A Path to Peace or a Source of Strife

Author: Prof. Mary Ann Glendon

A Path to Peace or a Source of Strife

Prof. Mary Ann Glendon

The role of religion in the quest for peace

The following selection is taken from Prof Mary Ann Glendon's speech in which she presented her paper on Tuesday afternoon, 2 May [2012], before the close of the Annual Plenary Session.

In most academic environments, I daresay the typical reaction to a topic such as the role of religion in the quest for peace would be a condescending smile. Behind the smile would be the widely held view among intellectuals that religion is a major — perhaps the major — source of strife and intolerance in the world. Few would come right out and say it as plainly as the late Christopher Hitchens did in his best-selling book,
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But Hitchens gave voice to what many members of the knowledge class believe when he wrote that organized religion is "the main source of hatred in the world .... [v]iolent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children".

That prejudice is so deeply ingrained that it is hard to dislodge with mere facts. But where the connection between religion and violence is concerned, the facts presented to us at last year's Plenary Session support what common sense would suggest: that the relationship is complex. Sometimes religion contributes to strife, but often it fosters democracy, reconciliation, and peace.

So the really interesting questions become: How and under what circumstances does religion foster peace and progress rather than strife and decline? And how can religious actors help to shift probabilities towards "peace on earth"?

Unfortunately, the common view of religion as a fomenter of strife gets in the way of thinking about such questions. That view has a long history. It figures prominently in a grandiose historical narrative that took rise in the Enlightenment, according to which religion was expected to decline with the advance of science and education. The demise of religion was supposed to be accompanied by the diminution, if not disappearance, of all the ills that proponents of secularization believed to be associated with religion — intolerance, the stifling of individual freedom, and, of course, violence.

By the time Pacem in Terris appeared in 1963, a belief in the inexorable advance of secularization had a strong hold on the mentalities of academics and opinion leaders. The sociologist Peter Berger spoke for many when he told The New York Times in 1968 that "by the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture".

Therein lies a cautionary lesson for us social scientists: Be careful about making predictions. In 1998, Professor Berger, with commendable humility, retracted the forecast he had made thirty years earlier, saying: "The assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world today ... is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever". What that means, he admitted, is "that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists ... is essentially mistaken".

It would be just as mistaken, however, to suppose that the secularization narrative has lost its power merely because religion has failed to wither away on schedule. That is why I devoted the second part of my paper to an overview of four recent attempts to produce a new narrative of secularization.

The first attempt, a kind of anti-religious secularism, is found in the series of popular books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and other so-called "new atheists" who have refurbished the oft-repeated arguments: that science renders religion obsolete and that religion is not only a major source of strife but has all sorts of negative effects in modern society. I won't dwell on these highly publicized works except to note that their popularity is evidence of a trickle-down effect of elite ideas about which Nicos Mouzelis spoke to us last year.

Far more interesting, in my view, are the works of another group of self-described non-believers like Jürgen Habermas and Marcello Pera who view the advance of secularism — especially anti-Christian secularism — with alarm. They have expressed grave concerns about the political and social costs of neglecting a cultural inheritance in which religion, liberty, and law are inextricably intertwined.
Thinkers like Habermas — I call them the "rueful non-believers" — are the true "new" atheists, because they are the ones who have looked ahead on the road toward a world without God and who do not like what they see. For example, one factor that led Habermas to worry about the loss of the Judaeo-Christian heritage was concern about biological engineering and the instrumentalization of human life. A leading political leftist, he stunned many of his followers with his full-throated affirmation of the importance of that religious heritage to everything liberals hold dear.

How curious, then, that Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his recent work, "A Secular Age", does not discuss the matters that are so disturbing to thinkers like Habermas. Taylor argues that, at least in the West, we now inhabit "a secular age", in the sense that fewer people are influenced by religious beliefs. On this point, his work comports with the analysis presented to this Academy last year by Mouzelis, and with recent surveys of religious attitudes and practices in Europe and the United States. Among the most striking trends is the rising proportion of people who say they are "spiritual but not religious", and of those who decline to affiliate with any organized religion. I would also mention in this context what the political philosopher Allan Bloom pointed out a quarter century ago — that a certain language of relativism has become a part of popular education, insinuating itself into everyday life. Growing numbers of people, he observed, "pursue happiness in ways determined by that language, blissfully unaware of its implications". It is, as he memorably put it, "nihilism without the abyss".

In Taylor's view, the cultural revolution of the 1960s marked the moment when the sense of a great variety of spiritual and moral options "which was originally that ofelites only, spread through whole societies". He describes it as "an individuating revolution" in which the pursuit of self-fulfillment, particularly in sexual matters, caused more and more people to fall away from churches that upheld rigorous standards of sexual morality. Taylor specifically declines, however, to ascribe this revolution in manners and morals to "an outbreak of hedonism and egoism". Rather, he says that "this terribly fraught area in Western Christendom, where the sexual meets the spiritual, urgently awaits the discovery of new paths to God", and he calls on the churches to take "another look at certain issues of sexual ethics".

Though his 874-page work is packed with detail, in no place does he show any sign of sharing the apprehensions of non-believers like Habermas regarding the corrosive effects of this aspect of secularization on social and political life.

How interesting, then, to find Pope Benedict closer to the worried atheists than to a leading Catholic philosopher. Just as Habermas shocked many of his followers with his praise of Christianity, Pope Benedict has startled many Catholics with his advocacy of what he calls "positive secularism". As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had already developed a contrast between "positive secularism" as a posture of neutrality that opens up areas of freedom for persons of all faiths, and "negative secularism" that is hostile to religion and denies religion a space in public life. It was a bold bid to reinterpret and redirect the concept of secularism.

What all four of these secularization narratives have in common is a keen awareness that the religious landscape of the world is changing. The self styled "new" atheists are particularly alarmed at the upsurge
in some places of politically motivated religious activity, while the rueful non-believers are alarmed at the decline of the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition in the West. The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor views the trend toward a more private, individualized religiosity with relative complacency, while Pope Benedict sees that trend as posing new challenges not only for religion, but also for the "tranquility of order" that is peace.

This brings me to the question of the role of religion in the quest for peace. As I noted earlier, there is no simple answer to the question of the relation between religion and violence. In my paper, I reviewed recent studies indicating that, under the right conditions, religion can be a real force for peace-building. In the half century since Pacem in Terris, religious actors have demonstrated their effectiveness as peace-builders in numerous ways — sometimes through observation and witness; sometimes through education; sometimes through advocacy; and sometimes through conciliation and mediation.

Moreover, knowledge is accumulating about what conditions enable religion to play a positive role in the quest for peace, and what conditions tend toward the opposite effect. I will just mention the conclusions of two of these studies here. According to the 2011 study of the rise of politically assertive religion by Toft, Philpott and Shah, two factors are especially important in explaining whether the kind of politics a religious group pursues will be violent or peaceful, democratic or authoritarian: "The set of ideas that a religious community holds about political authority and justice, especially whether its doctrines call for religious freedom and human rights" and "The relationship between religious authorities and political authorities, especially the degree of independence they enjoy from political authority".

Another study emphasizes the importance of each religion's internal resources and concludes: "Religious leaders become effective peacebuilders only when they are able to rise above ... ethical and pastoral parochialism, while not abandoning the religious inculturation that can make them such a force for peace in the local context".

If these conclusions are valid, they do not augur well for the peace-building potential of the "new atheism". For the fact is that this new belief system and others like it have not proved friendly to religious freedom, nor have they shown much ability to rise above their own parochialism and intolerance.

Pope Benedict, by contrast, has placed special emphasis on the need to welcome what he calls "the real achievements of Enlightenment thinking — human rights, and especially the freedom of faith and its exercise, recognizing these as elements that also are essential for the authenticity of religion." The Pope has acknowledged that it took a long time for Catholicism to reach that point, and he has observed with sympathy that "[T]he Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard".

I conclude therefore with the observation that that same recommendation applies not only to Islam but with equal force to the new "humanist" belief systems that fancy themselves the heirs of the Enlightenment! For they seem to grasped the wrong end of the stick — carrying forward its legacy of anti religious prejudice while ignoring its opening to human rights and religious freedom.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 May 2012, page 6

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