These days, in the US and the rest of the occidental world, it’s not uncommon to think of religion as promoting peace. The Quakers, for example, were pacifists; many Abolitionists were strongly religious; and more recently the most prominent leader of the civil-rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr, was a pastor who promoted non-violent resistance to racism. A column in today’s USA Today follows this reasoning, and claims that religion can stop wars:

Faith is sometimes the fuel that feeds conflict and spreads strife. History is a witness to this. But lest we forget, believers also can be the salve to bring people and religions back together. …

Religion — a solution to the problem of religiously motivated conflict and violence? Yes, actually. Because in their best traditions, the world’s two dominant faiths do promote peace, both through their central teachings and the lessons-by-example taught every day by innumerable Muslims and Christians who take their scriptures seriously.

The author cites examples of this phenomenon in, for example, some recent defections from al-Qaeda, and the request for “understanding” by Christians, offered by some 138 Muslim scholars, a little over a year and a half ago.

I hate to say it but these are fairly meager examples, given the much-larger scale of religiously-fueled violence that has taken place — and which is currently taking place (as in the Palestinian conflict, among others).

And to be honest, many of the positive religiously-inspired movements I mentioned already (e.g. abolition, and civil rights) had strong secular components that went along for the ride; among abolitionists were many northern capitalists who hoped to gain from the decline of the southern economy if slavery ended, and the civil rights movement of the 60s was not made up solely of religious people, but was aided by secular organizations as well, such as the ACLU. While both of these had strong religious components, they were not solely religious movements.

Articles like this one tend to gloss over the damage that religion has done, and amount to an attempt to whitewash the harm that centuries of religious-inspired violence has done to humanity. It serves no one to minimize the horrors of religion, precisely because, without keeping this in mind, it’s far too easy for it to happen again. It likewise does little good to cite a couple weak examples of religion fostering peace, and assume that religion automatically will do so again. It won’t — and in fact, it can’t, unless people make it happen.

Another way of putting it is: Religion cannot and will not save humanity; only humanity can save itself. We will either choose to live with one another, or we won’t. Religion will not make that happen, all by itself. It will take societal maturity, willpower, patience, determination, and tolerance. None of these can be forced on people from pulpits or by reading sacred texts.

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