New Age Islam
Sat Jun 03 2023, 08:19 PM

Spiritual Meditations ( 21 Jan 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Religious Identity and Inter-Religious Polemics



By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam

The major challenge to the peaceful coexistence of people believing in different religions is the all-too-common tendency among many believers to have negative or even derogatory views about religious beliefs and practices other than their own. This tendency is far from being exceptional, although, for the sake of political politeness, we may hesitate to admit this.

If you ardently believe in the dogmas of a particular religion and think that they are the best or even the only embodiment of truth, you are unlikely to find much merit in the dogmas of another religion. If you have been brainwashed by your parents or priests to believe that the customs and rituals enjoined by your religion are the most appropriate, or even the only, way to commune with the Divine, it is quite possible that you would find those of other religions to be useless mumbo-jumbo. If your religious authorities have dinned into your head that your scripture is the highest embodiment of truth there ever was or that the founder of your religion is the best or most powerful of God’s creatures, it is not unlikely that you will believe that the scriptures of other religions are false or tainted and that their founders are lesser in stature than yours.

Of course, it is quite another matter that you may choose not to openly voice your critical opinions about the dogmas, practices and personages of religions other than yours, except perhaps among your co-religionists, whom you can trust to keep their mouths shut and not spill the beans on you to the authorities. Unless you want to be sued, land up in jail or get beaten up or worse, it is unlikely that you will go about broadcasting your negative views about other religions to every Tom, Dick and Harry you meet on the street. This probably explains why when people who hold different, indeed contradictory, religious beliefs but live together without overt strife it may sometimes indicate nothing but a mutual fear of honestly speaking their minds about each other’s religions, and should not be mistaken for generous and genuine inter-religious bonhomie.

The crux of the problem, as I see it, lies in the fact that religion is regarded, or has come to be seen, essentially as belief in rival sets of dogmas about matters ‘unseen’, in addition to associated customs and rituals. The truth of these beliefs and the efficacy of these practices cannot be empirically demonstrated, and so this allows rival sets of believers to squabble with each other ad nauseum and to continue to press on with their mutually-opposed claims. These beliefs and practices serve as powerful boundary-markers between one religion and another, and, therefore, between rival sets of believers. And so, you come to be defined not only on the basis of what you believe in and practice (the beliefs and practices of your religion) but also on the basis of those beliefs and practices which you think are faulty or false (the beliefs and practices of religions other than your own), and which you repudiate—or, in some extreme cases, openly revile. Distancing yourself consciously from the beliefs and practices of religions other than your own, critiquing them, or even, on occasion, roundly denouncing them can serve as a mechanism for you to reinforce your belief in, and commitment to, your own religion and your identity as a follower of it. That seems to be a fairly widespread phenomenon, although we may be unwilling to admit this, for it taints much of what passes off for popular religiosity.

There’s another interesting aspect of this process of religious self-definition through negating the beliefs and practices of other religions. It is remarkable how enthusiastic believers in one religion can be in identifying absurdities, anomalies, crudities and immoralities (real, as well as imaginary) in other religions while, at the same time, remaining completely blind to similar flaws in their own religion, so much so that they would adamantly insist that their religion has no flaws at all. Some people take a malicious delight in hunting for things—dogmas, doctrines, practices, myths, stories about key personages—in other religions which they find disgusting or unscientific, bandying these about in order to give these religions a bad name. This gives them much delight, and, if they are politicians, they can hope to emerge as even more popular among their co-religionists using this cheap, but effective, tactic. But they definitely won’t subject their own religion to similar careful scrutiny. When others discern similar immoral or unacceptable teachings or practices in their religion, they will bend themselves over in order to trying to rationalize these—by claiming that they are ‘scientific’ or that they tend to the ‘overall good of society’, or that they ‘reflect God’s mysterious ways, which humans cannot fathom’, and so on. Such apologists for their own religions will go to absurd lengths to seek to convince others, and themselves, too, that what others see as major flaws in their religion are not really so.

This, in brief, is what much of inter-religious polemics as well as apologetic religious rhetoric are all about—shielding one’s own beliefs and castigating those of others, rationalizing the warts in one’s own tradition while readily denouncing similar flaws in others’. It has nothing at all to do with a dispassionate search for truth and everything to do with defending rival communal egos.