Religion is a set of beliefs that people hold regarding God and the wider world. In today’s society, religion occurs most frequently in the form of organised religion, in which a large group of people subscribe to the same belief or believe in the same God. Religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, have often been proclaimed by their believers as a unifying force, one that transcends gender, race and physical borders. However, these religions have also been seen to be the case of conflict and divisions around the world. With religion being able to simultaneously create consensus and conflict, I still argue that religion divides more than it unites.
Some may argue that religion has the ability to unite people in a common belief. Religion, and most significantly organised religion, often involve the formation of a religious community. In the Catholic Church, this might refer to the interactions during Sunday Masses, for Islam, the fellowship during prayers in Mosques. Regardless, these religious customs allow the interaction of people who hold the same religious beliefs to form a united religious community. For believers of the respective religions, these religious customs allow for them to be united in a common denominator greater than themselves, which in this case would be God. The shared beliefs result in individuals who are part of the community uniting in the face of threats. For example, the Catholic Church was galvanised by the rise in pro-choice legislation being passed around the world. Members of the Catholic community were united by the common perceived threat against the sanctity of life and acted in consensus to respond to it. In the United States, members of the church went in unison to pray outside abortion clinics while others staged protests. This can also be seen in other countries such as Ecuador, where debates on abortion bills spurred members of religious communities to protest together. The common thread amongst the above examples is the fact that the shared beliefs, brought about by religion, united people of different genders, backgrounds and even countries towards a common goal. This therefore demonstrates the power of religion in unifying people who subscribe to the same beliefs.
However, the above argument is flawed in failing to recognise the fact that intra-religious tensions and divisions also exist. Even though people who hold the same belief can be united through their shared religion, a religion is not necessarily perceived to be the same by different people. In fact, a single religion is often interpreted in different ways by different people, resulting in the different religious denominations that we observe in today’s world. From Shia versus Sunni Muslims to Protestants versus Anglicans and other forms of Christianity, intra-religious fault lines do exist. Going back to the earlier pro-life example, among the Church, there is a spectrum of views regarding the issue. Extreme conservatives support an all-out abortion ban, similar to the one passed in Alabama, others would offer exceptions in the case of rape or medical emergencies, while more liberal conservatives may even toe the line between pro-life and pro-choice policies. These differing ideas can exist even within the same religion and create divisions. Fundamentally, to many, religion is often seen as an absolute truth given by God to those who subscribe to the religion. Hence, when different interpretations do arise forming different sects, people find it much more difficult to reconcile what they view to be ‘absolutely correct’ with a perceived ‘inaccurate interpretation’. This difficulty in reconciling differences often pushes believers to prove their version of the religion superior vis-a-vis the other sects. Such intra-religious divisions can cause or even worsen conflicts as seen in the worsening of the instability within the Middle-Eastern regions, due to clashes between different sects of the Islam faith who view the instability as an opportunity to ‘overcome’ other sects. Hence, although on the surface religion may seem to unite its believers, more often than not, this image hides the cracks that occur within the religion itself.
Furthermore, religion can create inter-religious divisions due to its exclusionary nature. Even if we agree that religion can unite its believers to a certain degree, one has to recognise that to create a community of people who share the same beliefs, the community has to exclude those who do not. In fact, the example of the church being united under the pro-life movement demonstrates this. By being Pro-life, they necessarily exclude those who are pro-choice which is the root of the conflict in the first place. When it is established that religious communities create an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, one has to wonder why inter-religious conflicts are all the more divisive when such exclusions occur all the time among other sorts of groups. The answer is simple. Religion often forms an integral part of one’s identity, shaping one’s beliefs and morals. Hence, when others come into conflict with this belief, one they deem absolutely true and part of their identity, the conflict becomes more personal and the reaction more visceral. It is because of this that the ‘us vs them’ mentality is strengthened in the context of religious conflicts. The fact that religion can create such visceral reactions is one often weaponised by politicians. In history and in the modern day, wars or conflicts have often been framed as religious. This is because politicians know that doing so will allow the people to feel as though their very identity is under threat and become more personally involved in the issue. The Kashmir dispute is one such example. President Modi of India gathered strong support from the Buddhist nationals during the elections for his promise to revoke the status of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region which is also claimed by Pakistan. To many Buddhist Indian nationals, the conflict between India and Pakistan is not merely a political conflict but a religious one, which undermines the stability of their religion. Such an example is not the only instance in which religious differences have been exploited to further political conflicts. The Palestine and Israeli conflict over the West Bank is another example in which religious tensions, this time between Muslims and Christians, have been worsened to further political gain. Furthermore, this is often done in an inflammatory manner to prey on often pre-existing religious tensions and an individual’s religious beliefs. Doing so can worsen the ‘us vs them’ mentality and further cements religious divisions. Hence, the nature of religion, alongside external influences, often results in inter-religious conflicts being all the more divisive.
The exclusionary nature of religion results in religion simultaneously uniting people while dividing others. Although we cannot reject the fact that religion has been effective in uniting people who share the same religious beliefs, the fact that religious teachings are open to interpretation makes it equally likely to divide those who have differing opinions on the same belief. Beyond that, conflict also occurs frequently between the in- and out-groups formed through different religions. The fact that religion is such a sensitive topic only makes it ripe for the picking by external forces who further these divisions for their own agenda. Therefore, as much as religion unites, its nature often results in much more deep-rooted divisions, hence dividing more than it unites.
Emmanuella Li (19-O2)