In an era of turbulence and uncertainty, interfaith action may offer an important antidote to religious violence.
Religious communities can and do offer a reminder of the core principles of our common humanity. While not the exclusive preserve of faith-based groups, the conscious spread of values of empathy, compassion, forgiveness and altruism are needed today more than ever.
In fact, ecumenical groups have played a behind-the-scenes role in some of the world's most successful peace efforts. High-level mediators like Archbishop Desmond Tutu helped lay the groundwork for peace agreements, from mediating between rival South African factions in the s to averting a bloodbath in Kenya in The World Council of Churches and All African Conference on Churches have also played a role in mediating peace agreements since the s.
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And groups like Islamic Relief, among others, have long supported mediation and reconciliation activities in war-torn communities. Faith-based groups have also frequently led the way in shaping international treaties and social movements to make the world safer. While far from the media headlines, Quakers, for example, have helped launch treaties banning landmines and other weapons of war , supported the development of protocols to outlaw child soldiers , and instigated action on conflict prevention, peace-building and human rights.
While religious groups have adopted varying positions toward capital punishment, many of them are unified in their opposition to the use of torture , advocate for banning nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, and support grassroots campaigns to promote human rights and reconciliation. With notable exceptions, interfaith efforts to prevent violence and promote peace suffer from a credibility problem. In the end, religious groups must hold themselves to the highest standard. This requires, at a minimum, doing no harm.
Religious violence is on the rise. What can faith-based communities do about it?
It also means being accountable about what strategies work, and which do not. A related challenge is that most interfaith measures to promote peace and reconciliation are seldom documented, much less evaluated. As a result, the persistent and patient support provided to high-level policy initiatives goes unrecorded, with other organizations often quick to take the credit.
This gap could be bridged, however, by developing partnerships with universities and undertaking robust monitoring and evaluation. This way, interfaith groups could better understand what aspects of the peace architecture are working, and which activities to discard. Finally, religious groups and the interfaith community could usefully get more proactive about peace-making.
This will require leaving the safe zone of like-minded religious organizations and engaging more fulsomely with international agencies and the business community. Religious leaders should also become more literate with new technologies, not least social media, finding ways to promote positive values both on- and offline. And successful instances of interfaith cooperation - including through powerful networks like Religion for Peace - need to be better marketed. This is because signals and symbols of collective action across religious divides are needed more than ever in our disorderly and fractured world.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum. I accept. What can faith-based communities do about it?
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While atheists certainly are not the majority, could it be that these figures are a harbinger of things to come? Assuming global trends continue might religion someday disappear entirely? Scholars are still trying to tease out the complex factors that drive an individual or a nation toward atheism, but there are a few commonalities. So not surprisingly, nations that report the highest rates of atheism tend to be those that provide their citizens with relatively high economic, political and existential stability. Capitalism, access to technology and education also seems to correlate with a corrosion of religiosity in some populations, he adds.
Japan, the UK, Canada, South Korea, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, France and Uruguay where the majority of citizens have European roots are all places where religion was important just a century or so ago, but that now report some of the lowest belief rates in the world. These countries feature strong educational and social security systems, low inequality and are all relatively wealthy. Yet decline in belief seems to be occurring across the board, including in places that are still strongly religious, such as Brazil, Jamaica and Ireland.
The US, too, is an outlier in that it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but also has high rates of religiosity. Still, a recent Pew survey revealed that, between and , the proportion of Americans who said they are atheist rose from 1. Decline, however, does not mean disappearance, says Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and author of Big Gods. Existential security is more fallible than it seems. In a moment, everything can change: a drunk driver can kill a loved one; a tornado can destroy a town; a doctor can issue a terminal diagnosis.
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As climate change wreaks havoc on the world in coming years and natural resources potentially grow scarce, then suffering and hardship could fuel religiosity. This phenomenon constantly plays out in hospital rooms and disaster zones around the world. In , for example, a massive earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand — a highly secular society. There was a sudden spike of religiosity in the people who experienced that event, but the rest of the country remained as secular as ever.
While exceptions to this rule do exist — religion in Japan plummeted following World War II, for instance — for the most part, Zuckerman says, we adhere by the Christchurch model.
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This psychological staple states that we have two very basic forms of thought: System 1 and System 2. System 2 evolved relatively recently. System 1, on the other hand, is intuitive, instinctual and automatic. These capabilities regularly develop in humans, regardless of where they are born. They are survival mechanisms. System 1 bestows us with an innate revulsion of rotting meat, allows us to speak our native language without thinking about it and gives babies the ability to recognise parents and distinguish between living and nonliving objects. It makes us prone to looking for patterns to better understand our world, and to seek meaning for seemingly random events like natural disasters or the death of loved ones.
In addition to helping us navigate the dangers of the world and find a mate, some scholars think that System 1 also enabled religions to evolve and perpetuate. Millennia ago, that tendency probably helped us avoid concealed danger, such as lions crouched in the grass or venomous snakes concealed in the bush. But it also made us vulnerable to inferring the existence of invisible agents — whether they took the form of a benevolent god watching over us, an unappeased ancestor punishing us with a drought or a monster lurking in the shadows.
Similarly, System 1 encourages us to see things dualistically, meaning we have trouble thinking of the mind and body as a single unit. This tendency emerges quite early: young children, regardless of their cultural background, are inclined to believe that they have an immortal soul — that their essence or personhood existed somewhere prior to their birth, and will always continue to exist.
This disposition easily assimilates into many existing religions, or — with a bit of creativity — lends itself to devising original constructs. Atheists must fight against all of that cultural and evolutionary baggage. Our minds crave purpose and explanation. On the other hand, science — the system of choice that many atheists and non-believers look to for understanding the natural world — is not an easy cognitive pill to swallow.