A commitment to pluralism
Religion appears to be a resurgent force in human affairs today. In many parts of the world the long-term trend towards secularization may well have slowed down, if not reversed itself. As traditional norms and values dissolve, religion is perceived as a bulwark for the increasingly vulnerable sense of identity of individuals and groups.
The different faiths stand as cultural, symbolic and intellectual creations which, in their own way, reflect the diversity of human experience and the various ways people have of coming to terms with the promise, challenge and tragedy of human life. Indeed some new forms of "fundamentalism" (which should more properly be termed religious revivalism), and the search for religion generally, may be viewed as constructive phenomena. They represent a search for identity and meaning in a harsh world of conflicting values, a creative response to the crisis of identity, a terrain for sociocultural experimentation.
But as history also shows, religion has often been linked to awareness of national identity. It has affected and sometimes poisoned the relations between majorities and minorities. It has also often afforded a pretext for material or territorial conquest. Even today, politicized religion often appears to contribute more to the intensification of conflict than to the construction of peace. We are all familiar with the unending cycle of conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India, between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq and Pakistan, between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, as well as the appeal to Catholic, Orthodox, and Islamic loyalties in the complex knot of conflicts now ravaging the former Yugoslavia. The Shia and Kurds in Iraq, the Bahai in Iran, the Maronites in Lebanon, the Copts in Egypt, and democratic idealists throughout parts of the Arab world are being persecuted.
Extreme doctrinaire views look to an imagined past, seen as both simpler and more stable, thus preparing the ground not only for a variety of overtly violent acts but also for the intimidation of individuals and indeed entire communities in matters of thought, behaviour and belief, coercing them into accepting a single, "orthodox" point of view. And while perceived threats to cultural values may incite people to turn back to supposedly original, "fundamental" truths, they should be reminded of what Al Ghazali clearly discerned some ten centuries ago: "There is no hope of returning to a traditional faith after it has once been abandoned, since the essential condition in the holder of a traditional faith is that he should not know he is a traditionalist."
The late twentiethcentury presents politicized, fundamentalist tendencies in all religions. As a scholar of comparative religion has pointed out "Religious extremism ... is not restricted to any one religion ... The challenge today, as in the past, is to avoid the easy answers yielded by stereotyping or the projection of a monolithic threat, to distinguish between the beliefs and activities of the [peaceful] majority ... and a minority of extremists who justify their aggression and violence in the name of religion, ethnicity or political ideology."