Religion Needs a Savior
By Deidre McPhillips Data EditorJan.
Jan 23, 2018,
Most people think religion is the root of the world’s problems, according to a recent international study.
Raised as a conservative, Sunni Muslim girl in Canada, Yasmine Mohammed said she was taught to always be in fight mode.
“The first thing Islam teaches you is to not question, but follow,” she says. And what she had to follow was a “Muslim supremacy ideology” that called for violence against anyone who fell out of line and full armies prepared to join the fight when the caliphate was to rise.
Systematic suppression of critical thinking is what makes Muslims ripe to join groups like the Islamic State group or become suicide bombers without questioning the motives of their directives, she says.
As a radical sect of Buddhist nationalists persecute the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wages on and a film challenging the Orthodox Church spurs violent protests in Russia, it seems that asserting sovereignty is the only thing the world’s religions can agree on today.
In a recent Best Countries survey of more than 21,000 people from all regions of the world, the majority of respondents identified religion as the “primary source of most global conflict today.”
Sintia RaduJan. 23, 2018
Spiritual beliefs create an inherent “us vs. them” scenario, experts say.
“When societies shatter, they generally shatter along tribal lines. People are seeing themselves as irretrievably different from their neighbors,” says Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher who has published books on Islam and the conflict between religion and science.
The divisions created by religion are deeper and potentially more harmful than those formed through other aspects of identity such as race, nationality or political affiliations because they confront individuals with differing opinions on the ultimate purpose of life, experts say. And more than 80 percent of those surveyed said that religious beliefs guide a person’s behavior.
“Religion often becomes the master variable,” Harris says. “It provides a unique reward structure. If you believe that the thoughts you harbor in this life and the doctrines you adhere to spell the difference between an eternity spent in fire or one spent on the right hand of God, that raises the stakes beyond any other reward structure on earth.”
Tribal tendencies are natural for humans who need groups and community to survive. But the driving forces behind especially alienating, fundamentalist beliefs are a combination of nature and nurture, experts say.
“Any beliefs that concern the sacred are integral to people’s identities,” says Andrew Tix, a psychology professor at Normandale Community College whose nationally recognized research focuses on religion and spirituality. “People differ in how much they’re threatened when the sacred is brought into question.”
He points to psychology’s Big Five theory in which openness to experience is one of five key personality traits that is influenced by genetics and shaped by experiences.
Some people have found ways to “hold their beliefs more lightly and with a sense of mystery,” he says. They would score high on ‘openness,’ while fundamentalists who hold their beliefs with heavy conviction would more likely score low.
Religious communities teach different ways of responding to criticism of their identity, Tix says, but it comes down to the notion of threatened egotism.
The stronger a person’s convictions in their identity – of which religion is often a key part – the more likely they are to be violent when their identity is threatened.
The Muslim identity surrounding Mohammed in Canada’s British Columbia was strong. She was beaten for not memorizing the Koran and married to a member of al-Qaida as a teenager.
But after taking a religion course at college, Mohammed said the unease she had always felt with what she was told to believe finally started to take shape.
In voicing her newfound convictions to her family, she immediately became part of “them” instead of “us.” The fight turned against her. She says her family disowned her and threatened to have her killed. She fled to different parts of Canada, changed her and her child’s names and says she feels lucky the death threat has so far only been a threat.
It is only in comparison with modern Islam that modern Christianity and other religions appear more benign, says Sam Harris, who is very publicly atheist.
“It’s more than inconvenient that these old [religious] books support things like slavery and the killing of women who are not virgins on their wedding night,” he says. “None of these books is the best we have on anything we care about. All could be improved with editing, and that should banish any notion that they are the product of omniscience.”
But religion is not going away.
Estimates from Pew Research Center predict that the worldwide population of religiously unaffiliated people will shrink from about 16 percent in 2010 to 13 percent in 2050. In the same time frame, the share of Muslims is predicted to grow from 23 percent to 30 percent of the world’s population.
Experts agree that finding a human connection at some level can help build empathy and bridge the gap between conflicting ideologies and identities.
For 18 years, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, founded by Douglas Johnston, has facilitated faith-based dialogue to find commonalities in these conflicting sides.
“What you’re doing is shifting accountability from an ideology or political movement to god. If you do that, you tend to find that people behave nicer,” Johnston says. “It’s incumbent upon all of us to search our beliefs, our instincts and the rest of it and do what we can to be agents of reconciliation.”