Religion as a set of teachings: concepts, norms, and values

Different from the “functional” perspective on religion apparent above, “substantial” views focus on the content of a religion, its set of teachings or doctrines. For the Abrahamic religions, their Holy Scriptures—the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran—are of crucial importance because they are viewed as containing divine revelation. While other religions are less focused on sacred texts, religious teachings are nevertheless important in most traditions. They not only help religious teachings to make sense of life, they also often include distinctive norms and values for everyday behavior. Through their ethical implications, religions can contribute to a shared understanding of norms and laws, thereby increasing social cohesion. At the same time, this entails a danger of othering, if, for example, the Sharia law is used to create boundaries between “us” (the believers) vs. “them” (the unbelievers).

Again, religious teachings are ambiguous. They can be used as effective weapons in inciting violence and conflict, yet they are equally powerful tools for peace and reconciliation. Both religious peacemakers and religious suicide bombers refer to their Holy Scriptures in order to explain their actions. In his study of Judaism, Robert Eisen traces major Jewish texts from the Bible to modern Zionism and shows how each of these texts can be used for teachings on peace and on violence (Eisen 2011). With reference to the Bible, for example, Eisen sees three sources of ambiguity:

ambiguity in the semantic meaning ofthe biblical text, from the smallest to the largest units, ambiguity in the relative weight given to particular phrases, passages, or concepts within the overall scheme ofthe Bible; and ambiguity regarding the use of historical context to explain violent passages.

(Eisen гоп: 64)

How these texts are read and understood, Eisen points out, depends on the complex interplay between religious traditions and forces from the outside such as from politics, society, and economy.

At the same time, the interreligious search for common ground and shared values, such as peace or justice, has proven a potent tool in the reduction of stereotypes and interreligious tensions. The Jordan-based initiative “A Common Word Between Us and You”, for example, launched a seminal Muslim-Christian dialogue in 2007

based on the concepts of loving God and neighbor. This ongoing interfaith dialogue project has received positive reactions from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders worldwide and continues to contribute to interfaith cooperation.

Questions to ask in the analysis of religions role in a conflict and for seeking ways to transform the conflict include: How are religious teachings being used to ignite and justify conflictive behavior? How are they used to promote peace and reconciliation? How are religious teachings being used to identify common ground between conflict parties?

Religion as spirituality: personal experience, motivation, and meaning

Spirituality refers to personal experiences of faith and bestows a sense of motivation and meaning. Spirituality often plays out in a particular lifestyle and in certain ethical choices, individually or as part of community life, such as in a religious order, ashram, or Sufi circle. In conflict situations, experiences of spirituality can act as a strong motivator, in particular in combination with experiences of meaning or purpose. Violent Muslim extremists, for example, have justified their attacks with reference to their understanding of doing Gods will (Kruglanski et al. 2009). Here, the eschatological framework of many religions plays a crucial role. The individual person sees him- or herself as embedded in a larger framework that even extends beyond the boundaries of death and time. One’s own individual and finite life becomes thereby connected to a bigger purpose and meaning. Not only does the spiritual dimension of religion serve as a potent motivator for specific actions—both conflictive and constructive—common spiritual experiences can also help create strong bonds between people, even across lines, furthering both in-group and out-group experiences.

The activities of the NGO International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) during the Kashmir conflict 2000—2007 provide an example of approaching religion in conflict through the perspective of religion as spirituality. Working with a conflict resolution framework called “Faith-Based Reconciliation”, ICRD promotes the idea that the three Abrahamic religions share the principles of pluralism, social justice, forgiveness, and God’s sovereignty (Cox 2007).

For the Kashmir context, this approach was modified to include non-Abrahamic traditions, for example, references to Gandhian nonviolence. In their faith-based reconciliation seminars, ICRD brought together next-generation leaders from all strands of Kashmiri society, including religion, civil society, business, or media, and from all main religious groups. During the seminars, participants not only formed relationships across boundaries, but were also invited to participate in religious rituals including prayers, reading of religious texts, and speaking words of apology and forgiveness.

In analyzing the role of religion in a conflict, the following questions help in discerning its spiritual dimension and in creating points of entry for conflict transformation: How are shared spiritual experiences used to strengthen exclusive group identities or, respectively, to create connections between people? What divisive or peace-promoting behavior do actors explain as motivated by their spiritual experiences?

 
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