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Religion is for peace not violence

In recent public debate, religion appears more often as a cause of division and violence than as a reason for oneness and peace. Even some of the faithful occasionally fear that religion is at the root of much that is wrong. As a Religious Education teacher and life-long believer in the sanity and salvation of Enlightenment, I offer seven reflections in support of religion as a way to rest in peace with God.

Firstly, religion isn’t alone in gripping some people with the need for conspicuous displays of commitment to dogma and protocol. In all spheres of human activity – politics, economics, sport, engineering, science, philosophy, even philately – we can find people with extreme views, and some extremists are simply prone to unbalanced behaviour. Recall the violence of soccer hooligans, for example, and even occasional riots about controversial art. All groups typically have some who are more conservative and some who are more radical.

Secondly, since extremism and violence can occur anywhere, it’s unhelpful to say that religion is the basis for barbarous acts of terrorism. Religion was merely the excuse for the atrocities of 9/11, the Bali bombings and the Charlie Hebdo murders. To assert that the last case was ‘driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in the foundational texts of Islam,’ as Ayaan Hirsi Ali claims (Wall Street Journal, 7 January 2015), can’t go unchallenged. In my view, only those who are unconscious or unhinged find "support” for violence in religious scriptures, the unanimous message of which is to Love Life, Respect Others and Serve God.

Thirdly, in every religion there can be a tension between those who seek answers in a retreat to fundamentals of faith and those who move forward, trusting in God's unknown future. True spiritual advancement can only occur in openness to a future that is different to the past. Therefore, one stamp of the authentic life is the willingness to live in the tension between one’s inner spiritual life and the outward displays of one’s fellow believers. ‘Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind’ (Romans 12: 2).

Fourthly, the living heart of religion rests in silence beyond words. ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ says the Lord (Psalm 46: 10). Alone in divine Darkness, in absolute silence of thought as well as speech, there we find the One who is beyond All, says Ps.-Dionysius. Once we understand "religion” to mean "wordlessly yearning for the ineffable”, how can there be anything wrong with religion in that sense, which is simply to love and seek God?

Fifthly, the notion of a "political ideology embedded in the foundational texts” of any religion is just an artifice seeking to validate itself. Religion (from the Latin religare, meaning "to tie back to”) is a way of reconnecting to "God”, or the sacred Source of existence and consciousness. That Ground of all Being isn’t the exclusive property of any particular faith; nor is its transcendent nature subordinate to worldly objectives, for "the spirit blows where it will” (Cf. John 3: 8). Religion is for surrendering to God, not for directing human traffic.

Sixthly, there is something wrong with politicising scriptures by extracting particular verses and reading them in isolation of the moral and spiritual context of any whole religion. That’s an error made by violent extremists, and by anyone else who thinks religious writings support terrorist activity. Sacred texts are a context for developing one’s connection to God.

Hence, seventhly, anything in any scripture that seems to advocate or countenance violent behaviour simply shouldn’t be read literally or taken to heart seriously, since it goes against the whole point of religion, which is to love life, respect others and serve God.

Killing others, hating the world and denying life isn’t religion. I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news for those who enjoy violence and murder, but that kind of behaviour is driven by a sickness in the soul.