A common faith can unite people. But that is exactly the danger: Whoever controls the interpretation of doctrine can foster peace or destroy it, says Jan D. Walter.
From time immemorial, questions about death and the meaning of human existence have led people to look for answers beyond the material world. Spirituality and faith in God represent highly individual paths to inner peace.
When faith is institutionalized in a social context, thus becoming a religion, it attains another function as well: It creates a shared identity. It welds groups of people together and induces them to help one another. Shared moral values can also provide solutions in cases of dispute. In this way, religion helps maintain peace in society. But the same goes for other identity-forming elements, such as culture, family and ethnic affiliation. Social cohesion allows members of a community to cooperate, and it strengthens them socially and economically, as well as protecting them against threats posed by other communities.
Religion and collectivism
Social cohesion, however, harbors a grave danger as well: namely, when such a group of individuals becomes a collective. The stronger the collective identity becomes, the greater the danger. For a break with the community can cost a person his or her individual identity. And that is an extremely high psychological barrier. This, in turn, can lead an individual to subordinate his or her own desires and needs - or even morals - to that of the collective, rather than to question it and them.
Religions, like totalitarian ideologies, have much potential to create dependency, for they offer a great many answers. For many people, that is much simpler and more attractive than seeking answers within a liberal society that views doubt as the measure of one's awareness. The flip side is: Those who voice doubt within a collective quickly become outcasts. But, at some point, those who remain in the group are no longer capable of doubting without betraying themselves.
Over time, many moderate movements have come about in most religions and totalitarian ideologies that have allowed adherents to doubt. And history shows us that many members have done just that. In the Christian world, for instance, that process began 500 years ago - and continues to this day.
The danger in all of this is obvious. A group of critical individuals can be influenced, it is true. But people who see themselves as part of a collective can be controlled by anyone who successfully asserts their doctrine. Religions and ideologies then become the weapons of such leaders - weapons with which they can mobilize the masses however they desire.
And that has happened time and again throughout history. All too often it has cost people their lives, their freedom and their ability to live in peace. In other instances, religion has afforded believers, as well as non-believers or members of other faiths, life, freedom and peace.
In light of the consequences, it is pointless to discuss whether religion was used or misused for this or that purpose. The clear thing is: Religion is a weapon that can be used for one thing or another.
It is thus absolutely right to call on religious leaders to participate in peace negotiations. And that call must contain the demand: Use this weapon - against war, and for peace.