Religion and Conflict

January 9th, 2009

Comparative Religion is an academic field of study that’s particularly relevant to issues the world is struggling with today.  In the broadest sense, it’s an attempt to understand religion by comparing beliefs, practices, histories, political and economic factors, and formal and informal structures.  I’ve been at it for many years, mostly informally and self-directed.

Everyone comes to the study of religion with a point of view–even atheists. That’s why studying religions comparatively is so powerful.  It forces you to learn about the belief systems of people whose ideas often vary wildly from your own.

My comparative religion studies have been limited to the Abrahamic religions–Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  They believe in the same God.  They spring from the same source and accept the validity and authority of the Pentateuch, which is the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  These books are the Torah for Jews, the beginning of the Old Testament for Christians, and sacred texts relied upon by the Qu’ran for Muslims.  However, these three belief systems are profoundly different.

If you’d like to get an idea of the similarities and differences among these three religions, here is an interesting graphic presentation.  For a nutshell picture of the struggle of narratives between Islam and the West, go here.  For interesting and informative articles, go to Interfaith Online.

Why is all this important?  Because, for example, a good understanding of Islam sheds a lot of light on the attitudes of Palestinians, and Arabs in general, toward Israel and Jews.  Some observers believe that we’re all just people, equal in every way, children of God who should just learn to get along and stop all this pointless fighting.  President Jimmy Carter, an honest and decent man, is one of these people.  What they fail to understand is that many Palestinians, like many other Arabs and Muslims in general, fervently wish for the destruction of Israel and the cleansing of Jews from the Middle East, if not from the entire world.  They aren’t going to wake up one morning, see the light, and hold hands with their Jewish neighbors while singing Kumbaya.  It won’t happen.  Arrange a ceasefire, again, and it will be used by Palestinian terrorists and countries that support them as just another respite to rearm in preparation for continuing the struggle. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of history is the sheer quantity of blood that has been shed in the name of religion.  Murder and torture during the English Reformation, the unspeakable excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, Old Believers who split from the Russian Orthodox Church burning themselves and their families to death in churches, chaplains of the same Christian faith praying for God’s support with soldiers on both sides of the line in WWI before they charged out to slaughter each other, crusaders on their way to the Holy Land stopping off along the way to murder Jews for sport–the list of such things is depressingly long.

The most consistent target of religious hatred and bloodshed throughout history has been the Jews.  It continues today in the Middle East, and anyone who thinks it can be stopped is naive.  Why do some Arabs and other Muslims hate Jews?  Why did Hitler so hate the Jews that he prioritized their murder above important strategic aims?  Why is anti-Semitism resurgent in Europe, with the sobering experience of the Holocaust so recent?  Why are many Americans anti-Semitic, with their sly winks, nudges, and Jew jokes?  The answer to all these questions is–I have no idea.  Maybe it’s as simple as the need human beings feel to have an enemy and to hate someone.  Maybe the few Jews in the world, despite their innumerable accomplishments that have contributed so much to humanity, are just an easy target.

I spent about three months under the tutelage of an orthodox rabbi, a French concentration camp survivor, about 30 years ago.  He was among the wisest and most intelligent people I’ve ever met.  It was informal, just the two of us in his study most evenings, frequent Sabbath dinners with his family.  We studied the Torah, he tried to talk me through some of the complexities of the Talmud, and we discussed the history of Judaism extensively.  Naturally, we considered the question of the pogroms, persecutions, murders, and hatred of Jews throughout history.  I don’t think he really knew why, either.


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One Response to “Religion and Conflict”



  1. doris |

    More wars have been fought in the name of religion than anything else. Do you think it possible that people hate the Jews because of their supposed crucifixion of Jesus? This is foretold in the Bible that Jews will be persecuted for all time. I don’t agree with the persecution of anyone ,especially for religious reasons,as truly religious people are supposed to accept all and turn the other cheek. As you know,though, religious fanatics can be the most violent and hateful and ,yes even downright mean of all. I don’t get it,but I know each of us always thinks we are right. Add a little fanatacism and voila,war.


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