Religious Symbols and Divisiveness

On the European continent there is a culture which seeks to completely banish religious symbols from everywhere bar the home or the property of faith institutions. Generally, this philosophy involves concrete cases of either prohibiting the wearing of crucifixes by Christians or headscarves/face-coverings by Muslim women.

The reason? Religion exerts a divisive influence on society. Open expression of religious beliefs means that others feel either threatened by the devout, or alternatively feel compelled to ‘up the ante’ with regard to their own religious beliefs when they are in the company of the devout of another faith. This is the basic rationale. The other side of this argument is the following equation; less religion = more civil unity.

Such a viewpoint obviously places the blame for all conflicts and strife throughout history on religion. It is worth then briefly meditating on history and following through the implications of such logic to determine how much merit it has. If religion is subdued, do we see less conflict and strife? Furthermore, do members of the same religious group always align with each other against other religious groupings?

WWI and WWII are good places to start, as these were the most intense conflicts in human history. In the first, religion was important within the domains of some combatants like Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. Yet, religion played no part in how these countries aligned with one another; Protestant England aligned with Catholic-majority France and Orthodox Russia. Protestant-dominated Germany aligned with Catholic-dominated Austria, and Muslim Turkey. Protestant England supported Muslim Arabs against Muslim Turks. In the Second World War, religion was far less of a factor, and the two most aggressive combatants, the USSR and Nazi Germany, couldn’t be said to be promoting any religion. On the contrary, their doctrines were avowedly atheistic, albeit zealously pursued.

How about social strife? There have been several attacks inspired by Islamism over the last 10 years. However, following WWII, terrorism was by and large conducted by either nationalist or leftist groups. Many of these eschewed formal religious worship. In the US, there are many extremist groups who identify with Christianity but who are more accurately classed as ‘cultural Christians’ (see the following exchange between Roland Martin and white Supremacist Richard Spencer and note the use of the phrase ‘cultural Christian’).

How about social division? This is probably the most ludicrous charge against religion, given that politics (by definition) is predicated on division, on class divisions, tribal divisions, cultural divisions, etc …

Then, if one works through the implications of eschewing religion, we can see that people will have to be engaged in material pursuits. Is it really logical that chasing after money, prestige, status, fame, etc … will encourage people to more brotherly or sisterly behaviour? Unity will somehow spring out of greed? And an obvious consequence of materialism is that of racism; without religion, it’s difficult to see how race won’t become a totem pole which people will need to gather around.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that religious beliefs aren’t divisive. But the fact remains that religion can allow culturally, socially, and ethnically diverse peoples to transcend their differences. Granted, they will come into conflict with others, but there is no way these conflicts can be avoided. Religion can allow diverse groups to unify better, and is also likely to stem the intensity of conflicts with other groups. Banning religious symbolism seems to pander more to religious prejudice than counter social division.

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