I am forwarding an article sent to me by my brother, Lord (Indarjit) Singh of Wimbledon, a renowned Sikh scholar who is a member of the House of Lords in London. I think it is very relevant in today’s troubled world:
Recent terrorist outrages in Manchester and at London Bridge remind us that we have a lot to learn about the way religion can be manipulated to lead to the deliberate killing of innocents.
What generally passes for religion is in fact a complex mix of superstition, rituals, culture, group history and uplifting ethical teachings. Ethical teachings are extremely easy to state, but difficult to live by, and in practice, greater emphasis is often placed on culture and rituals, and a perversely unifying belief that God favors our faith over that of others.
This sort of arrogance is not new and has been evident throughout history. It has led to barriers of supposed superiority between our different faiths, and a naïve belief that the Creator of all that exists has favorites, and takes sides regardless of merit. As Guru Nanak reminded us, the one God of us all is not the least bit interested in our different religious labels but in what we do to serve our fellow beings.
This bigotry of belief, widespread and very real, is not confined to Islam as some would have us believe. In its milder, ‘faction supporting’ form, it can lead to near racist sentiments like those by Isaac Watts, the author of one of my favorite hymns, the beautiful and moving: ‘O God our help in ages past…’ He also wrote:
“O Lord, I ascribe it not to chance, but to Your Grace
“That I was born a Christian and not a heathen Or a member of the Jewish race.”
At the time, such sentiments would not have raised an eyebrow, but in today’s more interdependent world, they are clearly unacceptable. The dictionary definition of ‘heathen’ is ‘someone who is not a member of the Abrahamic faiths’, it includes Sikhs like me. In India, this sort of religious and cultural superiority led to the stigmatisation of a large section of people as ’untouchables’ and to a commonly believed superstition that those who left the shores of India would be polluted forever.
Assumed superiority leads some to believe that God looks favorably on those that kill and murder in His name, and to horrendous crimes and savagery not only between faiths but within the same faith, and to increasingly familiar terrorist outrages in the name of religion. Today, despite all the lip service to interfaith understanding, there is virtually no dialogue between faiths to explore and understand their different religious teachings, with each remaining smug in assumed superiority. I have been a member of the Inter Faith Network of the UK since it was founded in 1987 and of other bodies committed to religious dialogue. Meetings rarely go beyond pious statements, and academic discussions on safe peripheral concerns. The one taboo is exploring the teachings of sister faiths. Religious leaders come together, deplore the violence in the world, share tea and samosas, and then go back to their congregations to preach exclusivity and superiority.
Today’s response to terrorist outrages is frankly pathetic with statements like: ‘the vast majority of Muslims are decent law-abiding people’. Of course, they are. So are followers of other faiths. But what of smaller numbers who earnestly believe murderous action against fellow human beings is justified by their religion? Statements like, ‘we must all stand together’, or, that ‘those that seek to divide us will never win’, are fine, but they, amidst pledges to increase security and intelligence, do nothing to address the underlying causes of religious terrorism.
Today, there is an urgent need to look at the environment in which the cancer of terrorism thrives. We will never get anywhere until we are bold enough to attack and break down false barriers of arrogance and superiority between and within different religions. If we do this, we will find core ethical teachings have much in common. We will also find cancerous cultural practices that attach themselves to religion, condoning blatant discrimination against women and others, who are in any way differ from the norm. Such attitudes, questionable even centuries ago, have no place in the world of the 21st century and should be unceremoniously discarded. Not easy. It requires religious leaders to declare that oppressive cultural attitudes and ancient enmities embedded in religious texts have no current relevance.
Today, whether we like it or not, we live in an interconnected and interdependent world. We can no longer afford the unifying luxury of looking down on others. The need of the hour is to break down walls of prejudice and false superiority and talk openly and honestly about beliefs and practices that concern us. A long overdue spring cleaning of negative beliefs and practices is urgently needed to make religion more relevant to the world of today.
Secular society, which sometimes shows an aloof superiority to warring religions, should also encourage more open dialogue. With the best of intentions, we skirt around questionable beliefs and practices by using coded camouflage words to address symptoms, rather than looking to the underlying causes of violence and hate.
If religions presume to tell us how we should live, they must be open to challenge. Open and honest dialogue and questioning is clearly necessary to bring light and understanding to the hate-filled darkness of political correctness in which terrorism breeds and thrives. The same openness will help bring valuable underlying ethical guidance, the essence of true religion, back to the fore in helping us all work for a better, fairer and safer world.