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Do you remember what you felt when you watched footage of the two World Trade Center towers collapsing with thousands of people trapped inside? Do you remember what you felt when you learned that this was an act of violence committed by religious extremists? What do you feel about the idea that people kill each other in the name of God? Instead of rejecting all religion, let us look for a way to resolve conflict between people from different belief systems.

Some people use religious conflict as a justification for rejecting all religion and spirituality. They say that conflict is built into religion itself, and therefore all religion is bad. There are two problems with this approach. One is that throughout recorded history people have always had spiritual needs:. These needs seem to be universal to all cultures and time periods.

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And in every culture people have attempted to use religion to meet their spiritual needs. Therefore, denying the validity of religion will leave many people with unfulfilled spiritual needs. In the Western world many people have attempted to deny their spiritual needs or to rationalize them out of existence. Yet many people have instead developed a sense of emptiness that materialism simply cannot fill. It is almost like saying that to avoid food poisoning, we should simply stop eating. Another problem with using conflict to reject all religion is that religious conflict might not have an objective existence.

There are no temples or churches in which nonbelievers will be struck dead upon entering. And although some religious texts say that in the distant past certain Gods killed nonbelievers, in our modern times all religiously motivated killing seems to be done by human beings. So we might consider that religious conflicts exists primarily, perhaps exclusively, in the minds of human beings.

This then opens up a new approach to resolving such conflicts. After the terrorist attacks, many Christians came to see Islam as a violent religion affected by the concept of Jihad, or holy war. The problem with this approach is that the vast majority of Muslims were as shocked by the attacks as were Christians. Most Muslims do not see their religion as violent, and they consider Jihad as a purely spiritual type of warfare. On the other hand, Christianity has also been deeply affected by the concept of holy war. The medieval Crusades against Muslims is one obvious example.

However, a more recent example is the war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. And many Christians hold the firm belief that Christianity is the only true religion and that all non-Christians will burn in Hell. An important consideration is that while Christianity has led to extremism and fanaticism, most Christians are not extremists.

The same holds true for Muslims and the members of most other religions. So it seems that in most cases only a minority of the followers of a particular religion go to the extreme of being willing to kill in the name of God. This points to the conclusion that it is not religion in itself that leads to conflict. This seemingly simple conclusion opens up a world of opportunities for promoting religious unity and tolerance.

We now see that religious conflict is caused by a particular attitude towards, a particular approach to, religion. It now becomes clear to us that if we want to reduce religious conflicts, we need to take a closer look at the approach that causes people to go to the extreme. However, this is not a simple topic, and we must caution against taking a simplistic view. We must especially caution against finger-pointing and denial. We have now seen that religious conflict is caused by a particular approach to religion.

We have said that this approach causes people to go into the extreme of thinking that it is justified to kill in the name of God. However, this is where we need to be careful not to react with denial or finger pointing. Obviously, most religious or spiritual people are not willing to kill people in the name of God. It is therefore easy for these people to point the finger and say that others are responsible for religious extremism.

They might point to other religions than their own or they might point to a small group of extremists and deny that they have anything to do with creating or encouraging extremism. Today, the vast majority of Christians would be opposed to a holy war. Yet in the Middle Ages things were different. Obviously, only a minority of all Christians took up arms and joined the Crusades. Yet most Christians actively supported the Crusades, as did the medieval church.

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So one might say that when a knight used his sword to kill a Muslim, he was not acting entirely on his own accord. He was simply an electrode, a forerunner for a larger culture which, through their attitudes and beliefs, had set the stage for the act of killing nonbelievers. Although most modern Christians would not participate in a Crusade, there are certain elements of Christian culture or the approach that Christians take to religion that have not changed fundamentally since the middle ages.

Most Christians still use the same scriptures, and some are members of the same church. Many Christians still believe that Christianity is the only true religion and that all non-Christians will go to Hell.

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Likewise, although most Muslims did not support the terrorist attacks, many Muslims believe in ideas that indirectly support the approach to religion taken by the terrorists. Most Muslims believe Islam is the only true religion and that non-believers will be punished by Allah. Many Muslims accept, or refuse to denounce, a milder version of Jihad. The important conclusion here is that if we want to understand or eliminate religious extremism, we cannot simply point the finger at another religion or another religious culture.

We cannot deny the responsibility to consider whether our approach to religion, our religious culture, somehow supports, encourages or fails to discourage extremism. In other words, extremism cannot be separated from the larger culture in which it emerges.

We must we willing to consider how this culture leads some people to become extremists. Before we move on, let us touch upon the issue of psychological imbalances. You have two people who grew up in the same religious culture. One becomes a normal, peaceful citizen and the other becomes a terrorist. Obviously, there must be individual differences that come into play. There is no doubt that many religious extremists have psychological imbalances. Therefore, religion and spirituality must address this issue and help people heal such imbalances.

Nevertheless, it is also a fact that most imbalanced people do not become religious extremists, but criminals or mental patients. Therefore we cannot explain religious extremism as the effect of mental illness alone. Even though some extremism is obviously caused by psychological problems, we still cannot deny that a religious culture can play a part in encouraging extremism.

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Now let us look at which elements of religious culture can encourage extremism. You cannot separate religious extremism from the culture in which it emerges. You cannot remove extremism without changing the culture. Let us look at some of the factors that cause people to develop an extremist approach to religion:. These factors not only encourage conflict, they breed conflict. And in allowing such conflict and tension to continue, it is almost inevitable, and certainly predictable, that some people will take this general culture into extremism and fanaticism. So if we are to have any chance of reducing conflict, then we must find a different approach to religion, an approach that is not dominated by these confrontational elements.

We must find an approach that promotes understanding, tolerance and even unity among religious people. In that respect, it is extremely important to recognize that most religious cultures are influenced by at least some of these elements. Obviously, not everyone is willing to take these elements into the extreme.

Chapter 15. Religion

Yet everyone who tolerates these conflict-breeding elements is contributing to maintaining the general culture. And it is precisely this culture that leads to extremism. The idea of overcoming religious conflict is not new. In fact, throughout history many people have attempted to remove all religious conflict. The problem is that they have attempted to do this by establishing their religion as the only religion, seeking to wipe out all other religions in the process.

It is not difficult to observe that in today's world there are more religions than ever on this planet. Therefore, we must conclude that any attempt to force religious unity will be doomed to fail. Seeking to force or persuade everyone to espouse your religion simply will not reduce religious conflict. So we must find a different approach, and it is not that difficult to see a possible solution. If we are to find a better approach to the problem of religious conflict, we must do something that has never been done before.

We must begin by creating a new understanding, a new awareness concerning religion. By looking at history, it is easy to see that humankind is engaged in a process that moves in a clear direction. Obviously, our technology is becoming increasingly advanced.

Our lifespan is increasing and in many countries the standard of living, health and wealth are continually improving. Yet we also see a forward movement concerning intangible aspects of life.


For thousands of years, slavery was an integral and accepted element of most cultures. Yet today most nations have voluntarily outlawed slavery. How did this happen? It happened because we have gradually been increasing our understanding of certain aspects of life. It's a conflation of science, pseudo-science, and nonsense. There are a few stretches where his efforts to popularize 20th century physics are pretty good, but I doubt that any reader who would benefit from them would be able to tell when he goes off the deep end. He moves seamlessly between what is known, what might be known, and what he hopes might one day be known as though they all share the same status.

Apr 22, Kirk rated it really liked it Recommends it for: counter the materialist view of the universe.

Science and spirituality: Jeff Lieberman at TEDxCambridge 2011