Friday, June 13, 2014

How can religious people cooperate rather than fight?

Can the religious be saved from tribal conflicts?

How can we escape from the tragedy of religious groups in conflict?

Killing, rape, and hate-filled-loud-angry-in-your-face verbal assaults routinely fill news headlines. And the sad thing is the link between these horrible acts and a religious tribe. Who would want to be a part of such a religion?

Fortunately, for most of the world, the combat is more subtle. It’s more about killing reputations, insisting that God wants you to live a miserable life, or splitting a group over moral clashes.

Understanding moral conflict is the quest of philosopher-psychologist Joshua Greene. I read his book Moral Tribes earlier this year and finally got round to writing a review. There are many ways to analyze his work. I’ll name just two.

1. People act before they think. For me, an intriguing part of the book is the way he weaves numerous experiments together to show the powerful influences of inner (think brain damage, disease) and outer events (numerous barely noticeable events) on moral judgments. Sanctimonious language is what we hear at rallies or read on placards or online flamesites. But a moral or immoral act often happens quickly. Acts of moral harm can be triggered by events outside the parameters of our brain’s ability to perceive and process information in sufficient time to apply the brakes. We all need time to think before firing moral missiles.

2. Metamorality is needed. Greene quests for a metamorality. Many will disagree with his answer, which is a refurbished, yet fairly argued consequentialism, he calls deep pragmatism (think Bentham and Mill). I’ll not dwell on the philosophy. Greene has a practical point. We need a metamorality to overcome the tribalism that continually fragments social groups (families, churches, organizations, nations) and often leads to murder or attempts to wipe out an entire tribe.

Morality and Religion

Greene’s book is not about religion per se —although he does refer to religion from time to time. My focus on the Psychology of Religion directs my attention to the painful wars between religious tribes. What’s to be done?

1. Promote interfaith prayer.
On 8 June 2014, Pope Francis met with Shimon Peres (Israeli President) and Mahmoud Abbas (Palestinian President). The focus was prayers for peace and they symbolically planted an olive tree. Perhaps this effort is doomed like many before. But thank God people are still willing to meet and give peace a try. Religion and politics mix around the world.

2. Expand common ground. 
In the U.S. religious leaders often argue over what makes their group distinctive as if selling a new tech product. I recall as a boy that some churches claimed to have the full gospel—a not so subtle dig at those who had only a partial gospel. And as a member of a small Protestant tribe it was common to hear attacks on Catholics- those idol worshipers- so called because of the images of the saints. Fortunately, I had wonderful Catholic cousins and we had no rules against idol-laden nativity scenes as did many conservatives in the 1950s.
Buddhism is the second largest faith behind Christianity in some Utah counties. Religious people, including Muslims, are finding common values centering on a family-friendly environment in many parts of Utah (Deseret News).

Nowadays, it’s common to find Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mormons working together to affirm shared moral virtues. Peace expands when religious leaders affirm common values rather than distinctives.

3. Cooperate on common causes
Following the Kenyan tribal massacre, I went with a friend to a refugee camp near Nairobi. The Red Cross was there with workers round the glove. Tents bore U.S. and U.K. flags. And an American Christian group, Convoy of Hope, handed out sacks of rice. Following tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and bombings the relief arms of numerous religious groups reach out to offer shelter, medical care, food, water, and supplies. International efforts pool resources to help regardless of the religious affiliation of the needy. I mentioned two above: The Red Cross and Convoy of Hope. There’s World Vision and Red Crescent too along with numerous agencies tied to particular religious tribes.

4. Build a bigger tent.
In the U.S., it is still common for Americans to attend mostly white or mostly black churches. Christians were divided over slavery. And Christians maintain segregated churches. No government edicts force the mixing of people of colour in churches as happened in U.S. schools and workplaces. Religious freedom is only an abstraction for some.

Of course, nowadays it would be rare to find a U.S. Christian who wishes for a segregated church. They are more likely to want to encourage diversity. But it wasn’t always that way. Someone had to lead the faithful. It’s hard to believe that the Rev. Billy Graham took religious flak for inviting black ministers to join him on the platform and working to bring blacks and whites together in his meetings.

"When God looks at you, He doesn't look on the outward appearance," Graham said to the diverse crowd. "The Bible says He looks upon the heart."

Religious traditions can be a valuable way to sustain people during life’s tough times. And the familiar traditions of childhood may be more helpful than abandoning them for the sake of creating some megachurch without deep roots. I’m not about bashing traditions. But a big tent attitude can mean coming together for special events. Times to pray, share encouraging texts, and celebrate together—not just following disasters but more like community services at Easter for Christians. To use a psychologist’s phrase (Barbara Fredickson), we need to broaden and build on the positive, which has the potential to heal rather than destroy.

Christian activist Brian MacLaren invites religious people to endorse a Generous Orthodoxy. Of course, he takes flak too. Many fear giving up the truth. Many wonder what they have in common with other religious tribes. Fortunately, more and more people are finding ways to value their traditions and those of others.

5. Foster cooperation and compassion. 
If you are a leader and want to promote morality, you have several options. Cooperation can be induced by example and by focusing on the scriptures that illustrate charitable giving (see for example Rand et al., 2013). And forgiveness is a virtue that can lead to reconciliation.

Forgiveness is a process that is often hard to accomplish. Forgiveness heals the hurts of the past. Forgiveness pays big dividends for individuals and opens pathways for potential reconciliation. Apologies help. Christian churches in particular have a motivation to foster forgiveness because forgiveness is a commandment and not an option. Forgiveness is a relationship repair tool. And forgiveness between groups can occur as part of a reconciliation process. Warring tribes can learn to cooperate. But someone must step up to promote a course of forgiveness and reconciliation.

And back to a lesson from Greene's book, moral acts are often quick and under the radar of thought. We need time to think. Leaders especially need to consider the effects of moral missiles sent to the faithful and circulated on social media sites.

Quick Thoughts

Cooperation is at the heart of morality.

Morality, like spirituality, is relational.

Peace expands when religious leaders affirm common values rather than differences.

We all need time to think before firing moral missiles.

Forgiveness is a relationship repair tool.



Greene, J. (2013). Moral tribes: Emotion, reason, and the gap between us and them. New York: The Penguin Press.
My review of Moral Tribes has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity.

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