Earlier this month, in what I am sure will remain as one of the outstanding whimsical moments of 2014, I found myself wandering around in the dark one evening in the village of Woughton on the Green near Milton Keynes with a group of colleagues. We were trying to find a ‘dark spot’ away from the street-lamps in order to see whether we might catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, which we had read might be visible as far south as the Midlands on that particular evening.
Sadly, we were unsuccessful in finding the Northern Lights. But the theme of looking for light remained as a motif in our conversations, since what had brought us together was a workshop sponsored by the Open University aimed at trying to understand the role played by religion in modern social conflict.
As an ancient historian, I find I am often surprised by the easy causality which modern journalists think they find between ‘religious motives’ and modern social conflict. Headlines such as this week’s Tony Blair: Religious difference will fuel this century’s epic battles are all too common . It takes a careful reader to notice how often the connection to religion is really just thrown in to lend a sensational feeling to the head-line. In the case of the Blair headline, a closer look reveals that his ‘call on governments to recognise that religious extremism has become the biggest source of conflict around the world’ was in fact a marketing gambit: it was made in the context of announcing ‘a new online forum and database run by [Blair’s] Faith Foundation … which he hopes will become the world’s leading source of information and debate about religion and conflict.’ In other words, the ‘news’ here is really just that yet another skilled politician is trying to capture the public’s attention by drawing on the stereotype of religion as irrational and dangerous. Though the work itself may be entirely worthy, Blair may be doing as much harm as good by promoting it in this way – in a case where it isn’t clearly supported by evidence, it’s hard to see the difference between this kind of stereotyping and plain old bigotry.
Among scholars, it is well known that the religion/conflict connection is not nearly as clear-cut as the stereotype would suggest. Religious narratives are often used to justify social conflict, but the justification for violence and the cause of violence are by no means necessarily the same thing. Often, the root of the problem is social, political, or economic – or all three. Of course, religious institutions can make matters worse by fanning the flames. Yet in many cases it is religious institutions that sponsor the effort to seek peace and reconciliation.
As it happened, the group in Woughton on the Green included a number of religious leaders, members of the Christian and Muslim community who have worked for peace and reconciliation in Great Britain, Ireland, and abroad. Also present were a number of scholars who are trying to understand the roles that religious identity can play in fostering both conflict and reconciliation.
I was delighted to find old friends – such as Anjum Anwar MBE, the elegantly veiled Dialogue Development Officer for Blackburn Cathedral, known for creating a forum for youth voices in both the Muslim and Christian communities, and the historian John Wolffe, the workshop’s organiser, who is the author of important studies on the sources of conflict in Northern Ireland. And it was a privilege to make the acquaintance of remarkable people like Norman Hamilton OBE, a long-standing voice for reconciliation and former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and Jenny Turner, the founder of Lapido Media Cantre for Religious Literacy in World Affairs.
Discussion in a group of this kind tends to err in the direction of mutual respect, but this doesn’t mean that religion itself wasn’t subjected to clear-eyed analysis. One of the issues that came up again and again was the fact that different communities within the same religious tradition often have very different ways of understanding conflict and the all-too-human tendency to self-righteousness. Unsurprisingly, it matters quite a bit whether religious leaders cultivate a tradition’s resources for reconciliation within their tradition. One of the most interesting contributions to the workshop was from the historian and blogger Gladys Ganiel, the author of Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland, who helped us to understand the role of religious ideas and traditions about humility and reconciliation which have supported grass-roots reconciliation work in that part of the world.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the discussion was that even among specialists we had difficulty agreeing on exactly what we mean when we talk about ‘religion’. Were we talking about beliefs? Possibly, but not necessarily – some religions are low on ‘beliefs’, and some things that most people don’t think of as ‘religions’ have very definite beliefs – atheism for example! Were we talking about rituals? Or communities? Trying to pin down a single definition made for a lively and illuminating conversation, but it was definitely a case of the blind men and the elephant.
So hard-and-fast conclusions were just as elusive as the Northern Lights. Aside, that is, from the obvious one that religion is many things to many people, and that often when people believe they are talking about the same thing, they actually aren’t. I’ll admit that we had the chance to discover at first hand how terribly charismatic religious leaders can be – never more so than when they are honestly trying to understand someone else’s point of view. So, in response to Tony Blair, I offer my own head-line: Religious difference will fuel this century’s epic instances of empathy. Sadly, I can offer no more conclusive evidence for my position than did Blair for his – but it’s a possibility to bear in mind.