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'Inherently violent' humanity needs religion

Archbishop Freier in interfaith conversation on religion's power for peace.

By Chris Shearer

March 18 2016

Religion has an important role to play in countering violence and promoting understanding in a diverse society, say community leaders from the three Abrahamic faiths at the latest Conversations with the Archbishop forum at Federation Square’s Deakin Edge.

During the March 16 event, Rabbi Fred Morgan, Dr Hass Dellal and Archbishop Philip Freier agreed that fostering peace through both internal and interfaith dialogue should be the aim of all faith communities, as a counter-balance to a growing association of religion and violence.

Dr Freier said this association was perhaps overstated, as humanity was inherently violent and humanity has used religion to construct meaning around a long history of turmoil. “It’s hardly surprising that… [in] a long telling of a narrative of God’s action amongst people, it’s necessary, it’s inevitable, that violence is a part of those narratives because it’s sometimes in the midst of that chaos, that violence, that God’s purposes have been discerned,” he said.

Rabbi Morgan, of Temple Beth Israel in St Kilda, said that as with all forces in the world religion can be used for good or evil ends, and that there should a concerted effort to push back against the narrative of extremism and violence.

“Perhaps we’re not educating well enough about the ways in which religion can be used for good in the world,” Rabbi Morgan said. “We’re allowing certain areas of religious expression to have the dominant voice instead of the people who are engaged in religious activity on that moderate level actually making it clear what they stand for.”

Dr Dellal, who has been the Executive Director of the Australian multicultural Foundation since 1989, agreed, adding that we needed to overcome “the burden of history” that has led “to so many claims and counter-claims about the [injustices] of what one group has done to another group”.

“I think today we tend to use religion as a way of showing the cause of conflict, but we don’t start to consider and really look at it in its role in peace-making and peace-building,” he said.

“[T]he diversity in this nation, whether it’s religious or cultural is not going to go away. That’s a fact. It’s not a philosophy or creed, it’s a reality. And I think people are understanding that we need to live together and religious leaders have a very important role.”

He argued that faith leaders working in an outreach and interfaith capacity help to build bridges and develop understandings of the common values held by all communities. Rabbi Morgan agreed, saying that local initiatives and programs, be they interfaith or social action projects, are labelled by some people as “peripheral to their religious concerns” but they were essential in the society we inhabit.

“If we get a firm understanding on what is important that we need as a society and as a community and what are those values that draw us together then we start to move slightly forward,” Dr Dellal said.

Chair of the panel, ABC Radio’s John Cleary, questioned whether there has been a retreat towards “protection of the flock and fundamentalism” as part of religion’s “confrontation with modernity”. While each panelist agreed that more should be done to resist extremism, they noted that dedication and passion were important parts of faith.

“I grew up in a household where enthusiasm for religion was thought to be fundamentally a bad thing. I think there was a benign thought that religion moderately applied could be helpful, but enthusiasm in religion was thought to be an unhelpful thing,” Dr Freier said. “But I think from my personal journey, religion without some enthusiasm or without some significance, is in a way, nothing.”

“It actually needs to be a faith that has personal meaning.”

Dr Dellal said there was a fundamentalism in all religions and that “I personally don’t mind, I suppose, that people practise the fundamental requirements of their faith”.

“It’s only when that fundamentalism starts becoming an ideology of hate and violence… and I think distortion, and I think that becomes the problem,” he said.

Dr Freier expanded on the idea of developing understanding by pointing to the diversity of students at Melbourne’s Anglican schools. He wryly observed that Melbourne Grammar School has had more graduates go on to become rabbis than Anglican priests in the last 30 years, but noted this did not undermine the school at all.

“Some institutions as they become more open… they have great riches to bring people together and I think that will continue to happen over time,” he said. “[C]ertainly in our Anglican schools that’s been a very rich source of optimism.”

Rob Ward, a member of the audience, asked the panel if the effective banning of religious instruction across state schools in Victoria posed a danger to a cohesive society, as it meant students were less likely to be educated on their faiths and the common ground they share with others.

Dr Dellal said that RI was an important resource for fostering understanding between groups and communities, while Rabbi Morgan suggested that schools needed to communicate the value of religions to believers. “We just don’t teach the value of religion as something that inspires human beings and gives them hope, and I think that needs to be somewhere,” he said. Dr Freier called the decision by the Andrews’ Government “part of a bigger knee-jerk kind of response in a world where religion is thought to be bad”.

“I think that in no way works against the power of religious extremism, because I think religious extremism probably prospers best out of the public space,” he said.

The event was broadcast as part of ABC Local’s Sunday Night’s radio program on 27 March. The audio recording of the event can be found at www.abc.net.au/sundaynights/stories