Many who might otherwise be believers are appalled by the arrogance inherent in claims and counter-claims of different religions being sole agents for God's will on earth. Such certainties, however sincerely felt, inevitably lead to conflict with those equally convinced of God's unique patronage.
With warped logic, religious fanatics the world over have justified, and still justify, cruel and irreligious behaviour on the grounds that they are furthering God's will. As Voltaire observed, 'If God created man in his own image, man has been quick to return the compliment.'
Religious certainty has much to answer for when we look to the causes of international conflict and social strife, but is it not a little unfair to blame religion for everything wrong in the world today? Have not greed, envy, the naked pursuit of power and other social and political dogmas also played their part in bringing us to the present abyss?
Many familiar with Swift's Gulliver's Travels would probably find the idea of war in Lilliput over whether eggs should be cracked from their pointed or rounded ends a little farfetched. That is, until we look at the world today. A recent television picture of two Somalian war lords comes to mind. Yesterday they were sworn enemies; today they shake hands and smile, for all the world like two children after a petty playground fight.
It was a fight that caused the deaths, maiming and starvation of tens of thousands. For what? The two Somalian war lords, and countless others engaged in similar conflict throughout the world would be hard pressed to give an explanation as rational as that for the war in Lilliput.
As human beings we carry within us an innate capacity to kill, maim and destroy. We hardly need a rationale for doing so, but it helps - and religion has often been used to engender collective hate or serve as a catalyst for the release of ethnic or other prejudices.
In a very real sense, religions carry a dual responsibility in that they can be both causes of conflict and, though difficult to believe at times, powerful preventative or healing agents.
Today, even those that recognise the potential of world religions in this latter capacity, see different faiths behaving like squabbling physicians over the respective merits of their healing balm, while the patient - society - bleeds to death.
Despite all its failings, we cannot dismiss religion in our search for a better world order. Religions command huge loyalties, far greater than any other social or political system. They must be made to put aside exaggerated claims to omnipotence and direct lines to God, and be persuaded to work co-operatively in the service, not of God as sometimes pompously claimed, but of their fellow human beings.
The key to inter-faith co-operation was provided by Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith in the 15th century. Looking at the rivalry and bitter conflict between Hindus and Muslims, he was moved to declare: 'There is neither Hindu nor Muslim, only Man.' That is to say, in God's eyes there is neither Hindu nor Muslim, and by today's extension, neither Christian, Sikh nor Jew; that God is not interested in religious labels but in the way we conduct ourselves. The natural corollary to this statement is that no one religion has a monopoly on truth - a belief emphasised by the inclusion of Hindu and Muslim verses in the Sikh Holy Scripture.
Interfaith dialogue and co-operation has progressed slowly, too slowly since the guru's day. Doors to dialogue are still only slightly ajar and are watched by zealous guardians of the faith who fear loss of followers or contamination of belief.
Despite such fears and suspicions, there has been some progress - although much of the achievement to date has been all about saying nice things about each other, lighting candles and praying for world peace once or twice a year. Sometimes it extends to expression of concern over conflict and suffering arising from religious rivalry. But such criticism is couched in bland, anodyne terms designed not to upset the followers of any religion.
Criticism of irreligious behaviour can only be truly effective if it comes from within. To make religion a real force for world peace it needs Muslims here and abroad to condemn un-Islamic behaviour by the likes of Saddam Hussein and the persecution of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia. It needs Hindus to give their universal condemnation to the action of Hindu fanatics destroying the historic mosque in Ayodhya.
Similarly, Sikhs looking to a separate Sikh state in response to resurgent Hindu nationalism should be unreservedly criticised by Sikhs for any un-Sikh-like behaviour in their struggle. A Sikh state that did not provide equal freedoms to others would be contrary to the guru's teachings. Criticism from within can work; external criticism can easily lead to misplaced unity and resolve.
This year has been designated 'A Year of Interreligious Understanding and Co-operation' to mark the centenary of the first Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It will be a real landmark in human progress if this co-operation and understanding leads to a maturity to look to the beam in one's own eye before criticising the mote in our brother's.
The great Soviet human rights activist the late Andrei Sakharov once observed that 'for real progress in human rights we must be even-handed in our approach to injustice'. Religions urgently need to ensure that this even-handedness extends to followers of their own faith as well as that of others. Only then can religions begin to confront secular injustice inherent in trade blocks, weighted terms of trade between poorer and richer nations, the arms trade and much else.
We must hope - and pray - that 1993 will not only be a year of greater 'understanding and co-operation' between faiths, but also one of action for a saner world order.Reuse content