Updated date:

The Futility of Interreligious Arguments and Disputes

From my unique perspective as a Bahá’í, I do regularly share insights on the diverse religious issues that come up in my interfaith group.

Religion Question Mark

Religion Question Mark

Religious Disharmony

It is disheartening to witness the disharmony that exists amongst the diverse religious groups in different parts of the globe. Interreligious prejudice and intolerance seem to have reached breaking point, a sad situation that has even been reflected in my relatively small interfaith WhatsApp community in the form of bitter arguments and sometimes even insults and ridicule, and this is a platform that was specifically set up as a forum for friendly discussions to promote love, fellowship, concord and mutual understanding amongst the religions. The pressing question though is: Can sincere worshippers afford to engage in religious arguments, debates, and disputes of any kind?

The Interconnectedness of Religions

This article explores this question, drawing on insights from Bahá’í teachings. To appreciate the connection, we first need to be aware that Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, claims to have come in fulfilment of the messianic expectations of all religions, and so he dedicates a fair amount of time in his writings in clarifying many of the issues that have caused misunderstanding in religion, most especially in the Abrahamic faiths of which the Bahá’í Faith itself is one—Bahá’u’lláh and his forerunner, the Báb, having separately descended from all three branches of the Abrahamic tree (as represented by Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah).

One central tenet of the Bahá’u’lláh is that the major world religions have all come from God. To venture a fair comparison between them, however, is not that simple. And this is because they have all come into being at very different times in the millennia-long history of humankind, taken root in different geographical areas, within societies with different needs, and amongst people at different levels of maturity. And so, the specific God-given mission of each of the religions is necessarily different.

According to the Bahá’í point of view, every religion comes with two sets of teachings. There is first the spiritual or essential aspect, which differs very little from religion to religion. This aspect is concerned with the ethical and moral life of devotees. For instance, if a Christian should read the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindu religion with an unbiased mind, a book written centuries before the Gospel, he would be surprised at the similarity of many of its teachings to the Gospel message. It is also indisputable that the Golden Rule exists in all religions, though not necessarily expressed in the same words.

Gautama Buddha Statue

Gautama Buddha Statue

The second aspect of the religions is referred to in the Bahá’í Faith as the social or nonessential part, and this deals with social laws and practices—like marriage and divorce, burial, inheritance, forms of worship, the rituals, ceremonies, and so on and so forth. This aspect of religion differs from religion to religion because it is given to address the specific social conditions of the time and place of appearance of the Messenger or Manifestation of God, as well as the particular needs of the people and their level of maturity. This explains why the religions appear to differ one from the other. We see differences in the religions when we focus on this aspect of their teachings, the social aspect. To see the point of unity of the religions, the point at which they are in harmony with each other, focus on their spiritual teachings. These are more or less the same in all religions, in the way they each call their respective adherents to a life of virtue and righteousness, to love, unity, hospitality, and so on.

The Rise of Religions

Like everything else in this world, religion starts young and matures over time (as so depicted in the “Parable of the Mustard Seed,” in the Gospel of Luke 13:18-19, whereby the religion of God—referred to as “the kingdom of God”—grows from a tiny “grain of mustard seed” and ultimately becomes “a great tree”). But the tree of religion eventually grows old and becomes increasingly unable to inspire populations of people to true, righteous living. So the good Lord then sends a new Mediator to bring a fresh revelation to the people, to help dispel the prevailing smoke of misconceptions, superstitions, myths, and erroneous man-made dogmas, and to promulgate new laws to address the changed social order, the elevated maturity of the people and the requirements and exigencies of the time.

Today, mankind has reached its highest and final stage in social evolution. We now live the reality of a globalized society, unlike even a few decades ago, and this exciting new stage enables us, the members of the human family, to interact one with the other across the planet, as is even happening in my interfaith WhatsApp group, whose members hail from all continents. Even more sensationally, man has begun to venture beyond our “global village” to explore the heavens. We have set foot on the moon; we have sent huge man-made vehicles onto Mars, and launched space probes to other planets in our solar system and beyond. Interestingly, the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh—a revelation that is universal in scope and directed at our global society as a whole, and not just at a particular region, nation or tribe as was the case in past religious dispensations—is reflective of this evolving reality of our modern-day human condition.

Hands of Diverse People Reaching Up

Hands of Diverse People Reaching Up

If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it… for the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion.

— Bahá’í Writings

The Goal of Religion

Now on the bitter arguments that rage every so often in diverse religious forums, including in my interfaith WhatsApp group, the Bahá’í Writings remind us that religion should be the cause of love and affection, that it should “unite all hearts and cause wars and disputes to vanish from the face of the earth, give birth to spirituality, and bring life and light to each heart.” “If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division,” we are further admonished in those same Writings, “it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion. All the holy prophets were as doctors to the soul; they gave prescriptions for the healing of mankind; thus any remedy that causes disease does not come from the great and supreme Physician.”

So, this is the first thing to be noted, that love and unity should be the outcome of religion. The second thing to be noted is that the same Writings refer to those who dispute idly, trying to win arguments over others, as the most negligent of people—negligent of their spiritual duties, negligent of their duties to God. True believers, the Writings affirm, should be known by their deeds rather than their words.

To talk, argue, and make noise, is obviously easy for everyone, whereas it takes a true believer to show forth deeds of purity and holiness, and to manifest divine qualities, sublime virtues, good character, and so on.

“O SON OF DUST!” are the exact words of Bahá’u’lláh, “Verily I say unto thee: Of all men the most negligent is he that disputeth idly and seeketh to advance himself over his brother. Say, O brethren! Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.”

If two individuals differ, dispute, quarrel, and contend about religion, both are wrong.

— Paraphrased from Bahá’í Writings

The Right Attitude

Touching specifically on arguments between believers, the Bahá’í Writings thus admonish them: “O ye believers of God! The text of the divine Book is this: If two souls quarrel and contend about a question of the divine questions, differing and disputing, both are wrong.” From amongst believers, the Writings continue, “no contention and dispute” should “arise”; rather should they “speak with each other with infinite amity and love,” and should “there appear the least trace of controversy, they must remain silent, and both parties must continue their discussions no longer.”

Again, the Writings say more explicitly and succinctly: “If two individuals dispute about religion both are wrong.”

Nearness to God can surely be exemplified only in those believers who are attired in heavenly characteristics and sublime attributes. Hence, a religious community that portrays itself as superior to others must prove its nearness to God, not through loud arguments and verbal claims but in the virtuous life of its followers—in their qualities of love, humility, kindness, gentleness, trustworthiness, truthfulness, justice, mercy, forgiveness, tolerance, patience, gratitude, charity, servitude, and so on, rather than in endless arguments that only begin with words and end with words.

White Muslim Mosque

White Muslim Mosque

Humility in Religious Life

We look to the Gospel for further insights into this topical issue. Jesus taught many profound lessons through parables—short simple stories that are full of deep meaning for those who reflect on them. The “Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector,” in Luke 18:9-14, is one such. As highlighted in the parable, it relates to people who regard themselves as righteous and look down on others. The narrative revolves around two people, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. To place the narrative in context, Pharisees were regarded, in those biblical times, as righteous and God-fearing individuals who lived their lives in strict obedience to the laws of their Jewish faith, whereas the tax collectors were not much loved by the Jewish populace, not only because they collected taxes on behalf of the despised Roman colonizers but also because they were known to overcharge the people to enrich themselves.

The parable begins with the entrance of the two men into the temple to pray. Thus, according to the King James Version of the Holy Bible, the Pharisee prayed:

“God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.”

But the tax collector, who was standing in another part of the temple, could not so much as lift his eyes to heaven but simply beat upon his chest, saying:

“God be merciful to me a sinner.”

The verdict on the prayers of the two suppliants was that the tax collector “went down to his house justified rather than the other,” meaning that he was more cleansed, blessed, and forgiven than the Pharisee.

Jesus then leaves us with this thought-provoking lesson: “...for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

Church Interior

Church Interior

This beautiful parable should motivate the ardent believer to reflect on what is truly essential in his relationship with God. Some devotees erroneously imagine that the essential is simply being part of the distinctive religion they follow, or able to perform the many rituals and religious practices in their places of worship, whereas in actual fact it is something much, much deeper than that. Religion cannot lead one to a good place if one neglects to practise the divine attributes, nor can it come to the rescue if one’s adherence to its outer teachings—such as the rituals, ceremonies, and traditions—outweigh the practice of the inner teachings.

So, in the long run, it is not the religion one follows that truly matters, but what one is able to make out of it in terms of spiritual progress, nearness to God, acquisition of the lordly virtues, and so on. Love, tolerance, respect, humility, resignation, peace—these are some of the fairest fruits of the tree of religion. How can a true believer afford to deprive himself of such luscious fruits?

Related Article and Link

© 2021 Kobina A-Fynn

Related Articles