Sunday, February 16, 2014

Is religion a destructive and divisive force?

Feb 15, 2014

By Mohammad Alami Musa For The Straits Times

LAST month, the Pew Research Centre released its fifth annual study of religious restrictions and hostilities around the world.

According to Pew, social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012. One-third of the 198 countries studied had either a "very high" or "high" score on Pew's Social Hostilities Index (SHI), up from 20 per cent in 2007. Has religion become something evil?

In spite of its status as an oasis of religious harmony in a troubled world, Singapore's fear of the social and political divisiveness of religion has not receded.

Religious diversity is usually associated with the risk of social fragmentation. In Singapore, for example, the tudung (Islamic headscarf) issue has been cited as a possible threat to good inter-religious relations if it is not handled judiciously. Should religion therefore be feared?

Many scholars have come to the defence of religion. They maintain that religious traditions provide social organisation, with moral codes and ethical principles that define proper behaviour. Noble acts of love, self-sacrifice and service to others are deeply rooted in religious world views. Why, then, has there been this sharp rise in religious hostilities as indicated by the findings of the Pew study?

The report cited many causes. Chief among them is the escalation of hostility directed at minorities and young people who appear reluctant to conform to codes of moral behaviour. Allegedly wayward fellow adherents have also been targeted. Is religion the perpetrator, the instigator or an innocent victim?

In a lecture delivered last month in Singapore, Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, a renowned scholar on religion, said religion is not the problem, but it can be made problematic. According to him, religious traditions contain powerful images of violence, conflict, martyrdom and sacrifice. These images have led some to believe that religion sanctions their acts of violence and destruction.

After all, many perpetrators frame their horrendous crimes within the religious vision of a grand struggle between good and evil. The image of religion is now at a low ebb. It is seen by many as a destructive and divisive force. What can be done to reinstate the good name of religion?

Governments are often expected to play a decisive role. But such intervention does not always produce a positive outcome. This is evident from the Pew report. Of the 20 countries that had a very high SHI score, three-quarters also scored high or very high on Pew's Government Restriction on Religion Index. This suggests that in spite of significant controls, governments have not been able to prevent hostilities.

But this does not mean that official restrictions cannot yield positive results. Nine countries which recorded high scores on government restriction also had a low SHI score. Singapore is one of them. Its restrictions, which can be found in legal provisions and policies, have been effective in preventing religious conflict.

There is no doubt that each religion has its own unique tradition and practices. People of religion tend to accentuate these differences, and this inadvertently gives the impression that religion is divisive. This is where community engagement initiatives are useful.

In 1962, the great historian of religion, Professor Wilfred Cantwell Smith, shocked the academic world by suggesting the term "religion" should no longer be used.

In his book titled The Meaning And End Of Religion, the Canadian argued that the language used in the pre-Enlightenment years, with terms such as tradition, community of faith or the believing community, produced a unifying rather than a divisive effect.

The term "religion", on the other hand, was a construct of the post-Enlightenment era. It was the product of an age that sought to categorise the rituals, practices and institutions of the various religions into neat packages.

Prof Smith's idea, though radical, is something worth exploring. Religious people, while not losing faith in their own religion, need to transcend the differences of specific religious traditions and reach out to others through deeper inter-religious engagements.

They should embrace the unifying spirit behind the big idea of religion per se and protect it from being corrupted. Only by doing these can the fear of the divisive and destructive potential of religion be reduced.

The writer is head of studies in inter-religious relations in plural societies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He was president of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore from September 2003 to August last year.

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