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Prioritizing World Issues (Part One): Religion --- VIVEK KAUL

In our globalized and connected world, there are multiple issues we as humans can worry about. Broadly speaking, we have economic and environmental issues like income inequality and climate change on one hand and ethno-cultural issues related to religion, race, gender on the other. Based on our individual experiences, motivations and backgrounds we tend to prioritize one set of issues over the other. And that shapes our political preferences, friendships and alliances. A few people though struggle to take sides politically because they can’t find political allies who they agree with on all issues. Hence, based on the issue that matters most to them they have to pick a side. In the first half of this series, we will look at the gambit of ethno-cultural issues.

Let’s start with the hot button topic of religion first. Are all religions the same or are they different? Obviously there is a lot of common thread in religions in that they all have some set of beliefs, communities and sects within them and many sects in each of them have ample doses of superstitions and irrational beliefs that conflict with science. Still, overall there is a distinct difference between monotheistic Abrahmic faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism and the other faiths like Hinduism, Buddhism and pagan belief systems prevalant in native communities across the world. In particular, having the right “belief” and worshipping the right “God” seems of much higher concern to the Abrahmic faiths than the other faiths. On the other hand Non-Abrahmic faiths seem to be a heterogeneous collection of different communities worshipping different Gods or even ignoring the Gods in some instances (like Buddhism). That is why it is hard to call Hinduism a religion in the western sense because it is harder to pin-point what binds people together apart from living in a certain geographical region. Hinduism is a religion in the same sense that beliefs of people in pre-Christian Rome could be called Romanism or beliefs in classical Greek Greekism. In fact, there have been kings like Kanishka in the Indian subcontinent who fused Greek and Indic(Hindu) deities together without much resistance from people. Similarly many tribal deities were adopted in the pantheon of Buddhist and Hindu Gods with ease.  In this particular sense, the Abrahmic faiths do differ from others as they are less likely to assimilate or incorporate rituals or Gods of other faiths. 

The nomadic people from Central Asia spanning from Greece to Mongolia have historically been violent and expansive. That is where great conquerors like Alexander and Genghis Khan emerged from this region. David Anthony  in his book “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World” goes over the details about the reasons for the violent expansive nature of these tribes. However, in spite of being a brutal conqueror  Genghis Khan listened and talked to people with different religious and philosophical beliefs and did not have any particular “religion” to impose on people who he conquered. Among the Abrahmic faiths, the Jews were monotheistic but did not have extensive evangelical ambitions for the most part. However, things were different with Christians and Muslims where evangelical zeal became an important part of the faith. That is why we see that in the post-Constantine Roman Empire, a zeal to blend conquest with destruction of pagan and other native cultures and the imposition of Christian belief systems everywhere in the process. It was the same in case of the post-Islamic Arabs who imposed their new found faith everywhere they went. So what already was a violent region composed of warring tribes from Rome to India got a new addition of evangelical religion on top. Earlier only the warrior class tended to get affected through conquests while the cultural and religious beliefs of the common civilians used to be untouched. There was not much concern in getting people to change their beliefs to those of the conquerors.  But that changed with Christianity and Islam and the ensuing ages. Later debate shifted to which of the two was more tolerant of other religions. If we look at the pre-Enlightenment era, we can gather some evidence that Islamic empires were relatively more tolerant towards Jews than Christians but in modern times the trend has reversed. 

The injection of socialist and communist discourse in the 20th century complicated the situation with religion. Many of the communist regimes were very critical of religion but had their own state authoritarianism built as a replacement. After the end of the cold-war, “the left” everywhere has been busy trying to reinvent itself. Also it is hard to use the word “left” without running into confusion. Do we consider social democrats of Denmark on the left given that they support huge welfare spending by the government but don’t support immigration from Muslim countries? To avoid confusion we will focus on the “cultural left” or the socially  liberal groups and parties across nations that tend to be tolerant of religious minorities and fight to protect their rights. 

The biggest charge against the cultural left is that they are in bed with Islamists and are undermining the bedrock of western liberal democracy. However, things are not so simple. For example, if we go to majority Muslim countries like Pakistan or Afghanistan it is the “cultural left” or the “ social liberal” who has some to defend or protect minorities in those countries. We can see the same phenomenon in Kurdish land where the “leftist” Kurds have protected minority communities in many cases from Islamic radicals. The leftist groups are more sympathetic to native tribes in Amazon Brazil or the United States compared to the Christian right which wants to decimate these groups. There is substantial truth to the charge that covert Islamists have used social liberals or cultural leftists as tools to protect their intolerant beliefs and the hidden agenda of expanding their soft power. Many ex-Muslims tend to hate the “cultural left” for this reason and many times even prefer allying with the Christian right parties or the Hindu right issues because they call out issues in Muslim societies more readily obviously while whitewashing their own issues. Unless we reckon with the issue, the “left” will be decimated. We should be able to call out problems with all religions if we have to proceed together as humans. 

All religions have their own problems in terms of superstitions that are incompatible with modern scientific beliefs. However, the evangelical Abrahmic faiths have another peculiar problem that is born out of their need to correct the “wrong beliefs” of other religions. It can take a very violent turn as well as with Christianity earlier and now more so with Islam. In recent times, Buddhist and predominantly Hindu nations like India and Burma also have their own share of violence towards Muslims but that seems to be a reactionary movement to build defenses against evangelical Abrahmic religions. For us to move towards a better future on the issue of religion, the ancient Greek or Indic model seems to be appropriate because many different belief systems co-existed in their cultures without the need to annihilate the beliefs of those that disagreed with them. 

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