Religious faiths have been in the news a lot recently. There was the teaching assistant dismissed for wearing a veil. There has been the attempt by the Government to insist that a quarter of the intake of state-funded faith-based schools should be pupils of other faiths. And there is the ever-present unease that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen by many Muslims to be an attack on their religion by Christians and Jews. Humankind has an aggressive element in its genes, and religious differences spill over very easily into tensions and conflicts. How do we explain this to children?
Religion is in part a matter of personal conviction or individual conversion, but there is also a strong social element, with high percentages of the population in every country conforming to the dominant faiths. This is true even where the dominant culture is secularism. Religious faiths are used to bind communities together, sharing in common acts and values. They provide security. They give adherents a place in their communities. They offer ways of coping with times of difficulty and celebrating the high points in the year, in the life of the community and in the lives of individuals.
In providing an identity, faiths also point up the differences between them. The central tenets of the major faiths have much in common, and among their teachings are beliefs in peace and good human relationships. For most of the time, therefore, people of different faiths co-exist happily. With a few exceptions it is wrong to attribute the tensions between people of different faiths to religious beliefs; they are mostly caused by other factors and justified on religious grounds. Those who criticise religions as the source of tensions are on weak ground, as there are also tensions between secular groups such as racial or political groups as well.
The exceptions lie with those people who believe not only that their religion, denomination, philosophy or political code is right for themselves, but that they should force it onto everyone else as well. Each of us may believe that our faith is the truth, but if we are to co-exist on this planet, we have to find ways of respecting and understanding each others’ beliefs. The only thing we will not be able to tolerate is intolerance.
We will need to teach our children, whether educated in faith schools or secular schools, not only the facts about the major faiths, but also to be able to respect other people’s beliefs and to find ways of reaching accommodations where there are fundamental differences. At times there will be clashes when groups holding fundamentally different views find that they cannot accept a particular religious practice, such as female circumcision or codes of dress, but if the world is to be at peace, the message has to be that all parties must listen, communicate, understand and try to seek a shared solution. The process of seeking the solution may in fact be more important than the outcome.
This is not a soft or easy option, and it will need to be actively pursued if destructive tensions and conflicts are to be avoided. Peace does not just happen, but is the outcome of hard work. Although made up of millions of smaller groupings, the world is now a single community, and it will be for our children to understand each others’ beliefs if peace is to be achieved in their lifetimes.