Of the some four thousand religions currently practiced by the world’s 6.5 billion people, more than half – just under 55% – follow one of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Of the remainder, 28% are adherents of either Jainism, Hinduism or one of its offshoots, Buddhism, Sikhism or one of the Chinese Traditional religions (Taoism or Confucianism); over half of the remainder (16% ) claim no religion at all (this group includes, but is not limited to atheists, agnostics and secular humanists), while the rest are classified as “primal-indigenous” or Animistic (Adherents.com).
Here is an interesting fact: if you were traveling in Southeast Asia and were to ask someone about his religious beliefs, he might very well tell you that he was 100% Christian, 100% Buddhist and 100% Animist. (If you were to point out that his figures added up to 300%, he would probably tell you that you are too concerned with mathematics).
On the other hand, ask a devout follower of one of either Christianity or Islam, and he will most likely be unequivocal in his insistence that his is the “One True Faith,” and in all likelihood would attempt to convert you. Ironically, Judaism – the root from which Christianity and Islam were sprung – has never had an evangelical tradition, and in fact tries to discourage would-be converts. As a result, Jews make up a very small percentage of the world’s faithful, representing no more than 0.22%, while more than half of the world’s people identify themselves as either Christian or Muslim (Adherents.com).
Another interesting fact is that both Christianity and Islam have a long, blood-soaked history of conflict, both with one another and between sects within these respective faiths. While there has been conflict in India between Hindus and Sikhs, this was largely political in nature (Frank, 314). Institutions such as pogroms, witch burnings, crusades, holy wars, inquisitions and jihads (a term which originally referred to the spiritual conflict within) based on theology are unique to Christianity and Islam. On the other hand, no such conflicts have ever existed among Eastern religions on the basis of theology and dogma.
Why is this? Can Christianity and Islam co-exist, or are they mutually exclusive as extremists in both faiths continue to insist? Are Eastern religions more conducive to such pluralism?
1. Co-existence and Interaction Among Abrahamic Faiths
Interfaith conflict was not always the rule among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Before Saul of Tarsus, early Christians did not consider themselves separate from Judaism; Mohammad believed he was returning an essentially Jewish tradition to its original purity. Many Muslims consider Jesus to one of the prophets. During the height of Islam’s Golden Age during the 8th and 9th Centuries of the Common Era, Christians and Jews living in the Caliphate had “second-class” status and were required to pay special taxes, but were not actively persecuted. As late as the 1240s, members of an offshoot of Christianity, known as the Cathars, appear to maintained contact and communications with members similar mystical sects of Islam (Sufism) and Judaism (Kabbalists) (Mann, 1996).
In her enlightening article on the Cathar sect whose members were mercilessly slaughtered in 1244, author Judith Mann sheds some light not only on the reason for the slaughter, but suggests a reason for religious conflict: this sect “rallied the poor to resist Church and secular tyranny…Cathar
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doctrines provided a highly workable alternative to the confusion and misery that existed” (Mann, 1996).
In short, it was about power and dominance – and ultimately, one might argue, wealth and resources. In fact, Mann suggests that “…the very foundations of the Church and feudalism were rocked by Cathar teachings….they preached with great humility, attacking the corruption of the Church clergy,” while “establishing prosperous, cooperative communities” – all of which threatened an economic power structure that restricted wealth and ownership of property to a small, select aristocracy.
It can be argued that Islam, coming into contact with Western European Christianity, posed the same kind of economic threat. For example, the entire Western capitalistic system, now collapsing under the weight of its own greed, is based on the practice of usury, or charging of interest. This has always been forbidden under Islam (and was in fact prohibited under Judaism and early Christianity at one time as well). Islam was a religion of equality (for men) as well, which was most certainly its appeal for the disenfranchised and the powerless in the regions where it spread.
On the other hand, Christianity, born of one patriarchal culture and nurtured in another, has had a tendency toward authoritarianism and rigid hierarchies. This culture of hierarchy and dominance has long made Christianity a handy tool for an oppressive ruling class who actually have no religious faith at all, but who will willingly use religion in order to steal wealth and resources for themselves – as the use of conservative evangelical Christians by corporatist Republicans in the U.S. for the past 28 years has clearly demonstrated.
The present conflict between Christianity and Islam (and in Israel, between Jew and Arab) is essentially economic in nature. While theology and dogma may be the excuse given by a corporate-controlled propagandist media, the fact is that control of material resources – primarily petroleum and land – is the reason that these three faiths are unable to co-exist. Sadly, the faithful of all three religions have been largely unaware of how they have been manipulated by Exxon-Mobile, Aramco, Halliburton, Lockheed-Martin and other corporate entities who goad them into fighting for wealth in which they will have no share.
Is there hope? Perhaps. With the exposure of corporate capitalism as a greedy, parasitic, manipulative, self-serving and hopelessly corrupt institution, ordinary people of all faiths are starting dialogues through Internet sites such as FaithfulAmerica and CodePink. Once economics is no longer a factor, it is possible – and even probable – that Jew, Christian and Muslim will begin to understand their respective faiths as cultural reflections of the same fundamental beliefs.
2. Co-existence Among Asian Religions
The great religions of Asia – primarily Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism – are radically different from the Abrahamic religions in a number of significant ways. If there was ever a Western analogue to Eastern religion, it was possibly the Druidic faith of the ancient Celts. Unfortunately, there is little documentation about the specific beliefs of the early Celts, although like Hindus, they appear to have believed in numerous “gods” as well as transmigration of the soul.
There has been religious conflict, primarily in India and China; however, this conflict has had a
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different character than religious conflict in the West. While virtually all conflict everywhere has its roots in issues of economics and the control of wealth and resources, such conflicts have never had the theological overtones that were present in those among the “Children of Abraham;” rather, these have been openly political in nature.
Within themselves however, Eastern religions have never been focused as much on the material world. For example, whereas Abrahamic tradition looks at existence in a linear fashion with a beginning, middle and end, Hinduism sees existence as a cycle, represented by a wheel. Buddhism, which was in origin an offshoot of Hinduism, considers the “material world” as an illusion and therefore of no consequence.
This aspect of Buddhism was demonstrated dramatically in March of 2001 when the Muslim rulers of Afghanistan decided to destroy two large, ancient statues of Buddha that had been carved into the living rock some 1500 years ago. Islam prohibits the depiction of living creatures, based on a very literal interpretation of the fourth commandment of the Decalogue (“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”) and was reputedly offensive to the extreme views of the Taliban.
Consider for a moment what might have happened had a certain U.S. politician’s threat to “nuke Mecca” been carried out, or had an Islamic jihadist bombed the Vatican. Consider also the conflicts over Jerusalem that started over 700 years ago and continue into the present day. Whereas Abrahamic faiths place a great deal of stock in physical monuments, locations and places, Buddhism considers these things to be “impermanent” and “insubstantial” (Smith, 1983).
Another difference we find in Eastern religion (outside of the Hindu caste system) is a lack of hierarchies and levels of authority. In virtually every Christian and Muslim sect, there is some “authority” figure who has a monopoly on “enlightenment,” whose mission it is to teach others how to live, and even in Judaism there are rabbis throughout history who have been revered as exceptional teachers. (The possible exception here is the “mystic” sects of these various faiths.)
On the other hand, Buddhism and Taoism claim no spiritual authority in the Western sense. Enlightenment is a path rather than something conferred on certain special persons; moreover, the kind of Enlightenment can be achieved by virtually anyone. However, it is also the responsibility of the individual to seek such enlightenment within themselves; it cannot be given by one to another.
Because of this, Buddhism and other Eastern religions have a flexibility that is lacking in the Abrahamic tradition. This is seen in Thailand and other nations of Southeast Asia where Buddhist and Hindu traditions have come together to form a unique culture and belief system – facilitating an environment far more conducive to religious pluralism.
Adherents.com. “Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents.” Last update: 7 August 2007. Accessed 12 December 2008. http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html
Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002
Mann, Judith. “Legend of the Cathars.” Illuminations. Accessed 12 December 2008. http://www.mystae.com/streams/gnosis/legend.html
Ways of Wisdom. Lanham: University Press of America, 1983.