Last month I interviewed a professor named Marc who expressed skepticism that education in comparative religion could improve the conflict. This month another Marc (Silverman, of Hebrew University) also questioned the relevance of this kind of work. He took a different line of critique, however. While Rabbi Rosenstein suggested that the conflict was primarily about issues other than religion, Professor Silverman proposed almost the exact opposite. “Imagine a child is raised with a real appreciation of the divine – not through being told, but through her parents’ enthusiasm. Her parents get excited at the experience of being in nature, for example. Such a child will likely be open and appreciative to the divine all around them as an adult, not just in their own tradition but in others’ as well.” He raised the possibility that I was putting too much stress on the academic, that information about other peoples’ belief systems would not significantly affect how people approach the other, and that the true influence takes place much earlier and from another direction.
In light of this critique, which I find powerful, let me try to assert some ways in which teaching comparative religion can help reduce conflict between people of different beliefs:
1. It signals to students, teachers and the culture in general that those in authority value others. The very fact that it is taught (with the exception of presenting it as “know your enemy”) is teaching by example.
2. It is an ideal platform from which to teach critical thinking skills, and such skills are a powerful antidotee to extremism.
3. There is information that can undermine extremism.
While all three of these claims need to be defended, here let me argue in more detail simply for the last one. I have frequently heard the claim that “just teaching people a few facts about another culture won’t help them be more tolerant.” I agree: learning a few facts won’t help, if those facts are unrelated to the prejudices and misunderstandings people hold. Let me give two examples, one teaching about Islam, the other about Judaism. (I’ll wait for a Christian example for another time.)
Several times people have told me that learning the Five Pillars of Islam does little to increase understanding. Well, I would claim memorizing the pillars does a small amount – it helps the student consider the claim that creedal Islam encourages many ethical values. But what are students’ really wondering? Primarily they are wondering about links between Islam and terror and Islam and the position of women. One needs to address these issues, honestly and fully – one cannot simply present an apologist argument. In the case of violence, Qur’anic verses condemning suicide are necessary but not sufficient. One needs to dig deeper and to go outside of what many teachers would consider “learning about the religion.” For example, reading several of the recent studies of the psychology of suicide bombers can contextualize self-identified Muslims who engage in acts of violence against civilians. These readings and discussions can help students reflect on the extent and the limits of the links between Islam and terror.
One can ask similar questions of Judaism. Learning that Jews place the Ten Commandments at the center of their ethical thinking likely will help a Palestinian student understand Judaism a little better, but probably will not help address their core questions. Recently a friend of mine, Professor Charles Stang, gave a talk about early Christianity to students at a Palestinian university. In the course of setting up his discussion he referred to the Second Temple and its destruction by the Romans. The teacher who had invited him to speak had to spend the next class explaining to surprised students that the Second Temple had in fact existed, and was not just a Zionist excuse for taking over the Haram al-Sharif. This points us to a key question for Palestinian students: what is the link between Judaism and the occupation? Understanding the role of Jerusalem in the hopes and dreams of diaspora Judaism and understanding the scale and impact of the Holocaust would likely help students reflect on the extent and the limits of the links between Judaism and the injustices of the occupation.
Finally, to be clear – I am not claiming that mutual religious learning will end conflicts. What it can do, I believe, is problematize and so defang some beliefs that exacerbate many conflicts.