‘Faith creates conflict.’ I hear this statement and ones like it from time to time. And there are certainly many religiously-motivated conflicts that rage around the world. The acts of terror and conquest committed by members of the Islamic State have caught the attention many, especially thanks to the massive amounts of media that has come from people within and outside of the movement. History tells an uncomfortable story as well. Past events like the Crusades and various inquisitions disturb the minds of many. Looking at the past and the present forces us to face the unsettling fact that every religious tradition has blood on its hands.
It’s all enough to make it seem like religion is the problem, like faith is the disease. Like all these conflicts would disappear and utopia would arrive if we could just eradicate the sickness of religion. I think this intriguing idea fails to properly identify the issue, though. It’s prescription is based on a questionable diagnosis. I think if we are to reach a better dia-gnosis—that is, if we are to know the issue more thoroughly—we need to carefully question the nature of faith and the sources of our conflicts. We really need to ask, does faith necessarily create conflict?
As I’ve inquired about the nature of faith, I’ve come to this broad conclusion: exercising faith is inescapable. This notion offends some. In my experience, it mostly offends people who think they are above faith. People who think that faith is necessarily a despicable, irrational thing. But exercising faith is part of our human condition, part of being a limited, finite person. We each trust in someone or something that becomes our source of guidance and hope, by necessity. It’s one of the bottom lines of being human. And there are many different things, persons, rules, ideologies, visions, pursuits, and movements that we may trust in. That is to say, there are many different faiths. Each will have its own set of views, practices, and commitments. Each will provide meaning and purpose to the lives of adherents, whether that be of the objective or subjective variety. So the real question is not, will I choose to have faith? No, the real question is, what have I already chosen to put my faith in?
Some just scoff at such a question in contempt and yet avoid engaging in much honest introspection in the process. But if faith is truly inescapable, then intentionally understanding one’s own faith is a very wise thing. Not only that, if faith is truly inescapable, then the statement—faith creates conflict—is too ambiguous. Everyone has put their faith in someone or something and yet not everyone acts violently towards others, at least physically violent. So is it religious faiths that are the problem? Do all religious faiths inspire conflict and violence? For the sake of clarity, my short answer is, no: all religious faiths do not legitimately inspire violence. But arriving at this short answer requires asking a lot more questions.
For instance, if we wish to understand the motives of a religious radical, we should begin by asking, what is the radix or the root that they are reclaiming? If we wish to understand the mindset of a religious fundamentalist, we should begin by asking, what are the fundamentals that are guiding their lives? If we wish to understand the ideals of a religious dogmatist, we should begin by asking, what are the dogmas that form their outlook? If we wish to understand the faith of any particular person, we should begin by asking, what are their basic views, ethics, and commitments? And what is the basis of these things? It is this sort of specific, sometimes messy, work that is required if we really want to thoroughly understand the nature of faith and the role it may have in conflicts.
As we uncover the essential root, fundamentals, and dogmas of a faith, we might discover that certain faiths could legitimately inspire violence. But in some instances, we might discover that the root, fundamentals, and dogmas of certain faiths do not legitimately inspire violence, despite the fact that some who profess such faiths may commit violent acts. For example, the root of Christ-ianity is—big surprise!—Jesus, the Christ. And the fundamentals and essential dogmas of the Christian faith surround his teachings, identity, example, and accomplishments, both within the history of the Israelite people and the history of humanity. What’s relevant here is Jesus clearly taught his followers to be proactive peacemakers, to love everyone—including one’s enemies—even when it hurts, and to seriously follow his example since he lived out his own ethical teachings. Jesus would say things like, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ So if someone becomes a radical, fundamentalist, dogmatic follower of Jesus, they should be committed to becoming a more loving, peaceful, forgiving person.
Really having faith in Jesus—in his teachings, ways, and accomplishments—involves trusting in the power of self-giving love more than the power of violence. It involves trusting in the power and victory of Life more than the power of Death. But as history has shown, many people who have professed to believe in Jesus have also committed horrific acts of violence. Many have paradoxically claimed to be Christ-ians without following the teachings and example the one they believe to be the Christ. Many have claimed to have faith in Jesus while trusting more in the ultimate power of violence and control and swords and bombs.
So what are we to make of this mess? One simple thing we can and should make of it is that people can be hypocrites. And this is really unsurprising. Being a hypocrite is another apparently unavoidable part of being human. To be human is to say one thing and do another. To be human is to be a paradox; to be a living, breathing contradiction. I have not met a single person, religious or unreligious, who has sincerely told me that they have always followed their own convictions to perfection. We all mess up, even according to our own standards. So unfortunately, we should not be shocked to see that people can act against their beliefs. It is an incredibly common thing.
Some might accuse me of being biased in my thinking since I’m a Christian. As if I’m trying to exonerate my faith and suggest that all the others legitimately inspire violent conflict. But this is not my intention or my point. The same essential point I’m presenting—that people can act against what they profess—could be illustrated by historical events where Buddhists committed violent acts. A Buddhist who professes to have ‘taken refuge’ in the Buddha and his dharma is being hypocritical if they act violently against another person. Nonviolence was clearly taught by the Buddha and it runs throughout much of the Buddhist scriptures. It is central to the tradition. So much so that the Buddha preached the following in one sermon: ‘Even if thieves carve you limb from limb with a double-handed saw, if you make your mind hostile you are not following my teaching.’
So I would argue that professed Christians or Buddhists or secular pacifists are acting against the ideals of their faith when they commit acts of unrestrained violence. What actually becomes increasingly apparent is, the more thoroughly we unravel the threads of violence and conflict, the more obvious it becomes that religious faith is not always their source. Tracing the many threads of violence often unravels a different problem. A problem that is deeper and darker and even more pervasive than organized religion. It is the problem of evil.
If we unravel the threads of violence to their source, we will often find them attached to a host of evil tendencies. We may unravel greed that inspires us to fight for excessive amounts of wealth and land. We may unravel conceit that inspires us to use and abuse other people. We may unravel hate that inspires us to dominate, control, and kill our enemies. We may unravel many evils that go against the verbal professions we might make. And in many situations and in many ways, violence exposes a person’s true desires. Violence exposes a person’s true faith.
Evil is certainly an uncomfortable reality. But we often avoid staring straight into the sources of evil for fear of finding it within ourselves. It’s easier to just blame all our problems on ‘faith.’ Or just blame them all on ‘religion.’ But these sloppy simplifications can sometimes just be strategies for sidestepping and blame shifting so we don’t have to face the real issue: that we each have contributed to the problem which is inspired by evils within.
So the real diagnosis is not that our impulses towards faith or organized religions are our most profound problems. The real diagnosis is that our internal tendencies towards evil is our most profound problem. This is the disease that needs to be cured. Especially because it has infected us all. Now, religion can certainly be used as an outlet for evil, just as things like politics or business or economic systems or abusive relationships can be outlets for evil too. But in such scenarios, ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ are tools used to validate inflicting damage that is inspired by a deeper disease. This shouldn’t be surprising, either, because the appeal to get God to endorse one’s hate, greed, and conquest is a powerful thing.
As I reflected and wrote on the statement I began this post with, I couldn’t help but think that much needed to be shared because this topic is controversial. So my post became longer than I initially intended. But because the issue is stifled far too frequently with simplisms, I felt the need to expand. I hope these thoughts offer some clarity for why I think that faith does not necessarily create conflict and why I think the sources of our conflicts are often deeper. There’s more that I wanted to include in this reflection but have not for the sake of focusing it as much as I possibly could. So please post your comments if reading this has provoked any thoughts, questions, or disagreements.