Don't throw religion out

Regarding [the September 30 cover story] "Why They Kill," there was much in the article that helpfully explained some of the underlying, universal causes of warfare, including the anthropological definition of war, the biological survival-based reasons and the tendency to form competitive group identity, even in random groupings.

The article evolved, however, into a polemic against religion in general, and a propaganda-like diatribe against Islam.

If there must be a list of examples of violence, they should be drawn from different groups and different periods in history. The problem of violence, atrocity, and warfare is universal and, so far, eternal for humans. Focusing on one period (the present) or one group (militant Muslims) is harmful and counterproductive to the goal, which Dr. Thomson's states in his closing paragraph, to recognize our shared origin and interconnectedness.

Holding religion responsible for war is a common misconception. I recently took a course at the Hartford Seminary entitled, "Building Abrahamic Partnerships." Among many other topics, the 30 members of the Abrahamic faiths in attendance discussed the role of religion in promoting violence, warfare, and the oppression of women. The conclusion was that religion is not the cause.

Cultural influences, among other things, determine how religious teachings are interpreted. Cultural leanings explains how it is that the same religion leads some people toward a devotional, service-oriented life and some toward a militant, violence-oriented life, and how some groups within the same religion are oriented toward inclusion and equality and some toward exclusion and hierarchy.

Finally, and most importantly, religious teachings and practices have always been and continue to be a source of ideals, inspiration, and realization of the highest aspirations of human potential. Religion has much to offer in solving some of the problems underlying conflict, violence and war.

In Holy War, Holy Peace, Marc Gopin offers a detailed description of how and why religion can and should be used as an instrument of peace building in the Middle East. Shared religious learning among people of different religions– one example of this kind of peace building work– has occurred historically and continues presently, in many parts of the world. Members and leaders of different religious groups meet to learn from and with one another, to build relationships, and to address common problems, using their religious values and beliefs.

Even in our own community, there are some undertakings like these taking place. Dr. Thomson visualizes that eliminating religion would make peace more possible, yet at the same time, perhaps unwittingly, he quotes a classic religious text when he says we are all each other's keeper. So, we don't need to eliminate religions. We need to mature– each and every one of us, starting right where we are.

Heena Reiter, Director
Gesher Center for Jewish Spirituality, Meditation & Healing