2010 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 3, by Edward L. Queen

When Reality Rears Its Ugly Head: Thinking about Religion, Conflict, and the Possible

Edward L. Queen

My thinking on this topic emerges primarily from the work I have done over the past eleven years in the former Yugoslavia and Israel, with some detours to India and Pakistan.  This paper was occasioned by my time in Bosnia (and Boston) as a fellow of the summer 2006 class of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life.

In writing this paper, I began to think about what got me into this area.  How did someone whose training was an Americanist in Church History, who grew up in central Alabama, and was almost 29 before he ever left the country become obsessed with religious and ethnic conflicts throughout the world?

It is Stewart Brand’s fault.  In the 1970s, Brand, whom many may know as the person behind the Whole Earth Catalog, later published a magazine entitled the Co-Evolution Quarterly.  At some point in the mid 1970s, an issue of that magazine focusing on devolution fell into my hands.  In it I read about Breton, Corsican, Sami, Karen, and Tamil separatism among others.  This information appealed to my perverse nature, to knowing all about these peoples and movements of which most others were unaware

It stuck.  The first course I ever created was, “Religious and Ethnic Conflicts in the 20th Century.”  That was in spring 1989.  Talk about being in front of the curve, all the really good ones still lay ahead, although I did manage to get in the Lebanese Civil War, the earlier Hutu/Tutsi conflicts in both Burundi and Rwanda, and the challenges presented by what we then called religious fundamentalism from the Dominion movement in American Protestant Christianity to the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Then came the wars of the former Yugoslavia.  Those wars affected me intellectually, morally, and personally.

Preeminently they demonstrated the following to me:

  1. The complete and total Moral Failure of the European countries to respond, this topic is not relevant to this paper, except tangentially as we shall see.
  2. The failure of those who observed the events to acknowledge the reality of the significance of the religious elements.  One continues to see it today in many discussions of the war.  Many writers continue to refuse to acknowledge that religion actually does matter or cannot understand why it does.  I found this complete denial of the significance of religion astounding.
  3. I did not understand how people could fail to acknowledge that religion actually could be something important enough to kill others about.
  4. Finally, I was amazed that individuals also found this conflict so “inconceivable” in a literal sense of the term.  The presumption lying behind this perception of inconceivability, namely that peace and understanding are the default options in human existence left me dumbfounded.  As an historian, the idea that anyone would be surprised by human violence amazes me.  (Actually one of the great things about being an historian is the ability to look down one’s nose and say about almost anything, “It isn’t really new you know.”)

So it is from that starting point that I come to you today.

The Former Yugoslavia

In March of 1995 I was standing on a street corner in Indianapolis, Indiana when I colleague of mine greeted me and asked, “Ed, how would you like to go to my country?”  I responded, “Mirko, other than the fact that a war is going on and who is going to pay for it?  Sure.”

This started me on my work in the former Yugoslavia, first in Croatia, then Macedonia, and now Bosnia.

A series of vignettes from those eleven years

1      “We needed to be separated from them.  They are a more primitive culture.”  A comment made to me by a young Croatian academic who holds advanced degrees in religion and philosophy and was a minor dissident during Tito’s time.  (Croatia 1995)

2      President of the Macedonian government’s Commission on Religious Affairs.  He was appalled by the idea that some people wished to construe Macedonia as a bi-religious state–Orthodox and Islamic (forget that maybe it should be secular or even religiously neutral).  “Macedonia is an Orthodox country,” he proclaimed.  “Islam is a religion of the country’s past under the Ottomans, not of the future.”  “Orthodoxy is the only religion native to Macedonia.”  (I forbore asking him where he thought Christianity came from.)  The implication of his entire comments was that all other religious bodies existed in the country simply on sufferance.  (Macedonia 2000)

3      Traveling to Macedonia in 2002, I was seated beside a Macedonian Woman who upon hearing that I was going there to work at the new “Albanian” university became incensed, berating me and cursing and abusing all Albanians informing me that they were primitive animals and did not belong in her country. (2002)

4      Party for staff member’s brother (2002), while helping to set up a university serving the needs of Macedonia’s Albanian speaking population, I happened upon a party celebrating the release from prison of the brother of one of the secretaries.  He had served in the Ushtria Çlirimtare Kombëtare – UÇK National Liberation Army, the Albania paramilitary organization that had led the civil war in Macedonia.

5      Stolac 2006—I spent 10 days living with a recently returned Bosniak family which had been expelled from Stolac in 1995.. What is Stolac?  Stolac is situated in Herzegovina less than 90 kilometers from Mostar.  The Begrava River runs through the center of the village.  The area around Stolac has been inhabited since Neolithic times and it is surrounded by remains of these settlements.  Stolac also contains the largest assemblage of steči, the gravestones distinctive to the old Bosnian Church.  Its beauty and history had placed it on the list of locations being considered for denomination as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In 1993 the village of Stolac had about 18,500 inhabitants, about 44% Bosniak, 33% Croat, 21% Serb, and a little over 2% who identified as other.  After a Serb attack was beaten back by the combined forces of the Bosnia’s and Croats, the Croats (with assistance from Croatian forces) turned on their Bosniak neighbors, imprisoning the men in the local hospital, where they were tortured and abused.  The women were expelled from the village.  They then proceeded to destroy every Muslim and Orthodox cultural artifact in the village, including mosques built in the 16th and 17th centuries and a 16th century Serbian Orthodox church.  Today the population is 80% Croat and 20% Bosniak.  There are 2 segregated hospitals, one school but the classes meet on separate floors and the bells ring at different times, segregated cafes, and a palpable feeling of dread.[1]

As we move forward developing our work in religion, conflict, and peace building we need to question dramatically our ideas and the quality of them.  My goal is to ensure that we bring ideas and experiences into an ongoing conversation.  We need to have a clear purchase on the conditions of existence and what is possible under those conditions.  Additionally, we need to determine how (and whether) we can change those conditions, providing, therefore, an opening for even more possibilities.

I want to examine three themes about which our ideas have the utmost importance in the areas of religion, conflict, and peacebuilding.  I believe that the extent to which our ideas in these areas are “right,” greatly improves the likelihood of positive movement.  While addressing these themes I will attempt to weave together the theoretical and the experiential.

These three themes are:

  • Nature of human being
  • Conflict
  • Religion’s distinctiveness

I begin with an admittedly unfair use of a quotation with which the Canadian Assemblywoman Pat Lorje closed her presentation which preceded mine at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland in summer 1996.  I had just arrived in Geneva from Zagreb, where I had spent the preceding weeks talking about the future of Croatia and working with individuals struggling to develop civil society organizations.  Harking back to the founders of the New Democratic Party of Canada, Ms. Lorje argued that much is possible when “we are willing to fail at being gods.”  That anyone would make such a claim in 1996 astounded me.  The world had just experienced over nearly 80 years of what did happen when people failed, in various ways, at being gods.  And while she used this statement to speak to the need for creativity and courage in government, I feel it reflects a much different reality.  We have accepted too uncritically a view of history as progressive and have too easily dismissed the horrors possible when we do “fail at being gods.”  At that same conference, I heard the Right Honorable David Willetts, a conservative m. p., argue that England owed its particular and distinctive political culture to the fact that since 1066 England had been free from foreign invasion and that for over 900 years the English had had the opportunity to “get to know each other” to use his words.  While not meaning to be cynical, all I could think of was, “Yes that is true, but for at least 700 of those years the English expended a great deal of effort trying to kill each other, Norman lords hunted down Saxon “dogs,” Tudors fought Stuarts over the right of succession, and England went through its own version of Europe’s religious wars—the affects of which were being felt during that week as the start of that year’s “Marching Season” in Northern Ireland led to some of the most violent conflicts in years.

We must examine seriously the views of human being and of human interaction that lie beneath our understandings of and approaches to religion, conflict, and peacebuilding and the roles that these ideas play in the possibilities we consider.  As Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped, “the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine.”  Unfortunately, too many social conservatives have used this fact to argue for control and hierarchy.  In doing so, however, they failed to realize that the controllers are just as defective as the controlled.  While hierarchy simply limits the class of people who can do evil, it does not eliminate it and may indeed increase its magnitude.  Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary aptly defined a Conservative as being “A person enamored of existing evils.” (A liberal being a person who desired “to exchange existing evils for evils as yet untried.”)[2]

The events in the countries that used to be the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are the starting point for this paper.  While I think careful reflection on those events provide a useful and pointed caution, I hesitate somewhat about beginning there.  I want to speak to the universality of their meaning and not reify existing prejudices about the Balkans.  As Pavao Pavličić wrote in his haunting volume, Lament over Europe:

Whenever Europe thinks about us, whenever she talks about us, her reasoning always shows the same bizarre prejudice: we are different from them.  We are less. . . .

This means that we need–and that we merit–less bread, fewer TV sets and less freedom than they do, that we can endure more suffering, that we die more easily and find life less precious.  That our life is worth less than theirs, not only in their eyes but in ours, as well.  And therefore, of course, that different standards are to be used for us than for them, Europeans.[3]

We must grapple seriously with what may well be the most important question of our time.  Namely, in a democratized world can people who understand themselves as fundamentally different live together in a functioning society without killing each other off?

Another anecdote.  When I first entered the gates of the old city of Dubrovnik during the last two weeks of ceasefire in 1995 I came upon large maps of the old city with the legend written in the trade languages of the region–English, French, German, Italian, and Croatian.  None of this is surprising–as a tourist center one would expect such a sight–what surprised me was the content of the map.  The map identified where every shell hit the old city during the “Serbian and Montenegrin aggression” to quote the accompanying text.  The strikes were color coded so one could tell whether the shells destroyed a building, a roof, or simply struck the pavement.

On that visit to Dubrovnik, bounded at its start by the Oklahoma, City bombing and a Serb attack on the Dubrovnik Airport on my scheduled arrival date and at its close by the end of the Yugoslav cease fire, the map loomed before me as I struggled with the meaning of violence and religion.  Not some understanding of the purpose of pain, suffering, and death–deaths unchosen have no purpose in and of themselves, although it is true that they often can effect certain ends, for which the survivors may be thankful and which even the dead might have considered sufficiently valuable–but of what they might tell us about the world and the future of human society.

Culture and history rear their ugly heads, reminding us that relatively well functioning human societies relatively productive of material sufficiency and protection are rare.  Even rarer are those that strive to protect their citizens, allow different peoples to live quietly alongside each other without violence, and do not engage in constant conflicts with their neighbors.  We delude ourselves by believing that progress is inevitable and that the evils of the past have been exorcized.  Human society is a frail thing.

We must acknowledge that conflict, in varying degrees, is the norm for human interaction.  From Hobbes to Hegel, Marx to Locke and beyond, this reality has loomed as central to human existence and as a fact which must be constrained if life were to be something other than a war of all against all.  Perhaps no one better spoke to this unending sense of conflict and its underlying reasons than James Madison.

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. . . .

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to cooperate for their common good.  So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.[4]

To work adequately with real, living human beings in overcoming the residual realities of violent conflict, we must, I argue, take this fact seriously.  To build our models upon a presumption that human beings always are willing to be something other than at odds with their sister and fellow human beings is to set ourselves up for failure.  I may have no wish to reconcile with my neighbor and I may be right in that wish.  My neighbor may be wrong, bad, or even evil.  If so, why should I reconcile?  There may indeed be good reasons (and I think there are such reasons) not to make all my actions and responses contingent upon my feelings toward him or her, but I may wish to have little or nothing to do with that individual except on the most instrumental level.  And that wish may not only be legitimate, it may indeed be the right thing to do.

Our agendas need to start out on a modest scale.  We need to focus on what is necessary to realize a society that allows most people to live in peace most of the time, and that minimizes the magnitude of conflict between and among individuals and groups.

Any attempt to address the consequences of human conflict must take seriously the sources of those conflicts.  This requires us to acknowledge that nearly two centuries of political-economy is basically wrong.[5]  To rephrase a line from the 1992 U.S. presidential elections, “It is not the economy, stupid.”  While only a fool would deny the importance of the realm of necessity on human beings’ activities, economic factors do not and cannot explain much human conflict or people’s willingness completely to destroy economies, cities, countries, and their lives in order to achieve certain ends.

In fact, as Albert O. Hirschman compellingly has argued, the transition to seeing economics as the dominant factor in human behavior did not occur as an explanatory factor but as a normative claim designed to inject reason, rationality, and prudence into human action.  The goal was to overcome the passions that dominated human behaviors, and to replace the violence those passions engendered with “the spirit of frugality, of economy, of moderation, of work, of wisdom, of tranquility, of order, and of regularity . . .” that came about by individuals pursuing their interests.[6]  The desire was that by convincing people to pursue commerce, to further their “interests,” the more violent passions would be constrained, indeed overcome.  Turning aristocrats into burghers would end the horribly, destructive violence such as marked Europe during the religious wars of the seventeenth century.

In this regard Francis Fukuyama’s argument in the End of History and the Last Man is particularly telling.

Liberal democracy in its Anglo-Saxon variant represents the emergence of a kind of cold calculation at the expense of earlier moral and cultural horizons.  Rational desire [defined and interpreted in a particular way, I might add] must win out over the irrational desire for recognition . . ..  The liberal state growing out of the tradition of Hobbes and Locke engages in a protracted struggle with its own people.  It seeks to homogenize their variegated traditional cultures and to teach them to calculate instead their own long-term self-interest.[7]

It is important to emphasize here that the goal was the transformation of individuals.  Turning the focus from passions to interests was not designed to explain why people acted in the manner in which they did, nor was it designed to argue that other values such as religion did not matter.  In fact, the point was that they mattered too much.  They were the problem for which commerce, economics, was the solution.

There remain, however, innumerable problems with this solution.  Not only is it to some extent ultimately unsatisfying, its realization is much more difficult than its creators’ epigones dreamed.  Additionally, the transformation of the theme into a picture of how human beings actually do act, rather than of how they ought to act has served to confound our judgment and to hinder policy making.

This failure to take both the power and seriousness of those other moral and cultural horizons seriously explains innumerable policy failures.  From Iran to Kashmir, Ireland to the former Yugoslavia, and even in the United States the real hot-button political issues have had little to do with economics.  They are as James Davison Hunter has said, culture wars, not class wars.[8]  The repeated failures of economic interpretations, from the delusion that the economic integration of the world would ensure that the Great War (World War I) would be short-lived, (prior to its beginning it was conceived of as being impossible), to the sheer irrationality (on many levels) of the Nazi war machine, through the Khmer Rouge’s attempt at national self-immolation, to contemporary Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

While it might serve our egos to dismiss such behaviors as the irrationality they are, such a dismissal only begs the question of why do people not act in “rational” ways, especially as this is understood in economistic terms.  The answer is simple.  For many, nay most, people at least some of the time there are certain goods, certain values that not only surpass doux commerce, in Montesquieu’s phrase, but which are so important that the complete destruction of an economy, a state, or a society is nothing beside their realization.[9]  We need to understand that the desire for the realization of these goods or values, most of which can be encompassed by the term moral-expressive values, cannot be channeled completely into “productive” or “rational” directions.[10]

They are not rational in that minimal understanding that has come to dominate our world.  If that is the case, the question emerges about how to understand and respond to actions that emerge from people’s moral-expressive values?  How can we best act to limit the magnitude of conflicts caused by people’s struggles to realize those values?  If conflict is the norm for human behavior, or at least a sufficiently significant element in human interactions then we need to take it seriously.  We also need to deal with the pre-eminent sources of those conflicts.

If the major source of conflicts is what I am calling moral-expressive values, those values upon which rest people’s understandings of the way the world works or ought to work.  Of these values, preeminent among them is religion.  One can make the argument that religion readily is the dominant and most powerful source people’s understandings of the how the world functions.[11]

Coming to grips with religion as a dominant source for human action is of utmost importance.  The role religion played in violent conflicts over the last thirty plus years has been an obvious and frightening reality. The genie which many felt was locked securely in the bottle has escaped with a seeming vengeance.  From Sri Lanka to Ireland, Kashmir to Sudan, the former Yugoslavia to Afghanistan, religion has emerged either as the source of conflict or as the symbolic galvanizer of multiple aspirations, that is to say as the source for people’s construction and understanding of the necessity for the conflict.[12]

In functioning at least as the ideological and rhetorical source for constructing this violence, religion seems to be fulfilling that role which was a powerful goad to the construction both of modern democracy and the development of civil society as it has been understood within the Anglo-American tradition.  Recoiling from the horrors of the 30 years war and, later, the English Civil War many European intellectuals both on the Continent and in England increasingly began to reconsider religion’s relationship to the state. This became a growing theme throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century as numerous men of action and reflection struggled to determine how a state could best be organized so that neither chaos nor tyranny would gain the upper hand.  Throughout this process religion as a “problem” remained preeminent in the minds of many.  As usual, David Hume framed the issue most directly.

The tolerating spirit of idolaters, both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to anyone . . .The intolerance of all religions which have maintained the unity of God is as remarkable as the contrary principle of the polytheists.

[I]f, among Christians, the English and the Dutch have embraced principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priests and bigots.[13]

Although framed in various ways and usually linked with particular understandings of natural law and natural rights, often divinely ordained, increasingly it became normative that the way to ensure that the state would not be torn apart by religious conflict was to remove religion from any engagement with the state.  This became the basis for the construction of democratic states from the late eighteenth century until the present.  Certainly there were variations on the theme–one need only examine the differences between the United States, France under the first and third republics, England, Italy, and India to understand that–but religion as the determinative factor for membership and participation in the life of a democratic state decreased in significance.

In fact, just the opposite attitude took hold.  Religion increasingly was viewed as a limiting factor on the development of democracy, equality, and human freedom.  As Hans Küng argued in On Being A Christian,

It was not the Christian Churches–not even those of the Reformation–but the “Enlightenment.” often apostrophized by Church and secular historians alike as “superficial,” “dry” or “insipid,” which finally brought about the recognition of human rights: freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, the abolition of torture, the ending of persecution of witches, and other humane achievements. . . .  If we were to believe the church history manuals, the great ages of the Catholic Church in particular were those of reaction to the modern history of freedom: the Counter-Reformation, the Counter-Enlightenment, the Restoration, Romanticism, Neo-Romanesque, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Gregorian, Neo-Scholasticism.  It was a Church therefore in the rearguard of mankind, compelled by its fear of anything new always to drag it heels, without providing any creative stimulus of its own to modern developments.[14]

This well-justified critique of the Church could, as one looks to the contemporary period, be expanded to include nearly all of the world’s religious traditions.  The particularity inherent within religious traditions, the claimed knowledge of absolute truth that seems to be at the core of nearly all traditions–including, to give the lie to Hume, those which are polytheistic as in the case of resurgent Hindu nationalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka–seems to encourage the possibility of exclusion and force.  (And I would urge you to read the World War II era writings of D. T. Suzuki and other Japanese Zen masters if you believe Buddhism in any form is free from such views.)  Even where violence is not the norm, the very absolutizing nature of religion seems to place it at odds with the values of tolerance and democracy.

Contrary to expectations of social scientists, social theorists, and historians of the past century, religion does not seem to have disappeared as a social force.  The secularization thesis does not seem to hold and, in fact, seems not only to be demonstrably false, but it also leads to egregious policy errors among those who base their decisions upon it.[15]  As Mark Juergensmeyer has argued:

What appeared to be an anomaly when the Islamic Revolution in Iran challenged the supremacy of Western culture and its secular politics in 1979 has become a major them in international politics in the 1990s.  The new world order that is replacing the bipolar powers of the old Cold War is characterized not only by the rise of new economic forces, a crumbling of old empires, and the discrediting of communism, but also by the resurgence of parochial identities based on ethnic and religious allegiances.[16]

If religion cannot be eliminated completely and if it cannot be neutered by the state, then it must be accepted as a fact.  Any attempt to construct and to maintain viable democracies and civil societies in the future, therefore, must in fact take religions seriously as realities which play powerful roles in people’s lives, including how they construct the world.  In doing this we might be able to recover and to address more directly the positive and productive elements of religion in those constructions.

Religion, however, not only affects people’s lives, it also has a massive influence on the ways in which cultures are constructed.  This is especially true of the social norms of right and wrong, good and bad.  For this reason, understanding how dominant religious traditions construct the social norms under which members of particular societies operate, especially as those norms affect their relationships with those who may have competing values and interests, with the stranger, is key, to understanding both the ways in which religions can drive conflict or can hinder or even help in the process of reconciliation.  Understanding the complex roles that religion plays in how people understand what to value and how they ought to act may, in many ways, be the key to negotiating the tensions between universality and particularity.

To claim that religion matters, that it is important, perhaps even pre-eminently important, is not to claim that religion always is good or right.  Nor is it to claim that other factors do not and have not operated in human affairs.  In fact, other factors often have been (and remain) determinative to human actions.  One question remains, however.  Why is religious language so central to elaborating, elucidating, and rationalizing human actions and activities?  Why even in the process of violating religion have so many people used the tradition as the rationale?  Why have even the most violent and oppressive of tyrants felt compelled historically to use their monuments to affirm their positions as defenders of the faith as well as their liberality and generosity?  In Lynn Thorndike’s appropriately pointed words:

Indeed, it is hardly conceivable that any human legislator or religious teacher ever ventured to state as his aim the oppression of widows and orphans, or to boast that he had helped the strong against the weak.

[T]he occasional largesses by despotic rulers that have been written so large on the page of history, which resembles the modern newspaper in devoting much of its space to advertisements, were probably not peculiar to them but were adduced by their eulogists to show that they did not fall short of the conduct demanded by common humanity.[17]

While some may be distressed by the cynicism of these words, their verisimilitude cannot be denied.  The fact that rulers find themselves forced to affirm publicly their greatness by proclaiming their generosity, magnanimity, and their roles as protectors of the faith, by saying that they are “good people” suggests something terribly significant about how societies construct what they value and admire and how important these values are even for the most despotic of rulers.   It is just those values that they highlight when they make their appeals for greatness.  “Hypocrisy,” Oscar Wilde purportedly quipped, “is the compliment vice pays to virtue.”  But in paying virtue that compliment vice recognizes the priority virtue has upon it and upon the mind of society.  One rarely hides that which one thinks others will admire. One does parade, however, what others will applaud. The social nature of values and the role of religion in constructing social values must be understood if we are to try to uncover the ways in which an individual’s recognition and acceptance of social demands, even resignedly, can cause the individual to do good, even when the individual may be inclined to do otherwise.  Viewed from this perspective, social and cultural pressures exercise controls that are positive goods rather than merely objects of suspicion.  By serving to constrain human selfishness and the will to power and by goading individuals to act for the good of others, cultural and social norms are key to maintaining the functioning of society.  For that reason the role of religion in structuring those norms needs further examination and elaboration.

What then are the roles of religion in accomplishing those tasks?  Since the anthropologies of most religious traditions have shown themselves more complex, subtle, and valid than those of the secular world, they potentially can help us to understand how individual when confronted with the disparity between what is good for them and “what is good for others” can and do sacrifice the former for the sake of the latter.[18]

Additionally, religious anthropologies can help us to understand why the pressures provided by religio-cultural norms are not solely or even primarily structures of oppression and domination but provide the conditions of possibility for anything approaching a functioning society.  They may in fact be something not to overcome but absolute necessities for human existence.

To a great extent these claims are no more than the foundational bases of the discipline of sociology.  Unfortunately, not only has much of contemporary sociology tended to ignore religion as an independent variable but has completely transvalued the earlier understandings of social norms as necessary conditions for the possibility of human existence to simply expressions of domination and oppression.  The recovery of the positive role of social norms in human existence is important and even central to getting at ways in which religion plays a powerful (and positive) role in human society.[19]  This is not to suggest that all cultural norms are good, necessary, or valid and ought to be maintained, far from it.  It does mean to suggest that the mere fact that those norms impose constraints and limits on human willfulness is not be taken as inherently bad in and of itself, but in fact may be productive of significant social goods.  As Mark Twain is reported to have quipped, “Be yourself is the worst advice you can give to some people.”

We must, therefore, reject the long prevailing secularist models in the social sciences—especially in sociology, economics, and psychology—that created interpretive frameworks which view religion as an epiphenomenon or superstructure, rather than as a true explanatory or prescriptive factor.   Under these models religion existed merely as a smokescreen for the “true” factors influencing human behavior and action–namely class, self-interest, power, or ego-gratification.  While impossible to separate any particular manifestation of religion from its social and historical context, the unitary modes of explanation have failed to recognize that religious beliefs and religiously motivated behavior have consequences for the societies in which they exist and for the individuals whom they affect.  Additionally, religions are traditions, they perdure over time and embed within the faithful certain practices.[20]  As historical, they exist before and after any particular believer and place limits on what any given individual or groups of individuals can do and remain within the religion.[21]  Religious traditions shape and construct individuals and cultures.  They are not merely constructed by them.  Any attempt to understand the range of norms and values within a culture must begin by taking religion seriously as a phenomenon.  The refusal, or failure, to recognize that religions are significant realities, exerting tremendous influences on their adherents prevents any adequate understanding of a culture and its members.  If religion is “ultimate concern” as both Paul Tillich and the U.S. Supreme Court have claimed, it is completely inconceivable that it not affect people’s thinking and behaviors.[22]  To understand this effect one must take religion seriously as an object of study. The failure to do so, although capable of providing powerful interpretations and useful extensions of our knowledge, cannot help us to understand the role of religion in the lives of individuals and societies and in the role religion plays in both constructing violence and in mitigating it.

Religions provide an understanding (if not the understanding) of why the universe is the way it is, how it ought to function, and the roles and obligations of individuals in that universe.  Religions structure not only the way individuals apprehend the world but also the way in which communities and individuals structure and understand the world.  The result is that religions must be understood as having significant, if not a preeminent affect on the ways in which people behave and the ways in which their societies structure their understandings of the good.

A final note on the role of religion in this regard involves a claim I make tentatively.  Despite the evils perpetrated by religious traditions, the evils perpetrated by anti-religious traditions, as obvious in this century, have been far, far greater.  I will argue that despite their absolutizing nature, religious traditions have an ultimate stop absent from traditions lacking a transcendental component.  As divinely ordained, religious traditions have an external limit on what they ought and ought not do or continue to do.  Religions have this limit because they are directed at some transcendental reality (or realities) to which is attributed power and authority beyond that of humans, in fact power and authority over humans.  Ultimately, in every religious tradition some transcendental component (usually denominated god) remains as judge.  Whereas in human social movements the nature of authority remains in the hands of human beings who constantly can manipulate the system for their own ends and purposes and when in positions of power do not find any viable judge on their activities.  Religion, therefore, despite its horrid excesses may in fact be less prone to evils than its absence.[23]

These are mere speculations, but speculations which we must pursue.  In this pursuit, however, we must proceed with clarity both of purpose and of possibility.  We need to start with an understanding of the limits of human being.  The focus must be on what has to happen (and can), not on what we want to happen.  Goods may emerge but we should steadfastly avoid producing greater evils.  There must, therefore, be an ongoing interchange between our ideas and reality.  The world does not always conform to our wishes and our desires for it must be realizable.  Can we expect more from most people most of the time than a grudging acceptance of the other?  I do not know.  But, I do not think we can begin for hoping more than that.  People not killing each other off, is pretty good.  Or at least looks pretty good to an historian.  Theologians, philosophers, and others may have higher expectations.  In saying this, I do not mean to imply that I think better is impossible.  I know it is, but maybe it ought not to be our initial goal, although it may be our hope.  And hope itself is valuable.  In closing, I leave with one other vignette, one that demonstrates the possibility.  After sitting all day in the Mehteb, the beit ha midrash, the study hall of the rebuilt Uzinovićki masjid in Stolac, Bosnia-Herzegovina, we broke for dinner, I passed one my fellow participants, an Orthodox Jew and a religious Zionist who runs an institute that undertakes democratic education among religious Zionists in Israel.  As I asked him whether he was coming, he responded.  “Not right now.  I am going into the mosque to daven.”  It was time for mincha, l-asr prayers were complete and the masjid provided a quiet and contemplative place.  It made perfect sense.  And it suggests where I hope we can end, but it cannot be where we begin.

Author Bio

Edward L. Queen, a 2006 ISSRPL Fellow, is director of the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership and Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies at Emory University’s Center for Ethics. At Emory he also serves as Director of Research for the Institute of Human Rights and co-convener of the Initiative on Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding.

[1] See Crimes in Stolac Municipality (1992—1996) (Sarajevo: DID, 2001 (1996)).

[2] Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary( New York: Dover Publications, 1993).

[3] Pavao Pavličić, Lament Over Europe (Zagreb: The Croatian Writer’s Association, 1994).

[4] Publius (James Madison), The Federalist, No. 10 (New York: Bantam Books, 1982).

[5] In focusing this critique on the economistic argument, I do not mean to suggest that other materialist positions are not equally invalid.  It simply is an attempt to demonstrate the failings and weaknesses of such arguments and to open up the space for articulating a counter explanation.

[6] Montesquieu, Esprit de Lois (Part One), quoted in Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 71.

[7] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon Books, 1992), 214.

[8] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

[9] A comment made by Slobodan Milošević illustrates this claim.  In a secret meeting with Serbia’s mayors at the Serbian parliament building, he proclaimed, “[I]f we don’t know how to work and do business, at least we know how to fight.”  Quoted in Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 1997).

[10] With the phrase “moral-expressive” values I mean those goods (both material and immaterial) that individuals feel are necessary for the realization of a truly good life.

[11] See for example Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 87-125.

[12] Douglas Allen, editor, Religion and Political Conflict in South Asia: India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992); Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War?: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Mark Juergensmeyer, editor, Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World (London: Fran Cass, 1992); K. M. de Silva, Pensri Duke, Ellen S. Goldberg, and Nathan Katz, editors, Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies: Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988); Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, editors, Fundamentalism and State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Roy Licklider, Stopping the Killing How Civil Wars End (New York: New York University Press, 1993); James A. Haught, Holy Hatred: Religious Conflicts of the ‘90s (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995); Francis Mading Deng, War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1995); Norman Cigar, Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of “Ethnic Cleansing” (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1995); Joyce Pettigrew, The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerilla Violence (London: Zed Books, 1995); Olivier Roy, Afghanistan: From Holy War to Civil War (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1995); Andrew Boyd, Holy War in Belfast: A History of the Troubles in Northern Island (New York: Grove Press, 1972); Kay B. Warren, The Violence Within: Cultural and Political Opposition in Divided Nations (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993).

[13] David Hume, The Natural History of Religion  Chapter XI, IX (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991).

[14] Hans Küng, On Being a Christian (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1976).

[15] Two egregious examples of this have occurred recently in U. S. policymaking.  The first involved the failure of the U. S. Department of State and its intelligence agencies to understand the importance of religion in the Khomeinist revolution in Iran as admitted by then C.I.A. Director Stansfield Turner during his testimony before Congress, and the failure of federal law enforcement officials to understand the Branch Davidians as an apocalyptic religious movement rather than as a criminal hostage situation.  See Lawrence E. Sullivan. “Recommendations to the U. S. Departments of Justice and the Treasury  Concerning Incidents Such as the Branch Davidian Standoff in Waco, Texas,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1993).  The Soviet/Russian state has had perhaps an even worse time of it.  One need only recall the debacles they have experienced in Afghanistan and in Chechnya.

[16] Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War?: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 1-2.

[17] Lynn Thorndike, The Historical Background,: in Ellsworth Farris, Ferris Laune, and Arthur J. Todd, editors, Intelligent Philanthropy (Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1969 [1930]), 25.  In using this example, I do not mean to suggest that religious traditions’ charitable understandings are the basis for moving reconciliation forward, I simply use this to illustrate the power that normative claims exert on individuals.

[18] For a discussion of this see Amartya K. Sen, “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977), 317-344.

[19] See Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963); Weber, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1958);  Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (New York: Bedminster Press, 1968);  Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1947); Talcott Parsons, The Social System (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1951).

[20] See Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System.”  See also Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

[21] This is not to suggest that new religions do not emerge within historical memory or that extant traditions do not change.  The claim is that any given group of practitioners of a particular religion has certain boundaries over which they cannot cross and still be considered members by others in the tradition.  An important example of this is that of Christianity separating from Judaism.  Corollary to this is that within those boundaries the meaning of any tradition can be, and often is, contested.  There exist different and competing interpretations of the texts within a tradition, their meanings, and of practices.  To some extent this means that religions always are available for manipulation on behalf of immediate and particular goals, including the maintenance of the status quo.  The claim that this is inherently the case for religion is essentially counter-factual, as demonstrated by the huge numbers of religious martyrs.

[22] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol I, “Reason and revelation, Being and God,” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 10, 12-14, 214-216, 220-223, and passim.  For the United States Supreme Court please note the opinion in United States v. Seeger 380 U. S. 163 (1965).

[23] For an example of this see the story of Nathan and David, II Samuel 11-12: 23.