The Worst Idea in History

23/09/2012 18:46 BST | Updated 23/11/2012 10:12 GMT

This week has seen a new eruption in the tensions between competing worldviews, as once again certain elements within Islam clashed with the secular West. Much has been written about the underlying causes of the violence seen around the world, with most experts attributing the events to more than just a silly and offensive movie. The scenes of anger have been interpreted against a backdrop of long-term political, economic and cultural humiliation fanned by religious extremism. This is a potent mix of fuels that when exposed to the oxygen of disrespect and ridicule can and does explode into violence, damage and death.

Many (though certainly not all) Muslim leaders have been at pains to denounce the violent aspect of the protests. Typically, these moderate voices have faced an uphill battle for airtime in the mainstream media whose semi-official motto is "if it bleeds it leads". Subsequently people are left with such overwhelming images as a five-year-child holding banners demanding beheadings (as happened here in Australia) and not surprisingly, existing suspicions of Islam and prejudices towards Muslims have been further reinforced. For the outright opponents of faith in general, it is another opportunity to make the case that religion poisons everything.

So what is the real cause of all this suffering and unease? This is what we would need to answer if we are to prescribe a cure. Some say the antecedent causes stem from past colonial subjugation and a modern history of war and invasion; some say that Islam has an innate tendency to aggression and that herein lies the problem while others say that the real disease is religion itself (i.e all religion).

The issue is certainly highly complex and attributing cause cannot be done concretely without referring to the economic, historical and political realities. That been said, the deeper underlying issue here is philosophic immaturity born out of ignorance. This in turn comes from a lack of genuine experience with and understanding of viewpoints contrasting to our own.

Philosophic hubris that leads to circumscribed thinking might not sound too ominous at first glance, but such bigotry has been the root cause of much of history's bloodshed. The Crusades were, in large part, the result of believing that Christianity was the truth and the crusaders were fulfilling the will of God by conquering and killing in his name. Sound familiar? The sins of western colonialism were committed by powers who believed they were exporting a superior culture. Nazi Germany was born out of national humiliation and the ensuing seductive delusion of racial superiority. Stalin's Gulag was the fruits of believing in the absolute supremacy of the communist state. Islamic fundamentalism sees its own religion as the final, fullness of truth given by God himself. Other loyalties, such as to fellow humans or to secular laws, wither in comparison.

Thinking you've got a monopoly on truth is the biggest mistake of all. This applies not just in the religious sphere but also to political and economic thinking and it applies regardless of the belief system: a Southern Baptist who believes they are in total possession of the truth is just as far from the mark as an atheist who thinks the same thing, or a Muslim. There is always more to learn and truth is always bigger than any book, any system, any religion.

The wisest and most inspiring people in history (in my opinion) have understood this. Rumi, Ghandi, Dr. King, Thich Nhat Hanh -all deeply rooted in their own tradition, even to the point of being true heroes of their tradition - all demonstrably knew their religious philosophy was mere scaffolding for the unseen temple of eternal truth.

There is no final revelation. There is no perfect religion. There might be the thing we call Truth but it is never a possession, it is at best a destination. Thinking you've got it all right and others are wrong is a sure path to disaster.

Nothing is gained however in pointing out potential flaws in other traditions while we all still have such beams in our own eyes. In the case of Islam it is best for Muslims themselves to critique the religion, encouraging more genuine historical criticism of the Qur'an. It is for the Muslim community to bear the greater load in meeting the challenge of Muslim extremism though they ought to be supported in every possible way to achieve this. We have no need of the firebrand believer denouncing other traditions but rather it is the dissident who is brave enough to call her own tradition to account that is required. Such leadership exists in Islam but needs wider public recognition in order to do the job.

As someone who comes from a Christian background I am heartened to see a rising level of self-criticism coming from both the Catholic and Protestant hemispheres. Such healthy and somewhat open discussions are not damaging the religion; they are far more likely redeeming it.

And the secular atheist worldview can hardly watch on smugly from the sidelines as depression and suicide, disconnection and despair run rampant through suburbs where unprecedented material wealth is only matched by the scale of the spiritual poverty. Fundamentalism of any kind is to be avoided but fundamentalist secular-materialism is one of the most sinister, dressed in the garments of "liberty "but cold and empty inside.

The answer lies in more education, more interaction between cultures, and more actual experience with people of different faiths and perspectives. This is one reason we run our cultural immersion programs into various religious traditions and why we are working towards the interfaith celebration of U DAY in Thailand this December.

We must all strive for more humility, more rigorous self-criticism, a willingness to engage sincerely with worldviews other that our own while always remaining open to the possibility of discovering new horizons of truth. Of course if you've already "found the truth" you are unlikely to keep seeking it.

Ben is the founder of World Weavers and can be contacted at