On the back bumpers of cars driven by people whose behaviors and beliefs would likely fail to meet the proper standards of any decent ethical system, one can often find stickers with various symbols of religious movements that spell out the word “Coexist.” This evening I received an e-mail from someone that asked the question about whether different religious beliefs can coexist. It is not my point to discuss whether or not different religious beliefs ought to coexist, but rather the parameters that allow for coexistence to take place. It is worth pondering as well that different people have different ideas in mind about what coexistence looks like, and that is also worth exploring, especially given that I have particularly strong and fierce opinions about this matter, as might be expected.

Let us discuss briefly what coexistence is not, so that we may better get a handle on what coexistence may be. For one, coexistence is not a system where one worldview has dominance over all others where others are allowed as some part of a reservation, without any sort of respect given to the worldview itself. We may find this view enshrined, for example, in the realms of the Islamic Caliphates were certain religious faiths were subordinated as dhimmi who had to pay onerous taxes and were subject to various restrictions and humiliations, but were allowed to live. Similarly, the sort of coexistence where religious beliefs are viewed as not having any truth claims and therefore free to exist in a world where all religious beliefs are considered to be make believe, where one simply has preferences like one’s favorite ice cream flavor, is not coexistence either. Likewise, coexistence is not the friendliness of two people who merely have nominal belief systems that hold no real power or authority that govern thinking and behavior, but merely serve as some sort of identity marker as some sort of fake diversity that lacks true diversity of thought and belief.

Rather, genuine coexistence here is the mutual respect of people who have different worldviews and belief systems but nevertheless are able to relate to each other with an attitude of respect even as both live very seriously within their own religious background. Coexistence does not spring out of the unimportance of one’s religious beliefs, and thus a casual ability to nod at some else’s equally trivial religious and moral sense, but rather out of a genuine attempt to understand the foundations upon which we and others stand, and the recognition that even if those foundations are different, there is sufficient in common to respect others and treat others well even acknowledging those differences honestly and openly.

How are we to do this? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this has been a major element in Christian thinking for a considerable amount of time. The religious thinker C.S. Lewis, for example, wrote eloquently in his work The Abolition of Man about the existence and robust character of a Tao (way) that was expressed in functionally equivalent ways through a variety of traditions ranging from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even various more diverse heathen beliefs from all over the world. For C.S. Lewis, who as an apologist certainly took Christianity very seriously, coexistence did not imply or infer a lack of seriousness in religion, but rather a coming to terms where people could find common ground based on common standards that were present in both worldviews, seeking agreement and common action where common belief and common practice exist, along with an attitude of respectful disagreement where this does not exist. As it happens, a fair-minded student of the religious beliefs and practices of people will find that there is a great deal more ethical conduct in agreement across sharp boundaries of worldview identity than there is in the content of esoteric religious doctrine. Regardless of what religious beliefs we follow, we all believe that we have obligations to God and to each other–and that others have obligations towards us of righteousness and good conduct–even if we may not have a great many beliefs in common.

It would appear, therefore, that if one wants to encourage an atmosphere of coexistence, then the best way to do so is to encourage as widely as possible that people live up to the ethical systems of their worldviews, and practice what all agree in their own language and in their own wording to be virtuous and honorable behavior, because such behavior is widely agreed to be how mankind should live. Secondarily, one should encourage as much as possible an attitude of humility about our own human reasoning and about the tenacity of our ideas about how the world should be and how others should think and believe. This is not to say that we should view such matters as unimportant, but rather that we very easily get these things deeply and tragically wrong, and if we only practice right conduct towards those whom we consider to be of the correct belief system, in practice we will end up being cruel to nearly everyone around us. In short, we shall do exactly the opposite of the contemporary practice of encouraging people to be tenacious about their identities and hostile to those outside of fiercely protected tribes, holding to double standards where we demand respect but are disinclined to give it to those with whom we disagree. As is the case in so much else, our practice should be the opposite of what it is if indeed we truly wish to get along with others in a way that is peaceful without diminishing the importance that we or others have in our worldviews and belief systems.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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