Paul Collins, Catholic writer


Religions – Not the same but different

7 October 2011
Originally published in The Punch


Richard Dawkins and his atheist mates have done us a real disservice by caricaturing all religion as fundamentalist claptrap. The problem is that by pretending that all religions are the same, he obscures the important differences that have to be negotiated if we are going to live in a more peaceful and tolerant world.

This is especially true when we come to negotiate that most important contemporary divides between the West and the Islamic world. At the heart of this is the negotiation between Christianity and Islam, two faiths that really need to talk to each other for all our sakes. But this isn’t going to be easy.

Firstly, it’s wrong to say that all religions are the same, that they are all paths to exactly the same God. For instance Christianity and Islam have fundamentally different conceptions of God. Islam, like Judaism, believes in strict monotheism. It forbids any attempt to picture God in human form. Christianity thinks of God as a trinity, a community of love that is intimately involved through Jesus Christ in the human process. This belief has been expressed in rich artistic imagery.

Also our histories have developed in different and antagonistic contexts. Islam literally sprang-out of seventh century Saudi-Arabia in an extraordinarily fast conquest, occupying regions that were originally part of the Christian Byzantine Empire in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. For 1200 years Christianity and Islam were enemies. Then, as the Islamic states weakened from the eighteenth century onwards, much of the Muslim world was subjected to colonial occupation by Europeans.

Now, with the revival of Islam and Islamic migration to the West we are faced with a set of complex issues centring on religious difference and cultural reconciliation. But none of us has any experience in confronting such complex issues.

What we’ve tried to do in Australia is to receive Muslim immigrants into a secular multiculturalism that often underestimates the importance of religion as a marker of identity. As a result Muslims encounter a culture and social pattern that is often quite alienating. And everything has to be negotiated within the hostile context generated by 9/11, the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, the so-called ‘war on terror’, the failure to address the Palestinian question, and the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions.

So what does Christianity bring to this difficult dialogue? Two things: first, an emphasis on forgiveness; and second, acceptance of the separation of church and state and religious pluralism.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of Jesus’ teaching is his emphasis on forgiveness. His words are unequivocal in Luke’s gospel: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those that curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’ These words present an extraordinary challenge that takes us far beyond mere tolerance. As the Anglo-Jewish literary critic George Steiner says in his lucid autobiography Errata, ‘Christ’s ordinance of total love, of self-offering to the assailant is, in any strict sense, an enormity. The victim is to love his butcher. A monstrous proposition. But one shedding fathomless light. How are mortal men and women to fulfil it?’

The problem with forgiveness is that it seems like weakness. When confronted with terrorist outrages like 9/11 should we’ve turned the other cheek? Certainly it couldn’t have achieved less than the ‘war on terror’. A truly superior states-person could have shamed the terrorists by saying ‘I forgive you’, and then backed that up by astute political and diplomatic work  to isolate them by appealing for the support of the vast majority of sensible, peaceful Muslims. Perhaps bellicose Christians could have taken a leaf out of Pakistani-Muslim Tarik Jahan’s book as he pleaded for no revenge after his son had been mowed-down and killed during the riots in Birmingham.

Secondly, all religions must embrace pluralism and separation of church and state.

It took my own Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) to accept the separation of church and state and the recognition of religious pluralism. Protestants got there several hundred years earlier. Many Islamic states have yet to learn these hard lessons.

A belief that doesn’t have enough faith in itself to live in a society that challenges it with other beliefs and values, that demands that it explain itself in a reasonable way and that sometimes contradicts and even occasionally persecutes it, is a faith that is not worth living. Theologically, the immensity of God’s transcendence means that limited human minds can only perceive limited, partial and fallible aspects of divine splendour. No one can exhaust or know the immensity of God. So belief cannot be anything but limited and partial, meaning it cannot be imposed on others who see things differently.

Only a state that maintains religious pluralism can protect the rich variety of religious faith.

Care to comment? .