Religion for peace or conflict? An Interview with Dr. George James

GJAll religions teach communal harmony, respect for human rights, and high moral values as their mission but at the same time they have been a major source of conflict and war throughout the human history.  To George A. James, a long time professor of religion and philosophy, religion can be viewed as a source of harmony and conflict at the same time. “Nothing has brought humanity more blessing than religion and nothing has brought more horror.  Nothing has done more for peace and love but nothing has bred more enmity” he believes.

George A. James received his Ph. D. in History and Philosophy of Religion from Columbia University. He has been on the University of North Texas Faculty in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies since 1983.

He is author of Interpreting Religion, a study of phenomenological approaches to religion, and editor of a volume of essays entitled Ethical Perspectives on Environmental Issues in India.  For the past 20 years he has been researching and publishing in the areas of comparative environmental philosophy and environmental movements in India.  His research is published in such journals as Zygon, International Philosophical Quarterly, and Worldviews.  He has also contributed to the Encyclopedia of Religion, the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and the Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy.

The following interview with Viewpoint explores his insights on religion as a catalyst for peace or instigator of conflict:

1.     Overall as it looks, the significance and relevance of religion, especially in Western societies is diminishing. How do you see the future of religion in these societies? 

The statement is evidently true. Those who keep track of such developments indicate that at least in the U.S.A. there are more people than ever, especially between the ages of 18 and 31, who describe themselves as having no religious affiliation.  Sociologists call them “nones.”  When questioned on a religious affiliation survey they check the box that says “none.” Yet further inquiry into the views of such people indicates that they are far from being atheists or religiously disinterested.  They simply do not find existing religious institutional framework to be a meaningful space in which to express and explore their concerns.  Frequently such young people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.  I believe we are living among a generation of young people who are religiously concerned about the meaning of their lives but for whom the historically religious institutions have largely failed.=

2.     You visit India on a regular basis and have written extensively on South Asian philosophy and religion.  What are your views on inter religious-harmony or tension in India today and the root causes of these trends?

Not only in India but around the world, religion has been a force for good and also for mutual hostility.  Swami Vivekannanda once made the point that nothing has brought humanity more blessing than religion and nothing has brought more horror.  Nothing has done more for peace and love but nothing has bred more enmity.  Gandhi faced this issue in the independence struggle of India.  Because religion had been a strategy to divide and conquer, Gandhi felt that Hindu Muslim cooperation was necessary to overthrow the yoke of colonial imperialism.  In South Asia today, religion continues to be invoked to establish and support communal identities that party politics can exploit for political gain, or to justify violence against persons who represent opposing political ideologies.  Religion or faith, as Paul Tillich has said, is an expression of ultimate concern.  As human beings we can be ultimately concerned about the reality to which religion points, or we can be ultimately concerned about our own communal identity.  The later constitutes what he calls an idolatrous faith, an idolatrous ultimate concern.

I believe Gandhi’s views on religion remain relevant today.  In his day he stated that what is needed in India is not one unifying religion but mutual respect among the adherents of the different religions.  He held that the soul of religion is one, but that it is incased in a multitude of forms, and that while each represents a revelation of truth, that truth has been mediated through the work and history of an imperfect humanity.  Because we are less than perfect it follows that any religion as conceived by us will also be imperfect.  For this reason he held that it is not sufficient simply to tolerate my neighbor’s religion.  He argued that tolerance can imply that I continue to believe that my neighbor’s religion is wrong, even an abomination, but I choose not to oppose it, but to tolerate it.  What Gandhi endorsed, and what I believe is necessary today, is that I have the same regard for my neighbor’s religion as I have for my own.   This, he argued, can be facilitated by an honest exploration directed towards a genuine understanding of my neighbor’s religion.  I have been studying religion and observing religious conflict for a considerable period of time and I have yet to witness a religious conflict that is based upon an accurate understanding of the opponents’ religion.

3.     World religions have been in conflict with each other historically despite similarities in their overall message. Can the contemporary world religions work together for peace and harmony? 

I believe they can work together towards harmony and peace, but much depends upon their attitude.  Those who make a study of religious pluralism frequently distinguish three viewpoints

concerning the relationship among different religions.  One is called exclusivism.  It is the viewpoint that one religion, one’s own religion, is true and all others are false.  This is the position most frequently associated historically with Christianity, though varieties of other religions have sometimes taken this view.  It is often the view of those who wish to promote the interests of one religious community over others.  Clearly this viewpoint and this attitude will be of little help when it comes to religions working together for the cause of peace and harmony.  Many contemporary Christian theologians question the validity of this viewpoint.  The second is called inclusivism.  It holds that one religion is true but others are included within its embrace, either as historical anticipations of the revelation in one’s own religion or as a variant form of the truth taught in one’s own religion.  It holds that all religions have the same essence. They are all pointing to the same divine reality.  But it tends to hold that one’s own religion is one that embraces all the others.  One’s own religion holds the criteria by which others are to be interpreted.  This viewpoint might provide a starting point for meaningful exchanges between religions that might lead to cooperation concerning peace and harmony.  The third viewpoint, called pluralism, recognizes the integrity and dignity of each religious tradition.  It recognizes that each has their origins in specific responses to unique historical conditions, and has been shaped by differing historical factors.   They are alternative paths through which human beings have found spiritual fulfillment.  Among scholars there are differing nuances within this typology to distinguish this viewpoint from agnosticism and relativism.  Those who deal most effectively with those challenges could argue that such an approach would be the most effective in achieving meaningful cooperation among religions in the interest of peace and harmony.

My own viewpoint arises from my many conversations with persons representing differing religious traditions, both in my research and in my teaching.  I call it mutual inclusiveness.  Some would include it within the viewpoint of pluralism.  Sometime times I find myself explaining some intricate concept from one tradition of the world and a student will exclaim, “we have that in my religion too!”  The student will very often be able to justify the point in a persuasive way.  The exponent of inclusivism would explain this shared religious insight in terms of his own religious tradition.  I recognize that my own religious insight can also be embraced within the tradition of another and of many others.  A recognition the dignity and integrity of the religion of another can be a way of enhancing one’s own understanding of one’s own religion.  The attitude of such mutual openness and mutual inclusiveness of the insights of others is to me the key to working together towards peace and harmony.

4.     Popular spiritual movements parallel to the mainstream religious ideologies, Kabbalah in Judaism, Sufism in Islam and mysticism in Christianity have played a historical role in the three Abrahamic religions. Do you think these traditions can become a common bond for interfaith harmony in the contemporary world?

I think the mystical elements in these three traditions hold much potential for mutual appreciation.  As different as are the historical and cultural conditions that have shaped these traditions, it is interesting that they all derive from the overwhelming religious experience of one man, who is appropriately described as a mystic.  I believe that the comparative exploration of mystical experiences embodied in these traditions could form a bond between practitioners of these three faiths.

5.     You are also an expert in theology and mystic traditions in religions, especially Sufism in Islam and Vedanta in Hinduism. What do you think about the relevance of these traditions in the post-colonial subcontinent of South Asia?

I believe mysticism holds great potential for dialogue between religions traditions.  The reason I say that is that there are similarities at the experiential level in the mystical experiences of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews and others.  Such experiences penetrate beyond the evident distinctions that separate religions because of their differing histories, their differing places of origin, their differing theologies and symbols.  The great religious traditions of the world have both a visible and public side that makes each religion distinctive.  But they each also have an element within them wherein the participant seeks not just to keep the rules, the rituals, and the observations of the tradition but a deeper knowledge and a deeper level of communion with the divine reality.  At that level there is the opportunity to appreciate the religious experience of others across traditions.  It is my observation that in the pursuit of this deeper level of experience the mystics often have more in common with one another than they do with the more pedestrian practitioners of their own faith.

6.     As environment and religion are some of your research interests, would you please elaborate on how religion and environment go together?  What’s the importance of this field as an academic and social discourse?

In 1967 there was an article in the journal, Science, by the eminent environmental Historian Lynn White.  It was titled, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.”  In it he laid the blame for the world-wide environmental crisis squarely at the door of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  He argued that because the Judeo-Christian tradition taught that man was created uniquely in the image of God, and that God had authorized him to use the earth as he wished, this tradition was the most anthropocentric (or man-centered) that human history has seen.  He also suggested that the religions of Asia promoted a more positive attitude, and therefore presumably more appropriate behavior, towards the environment.  His article was superficial, but it drew scholarly attention to the question of the role of religion in shaping attitudes and thus behavior towards the environment.  It also engendered many studies of the standing of nature in many religious traditions.  Today scholars in the field on Religion and Ecology recognize that it is impossible to qualify an entire religious tradition as being environmentally friendly or not.  Their scholarship does recognize, however, that attitudes to the environment are shaped in no small measure by values embodied in religious traditions.  The Indian environmental activist, Sunderlal Bahuguna, has made the point that all of the religious traditions of man have offered profound insights concerning our responsibility towards nature, and that the real distinction to be made is between these ancient traditions that have instructed man to respect and care for nature and the attitude of materialist society that utilizes technology to turn nature to cash depriving the rural poor who have preserved traditions of care for nature of the means for a sustainable way of life.