God has populated the world with diversity – by design or default. There was never a moment in history when all members of the human race subscribed to a single religion. This can never happen. Even the prophets of those days could not accomplish this.
A preacher cannot claim to be an expert in comparative religion when he keeps on disparaging, overtly or covertly, other religions while propagating his own faith. A wise theologian would not denounce other religions. He only delves deep into his faith of choice.
From the academic perspective, theology focuses more closely on the study of God and faith rather than in the critical investigation of religions. It is often more faith-based, while comparative religious studies is more analytical, but in no way do both these disciplines, if adhered to by rational minds, would deplore the practices of different religions.
Studying theology and comparative religion means taking on challenging inquiries about the meaning of religion and not despising another religion to live up to one’s ego.
This is certainly unlike philosophy which advocates the rational investigation of truth. Religion often makes the same kind of truth claims but does not claim to base it on reason or rationality. Instead it is more often based on dogmatism. Faith in religion thus becomes a very subjective or even a sensitive matter and this most self-seeking preachers prefer to ignore.
Comparative religion should only espouse the uniqueness of each religion and see the commonalities and differences. The sub-set of the commonalities becomes the universal values for all. It is a systematic comparison of the doctrines and practices of the world’s religions. This branch of study does not come from any religious text. It only began in the 19th century – beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s in the Western world.
Unfortunately, when a preacher starts belittling other religious in the guise of being an expert in comparative religion he shows he has not fit into the real discipline of philosophy. What more, if the preacher, from a societal perspective, fails to help build bridges between faiths in a multi-religious world. The followers are often led astray by a preacher who focuses on the differences between religions whilst asserting that only his religion should be accepted and not the others.
The danger in this approach is that there will be followers who can easily succumb to the teachings and become intolerant as they will blindly conform to what the preacher has expounded – right or wrong. This kind of evangelisation will influence the followers to sow hatred for other religions. If uninhibited it can lead to activities such as the destruction of human lives and places of worship, as they will claim that they are inspired by the so-called preacher. Indeed, this is a very dangerous phenomenon in any society. They are not putting an end to the religion they hate but will do indescribable harm to innocent human lives and also property.
When the human race can see the commonalities and not the differences in religions only then can there be tolerance, understanding and harmony in a multiracial society. This does not only happen between religions but also within a single religion. The long schism between Sunni and Shia, and numerous other sects in Islam, can be compromised if the preachers and followers can see their commonalities and discard the differences. A society can only strive when people take into account their shared aims and not their differences. For this to take place they need to be educated in a worldly way with an analytical approach to religion.
If education in school is based on pure indoctrination, this will breed insular or inward looking citizens as they will grow up with a skewed mind looking always down upon values alien to them. Only if religion is approached with reason, and philosophically and not dogmatically, will it be able to create rationality in the minds of the people. Religion by itself is not a tangible entity. It’s an abstract entity built in one’s mind. Religion therefore has to be approached with a critical and open mind.
For peace and harmony to prevail in a multi-religious society, preachers who go round sneering other religions – explicitly or implicitly- should be reined in. A multiracial society needs preachers who can help build bridges between faiths and not those who cause hatred and dissonance.
Dr Moaz Nair is a reader of FMT
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.