People who disagree on matters of religious belief and action are finding it harder and harder not to get angrier and angrier with each other.
Is this just a sign of the times? Disagreements are turning into verbal warfare and worse on almost every subject these days. Can we reasonably expect things to be different when the subject is religion?
Maybe not. Even so, the idea of religion as a battlefield collides mightily with the hope that faith can be an instrument for peace.
I see no way of winning the peace in religious conflicts except by relinquishing battlefield imagery altogether. But then what?
For spiritual leaders across the ages and traditions, the path to the truths that really matter has always been the path of inward turning. This is not an easy path. Looking within ourselves leads inevitably to a painful discovery: the anger which contaminates serious spiritual inquiry is rooted in our own unacknowledged fears.
One fear is that our most ardently held beliefs might be wrong. Another is that our opponent already knows this about us.
Anger aroused by disagreements is at its height not when the other’s point of view seems the most flawed, but rather when it seems the most credible. That is when we begin distorting their point of view in as inflammatory a way as possible, and then pour character-assassination on the flames.
Modern psychology refers to this kind of behavior in terms of defense mechanisms and projection. Jesus spoke of it in a folksier way, contrasting the fixation on specks in others’ eyes with the ignoring of logs in our own. (Matthew 7:3)
Is there a way to break through the defensiveness and the fixation? Actually, there are at least two ways.
One is to get deeply enough into others’ religious traditions to experience in them the universality of the spiritual questions they seek to answer. Even as the answers keep us apart, the questions can bring us together.
The other is to declare a moratorium on blaming others for holding “wrong” opinions, and to face honestly our penchant for ignoring the truth the opinions may contain. Believers from very diverse theological orientations, and inquirers who may be skeptical of all of them, deserve to know that learning from one another is a sure way to experience the inner peace for which we most deeply yearn.