On Monday, October 26, Colgate students and faculty gathered to listen to a panel of five scholars discuss whether or not religion could be a part of the solution to global conflict. The panelists came from diverse backgrounds, including a rabbi, an evangelical Christian reverend and a scholar of Islam and Middle Eastern politics. The event was sponsored by the Fund for the Study of World Religions, the Peace and Conflict Studies Program and the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program.
Associate Professor at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, as well as a director at the Harvard Divinity School, Jocelyne Cesari opened the discussion with her views on the complicated story of religion in politics.
Cesari, as well as several other panelists, described September 11, 2001 as a turning point in international policy and also in the American people’s perception of religion. Cesari specifically expressed that the idea of religion as a threat to international security fosters the idea that the only way to deal with religion is to contain it.
Another focus of Cesari’s argument was that the religious texts people often associate with causes of conflict are important, but should not be the main focus when thinking about religious conflict. Cesari argued that going to the text won’t help you understand the reality of religion and how religion is used by aggressors.
“If you listen to ISIS, it’s not about belief, it’s about how people are behaving as believers,” Cesari said.
Following Cesari was the Executive President/Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy James Patten. Patten argued that religion must be a part of the solution to international conflict, claiming that 85 percent of the human community identifies religion as a primary identity marker. He discussed how it is not a question of whether religion matters, but of how it functions.
Patten explained that religion can be thought of as value neutral, like currency. It only takes on value in its application—thus religion can be used positively or negatively. This is why, Patten argued, it is important that faith be incorporated into problem solving, in order to utilize its positive effects.
Professor of Religion at the University of Birmingham Nicholas Adams summarized his core argument in three words: “What about God?” He stated that the idea of religious people as ignorant and violent must be eliminated and that religion must be rediscovered as a “source of peace.”
Rabbi and Director of the Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies Daniel Roth agreed that religion must be rediscovered. He noted the importance of the wisdom and peace-making systems present in the ancient religious texts that have sometimes been unfairly vilified.
Roth added that we, as a society, cannot keep recycling the same peace initiatives and expecting different results. He argued that, for identity conflicts, there are no quick fixes.
Last to speak was Dr. Mae Elise Cannon, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Cannon argued that the most important step toward preventing religion from causing harm is listening and not presuming we have all the answers.
“Religion does a lot of good in the world … We just don’t talk about it, and the news doesn’t report it,” Cannon said.
She presented her time spent in Egypt during the 2010 revolution as an example of a positive influence of religion. Despite negative press coverage that exaggerated religious tensions, Cannon witnessed many instances of incredible kindness and faith. In particular, she watched Muslims protecting Christians on the street so that they could pray.
Cannon argued that, fundamentally, people have the universal desire to see the world be a better place without violence, despite all other differences. While the methodology varies, the ultimate goal of creating a better place for one’s children is consistent.
Though the panelists disagreed on certain nuances of each other’s arguments, they agreed that religion is a critical aspect of the discourse of global conflict. They noted that the world must stop portraying religion in a singularly negative perspective and start using it in positive, productive ways to engage in effective conflict-resolution. Another common theme of their points was the importance of context for religion and of recognizing that religion can function in many constructive ways, as well as destructive.
Students in the audience felt that the discussion was particularly significant because of the many different perspectives that were offered.
“I think it was incredibly interesting to see the panelists talk about their positions, jobs and backgrounds, all differing, but still moving towards the same end: to use religion as a means of conflict resolution rather than something that fuels violence,” senior Rita Herzog said.
“I really enjoyed the panel. As a religion major I have studied how religion can have a place in global culture and politics and appreciated seeing how religious leaders are putting peace-making ideas in practice. I think that the concept of separating the concept of faith from the behavior of the believers is very important … The failure of believers to uphold particular ethical imperatives is universal, but that doesn’t mean that faith is bad for the world, just that people are – but we already knew that,” sophomore Alec Hufford said.