Will there soon be a conference addressing the question, “Is religion divisive?”

I ask, because the more such conferences there are, the better. And they are urgently needed.

Someone actively involved in interfaith work in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (the United Kingdom) advised me recently that the Newcastle Church of England diocese (which arranges/co-ordinates all the most worthwhile interfaith activity in the city and further afield) plans to hold a conference or seminar to discuss the question, “Is religion divisive?”

I hope the event is nothing less than a seminar because, if it is less than a seminar, it will be of little or no merit. In truth, a conference of at least a day’s duration is necessary to do justice to the question.

Of course, based on evidence in this blog as well as evidence from numerous other sources, it is impossible to deny that religion IS divisive, but, as the question is subjected to scrutiny, it would be helpful if the conference or seminar also addressed some or all of the questions that follow:

How is religion divisive?

Why is religion divisive?

Is religion more or less divisive than in the past (e.g. twenty, a hundred or a thousand years ago)?

What needs to change to make religion less divisive?

To enhance matters of universal concern such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all, must some rights currently enjoyed by religious people be restricted (because religion IS divisive, and because religion often IS detrimental to community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all)?

To enhance matters of universal concern such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all, must some religious beliefs and practices be outlawed (because religion IS divisive, and because religion often IS detrimental to community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all)?

Are all religions, most religions, some religions or no religions fully in accord with the so-called “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of (secular) law, mutual respect and tolerance for people who subscribe to different religions and beliefs?

Are all religions, most religions, some religions or no religions fully in accord with the golden rule, that is, treat others as you would expect others to treat you?

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Not so long ago I took part in a conference that addressed precisely the same question – Is religion divisive? – and the structure of the day helped ensure that something meaningful emerged from the event (the structure also ensured that the supplementary questions just listed were addressed, albeit not always in the detail their importance required). Here is a summary of the day which I provided for my contact in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the hope he can ensure the idea for a potentially very worthwhile event fulfils expectations:

I once took part in an excellent whole day conference (for university under- and post-graduate students and members of the general public) on the motion, “Is religion divisive?” Someone spoke for the motion (it is divisive) and someone spoke against the motion (it is not divisive), then people in the audience (the audience included people with and without religious convictions) had the chance to ask questions of the people who had just spoken. There was also a panel of “experts” drawn from different religion and belief backgrounds (e.g. a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Humanist) and scholarly disciplines (e.g. a biologist, a psychologist, a historian, a philosopher), all of whom provided additional information for or against the motion (people in the audience had the chance to also question the “experts”). Everyone then broke into smaller groups to discuss the motion in more detail with a facilitator (the facilitators were the “experts” just identified), then a plenary was held in which the facilitators summarised deliberations in each group. The people who originally supported and opposed the motion were given a last chance to state their case, then a vote was taken on the motion (a vote on the motion started the day. It was interesting to see that about 30% of the audience changed their opinion about the motion).

It was an outstanding event, benefiting in particular from the two people who spoke for and against the motion at the beginning and the end of the day. Both people avoided meaningless platitudes because they provided concrete/reliable/irrefutable evidence in support of their case. It was this grounded, evidence-based nature of the introductory and concluding inputs which ensured the event was worthwhile, rather than a platform for people to allege things about religion and religious traditions that defy all knowledge and understanding (indeed, that defy common sense itself).

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

I was particularly impressed with how one speaker explored the critically important idea that religions can be divisive by not only dividing/separating/splitting people along distinct religious lines (e.g. many religious people insist that their faith is the only source of “truth”; many religious people live in de facto segregation because they want to preserve their identity without “corruption” from outside; many religious people demand separate schools for their children so they secure an Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc. education), but also by dividing/separating/splitting people within the faith group itself (e.g. along sectarian lines, an obvious and undeniable fault-line; but also in terms of, say, males and females dressing in gender stereotypical ways; males and females worshipping apart; males but not females ascending to positions of religious power/responsibility; males and females undertaking different rites of passage; women being ritually impure at times during their monthly cycle; people with disabilities/special needs not being included to the same degree as the so-called able-bodied/able-minded; gays, lesbians and bisexuals suffering disadvantage and discrimination, or worse). This I thought an important but sometimes neglected insight: divisiveness operates within as well as between religious traditions. Not unnaturally, much was made of concepts such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality, justice for all, the golden rule and democratic decision-making, and how some (many?) expressions of religion struggle with these core values underpinning universal declarations of human rights. 

Above all, the conference was memorable because people had to critically evaluate their standpoints with evidence and argument rather than platitudes and wishful thinking. But events of this nature are very rare, partly because conventional approaches to interfaith dialogue ENCOURAGE platitudes and wishful thinking rather than analysis of the evidence and critical evaluation.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

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