By Edward Chinhanhu
There is a strong sense of nostalgia today when we look at how nearly all our mythologies and the works of our philosophers and thinkers exalt our predecessors’ life as better than our own. Long before man invented religion, from the tale of Adam in the Garden of Eden through to the formation of the first human communities, we learn that our distant ancestors lived pre-conscious, more innocent, unconditionally selfless, fully cooperative, universally loving, peaceful lives.
It should therefore be surprising that as humans we seek peace, meaning and love in religion. It is even more surprising because we have seen how ephemeral our faith in religion has been, how it fluctuates, and how some churches have sprouted up, fared pretty well, but died out completely. How then can it be relied upon to unite humanity?
Indeed, religion does offer hope and solace in times of despair, but that hope and solace are personal and internal. At the centre of most religions is the desire to be God-like, to be perfect and sinless in order to enter salvation. However, the means by which we try to attain this salvation seems replete with contradictions. Religion itself is highly contentious, mainly because it offers no compromise. This is understandably so because eternal salvation is at stake here. In addition, since religion is a central part of an individual’s identity, any threat to one’s beliefs is a threat to one’s very being. Conflict therefore ensues.
Furthermore, there are some inherent aspects of religion that make it a latent source of conflict. For example, all religions have their dogma or articles of belief, which must be followed without question. This can lead to blind rigidity and intolerance of other beliefs. Understandably, the source of this lies in the fact that God’s word cannot be compromised. Paradoxically, scripture and dogma are themselves open to different interpretation because of their vagueness. Inevitably, conflict can arise over whose interpretation is the correct one, and this type of conflict cannot be easily solved because in most cases there is no mediator. Often, extremists rise, further escalating the conflict.
Today, for example, we have so many religions and churches around us, but a short glance at the Global Peace Index tells of horrific atrocities, some committed even in the name of religion itself.
Yet, unlike the emotional intensity that religion evokes, our values come almost naturally and effortlessly to form our natural beings. And more importantly, we hold on to them our entire lifetime.
Simply put, a value system is a coherent set of consistent ethics adopted or evolved by a person, organization, or society as a standard to guide its behaviour. It is a measure used for the purpose of ethical or ideological integrity. A well defined value system is a moral code.
Take for instance the all important African value of respect for one’s elders. It ensures dignity, order, societal efficiency and self discipline. Similarly, good neighbourliness puts the community before the individual, ensuring security, interdependence and communal peace. These values, widely held and respected since time immemorial, could easily be termed African universals.
The same values can be applied to various other aspects of our lives, from school yard bullying to homosexuality. But perhaps religions and religiosity rise from the ashes of shattered, unfulfilled or unshared values?
A community might have different religions and argue about them, but share the same values. Such a community will live together in peace, love and respect. The same cannot hold true about a community with a shared religion and different values. Its days are numbered.
One might argue that religion itself is founded on values, but the truth is that most religions lack the all important values for cross-cultural peaceful coexistence, such as tolerance, and in some instances even the respect for human rights. In addition, the main basis of religious formation is that man has drifted away from God; it is an acknowledgement that man has lost his innocence and oneness with his Maker, and that alone is conflict enough.
Shared values, on the other hand have proved over time to be better building blocks for sustainable peace, with or without the religious component. Successful businesses are not run by religious beliefs but business values/ethics. The more a team of business partners and staff stick to the values of the organization, the more successful they are likely to be, individually and as an entity.
Communities have varying opinions on religion, many and diverse as they are, but communities always share the same values
Lastly, it is important to separate values from opinions. People can have different opinions on any subject including religion, but never on community values. Even the closest people can differ on opinions, but for as long as they are united in values, they can live together in peace.
Edward Chinhanhu is a Zimbabwean peace activist and scholar. He is a Transitional Justice Fellow, and Fellow of the Rotary Peace Centre at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. At present he is Zimbabwe Correspondent for ‘Insight on Conflict’, an online peace magazine published by Peace Direct, London.