COEXIST and the roots of religious conflict

COEXIST and the roots of religious conflict December 22, 2014

I’m really happy to call Michael Schulson a friend of mine. We graduated from Yale together in 2012, took a science writing seminar together with Carl Zimmer, and we both ended up in Durham, NC after graduating. Michael is consistently behind some of my favorite writing on religion, from Salon’s interview with Karen Armstrong to a recent piece detailing the death of a self-styled living apostle in a charismatic Protestant Sect out of Guadalajara, and a widely-circulated piece scrutinizing some of Whole Food’s more blatant instances of pseudo-science.

Most recently, Michael published a piece about the ubiquitous COEXIST bumper stickers and how often we misunderstand the roots of religious conflict and violence. He writes:

You’ve seen them before, in Trader Joe’s parking lots and on Eastern Seaboard freeways, in the quiet streets of Asheville and Berkeley, on the bumpers of a fleet of VWs and Volvos. White letters, blue background, imperative mood: COEXIST. After campaign stickers, NRA decals, cartoon families, and those blatant “26.2” ovals, Coexist bumper stickers may be the most popular way for Americans to broadcast their worldviews in one word or less, while driving.

Meanwhile, ISIS is marauding across the Middle East. China is squeezing Tibet in an anaconda grip of cultural homogenization. Buddhists are causing violence in Sri Lanka, far-right Islamophobic parties are on the rise in Scandinavia, and Muslims and Christians are slaughtering each other in the Central African Republic.

The COEXIST bumper sticker, Schulson writes, is “a symptom of a much larger phenomenon, one that makes it hard for Americans to talk seriously about religious conflict and history.” He goes on:

That phenomenon is not limited to peaceniks with spiritual aspirations. It’s just as common among hardline atheists as it is in squishy interfaith circles. It is, essentially, the insistence on perceiving religious conflict as the clash of big, abstract beliefs, which people can choose to set aside.

In the mindset of the Coexist camp, those abstract beliefs have become twisted things, wrapped up with hate. If people could only renounce their hateful ideas, they could learn to love one another. “Why,” the implicit question here goes, “can’t we all just get along?”

In the view of certain atheists, those damaging beliefs have seized people’s minds. As I’ve written before, there’s a tendency among some atheists to think of religion as a kind of virus, or a dangerous philosophical infection—in other words, as an idea that hijacks minds. In this perspective, the question of religious violence is something like “Why can’t people free their minds from religion, and learn to get along?”

The problem, of course, is that politicized ideas—religious and otherwise—are entangled with material problems. The conditions of history, colonialism, poverty, and geography have left people with plenty of reasons to find it difficult to coexist. None of those reasons, at their core, have much to do with what is or is not written in a religious text, or whether a Jewish star can be made to look pretty next to a Muslim crescent on a bumper sticker.

The truth behind religious conflict is much thornier and less easily addressed by platitudes. Michael explains:

Occasionally, some people’s desperate needs conflict with other people’s desperate needs. Telling them to coexist doesn’t address that conflict. Telling them to be less religious or superstitious doesn’t address it, either.

Both strategies just let us exempt ourselves from any actual engagement with what might be happening—or, as Karen Armstrong has recently argued, any serious consideration of the West’s role in creating conditions for religious violence.

I’ve become less and less patient with atheists who chalk up religion and religious conflict almost strictly to a matter of beliefs or ideology. Beliefs matter, the common refrain goes, but this ignores how certain actions rise from certain contexts, how beliefs are often marshaled after the fact to rationalize our actions, and how we’re often extremely bad at accurately reporting a straight line from belief to action. None of this is new to anyone with any familiarity with the social and cognitive sciences.

There’s something to be said that interfaith groups aren’t immune to such fluffy COEXIST sentiments, but every interfaith group I’ve ever encountered at least puts a heavy focus on service and often does admirable work not to shy away from tough discussions and disagreements.

This leaves us in a place where, in a sense, religious conflict has lost it’s simple answer, and now it’s much harder to deal with. But conflict, full stop, is hard to deal with. I’d rather squarely face a problem than patch it with a bumper sticker.

Read Michael’s full piece here.

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