism, people of different faith traditions found solace and healing in their own faiths and in interreligious solidarity. Now the scene in Tahrir Square is being duplicated all across North Africa and the Middle East. Recently in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Rev Daniel Farrugia, a senior Roman Catholic priest at St. Francis Catholic Church, refused to be evacuated, choosing instead to stay and serve with “our sisters”, nearly 100 nuns working in hospitals and health centers treating the sick and injured.

Are we meant to think that all the other nurses and doctors had left their posts, and the lives of thousands depended on these dedicated Christians? Most of the staff in an Arab hospital, one can reasonably guess, would have been Moslems. Did the Moslems all abandon their patients, leaving only Catholic nuns to care for people who were ill or wounded? People whose vocation is to care for the sick, whether Christians, Moslems, Atheists, or any other category of human being, can be expected to feel the calling of their vocation at such times. It is that, not the calling of God or Allah, that should motivate them to do their jobs.

In just the same way, people instinctively help others simply because we are human, and have that instinct as a human. We are a communal animal, and have evolved characteristics that strengthen the value of the community to us. We live socially to have the help of others, and the security that a group around us offers. In turn we help them. Naturally altruistic people do not like spongers and free loaders getting help and doing nothing to help others. In the distant past, anyone sufficiently so inclined to be noticed would have been thrown out of the tribe and told to look after themselves. Generally they would not have managed on their own, and died. Meanwhile the tribe became more altrusitic by expelling its free loaders.

That is the reason human beings have certain morals, and the core of them are actions that support sociality between us. And Lo! what do we find the Christian God incarnate teaching?

Do unto others as you would be done by.

Yet Omar thinks it is religion that makes people kind:

In my own country of South Africa, black Christians, Muslims and many people of faith struggling against apartheid played a central role in transforming their society from racial oppression and dehumanization towards hope and justice. In the midst of the “Tunisami” now sweeping away despotic rulers across North Africa and the Middle East, ordinary people can collect the threads of peace and justice that are at the heart of both Islam and Christianity to transform their bleak worlds of indignity and dehumanization into freedom, democracy and justice.

It is utterly bogus and unscientific to claim religion is responsible for people acting naturally. Being robbed and oppressed by tyrants is not why we live in a society. We do not volunteer to be someone else’s slave. We expect respect and service from others in society, and we expect to do the same in return. None of us should expect to be exploited for some rich family or class, yet we tolerate it up to a point. It becomes intolerable when we feel we are getting less from society than we put in, when society is manifestly unfair and unjust.

More often than not, it is religion that makes people act unnaturally, makes people hate and want to kill each other. The reason for that is also explained by the evolution of humanity as a social animal. We lived in small tribes of about 150 for a very long time, and it was during those myriads of years that we learnt to love people in our social group. But we also learnt to hate people in other tribes who were alien from us, had a different culture, ate different food, had different manners, and probably spoke a different dialect or even different language. Mainly, tribes remained apart, but when they came together competing for the same herds or patch of woodland, they would fight. Religions are modern tribes, tribes resurrected when they had died out in society otherwise, and people in different religious groups tend to hate the others. In today’s massive urban sprawls, we are better off without religions, which base hatred on false beliefs about God.

Yet Omar, as an imam in Cape Town, before and after the transition to democracy, says he is trying to build “a bridge between my faith commitment and my participation in protest against racism and apartheid”. Why should he need to build any such commitment, when it is natural for us to live together and love one another providing that we recognize the purpose of human society?

Those who wish to divide society on spurious grounds need to be taught a little science, and a little evolutionary morality to make them realise that we cannot live together harmoniously in deeply divided societies, and nor can we live in deeply unfair societies. These are the objectives that should unite us, not superstitions. This is what our commitment should be, and it is at the core of most of the imperial religions because it is at the core of our being.

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Written by mikemagee

5 March, 2011 at 12:15 am

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