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Drop religion and embrace humanism

Paul Andersen

A recent panel discussion sponsored by The Aspen Institute strove to find solutions to the cultural collisions between Islam and Western religions that have so stunned the world. Guess what happened? There was another collision.

The panel was made up of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield and Christian historian Elaine Pagels. Rather than improved understanding, there arose an undercurrent of blame.

Terrorism was of foremost concern, especially among the audience, and Rauf was forced to defend Islam under a barrage of insinuations. The Imam became a whipping boy for age-old misunderstandings.

When Rauf stated that true believers of Islam deplored what happened on 9/11, he was booed. It was at that point that the cross-cultural exchange denigrated into brooding distrust. What emerged

from the melee was a plaintive call for tolerance.

Tolerance is fine, but it falls short of an enduring solution. Many of mankind’s most pernicious problems result from arbitrary theological divisions that have historically translated into political and military conflicts. Tolerance is like a Band-Aid on an unhealing wound.

The problem lies with religious leaders who cling to sectarian identities and inspire

in their followers entrenched ideologies and traditions. Rather than unifying people, such religious indoctrination foments parochialism, distrust, hostility, war and strife.

Rabbi Hirschfield shed a ray of hope when he stated that individual interpretation and choice determine the manner in which religious doctrines are translated into action. Still, when overbearing religious identities divide people ideologically, divisiveness is guaranteed.

Author and Princeton professor Elaine Pagels described this divisiveness as it applies to the disaster of contemporary U.S. foreign policy: “If the president identifies an axis of evil,” she said of George W. Bush, “then he inherently places himself at the axis of good. Religious language stifles political dialogue.”

So let’s do away with religious language and all other arbitrary boundaries that divide human beings – race, ethnicity, gender, etc. If peace is to have a chance, it is time to embrace the unifying philosophy of humanism.

Humanism is a movement of thought that arose in Western Europe in the 15th century that broke through medieval traditions in a revolt against ecclesiastical authority. Thinking people decided they had had enough of religious dictates and determined to rely instead on their own reason and intellect.

Humanism, according to its first spokesman, Pico della Mirandola, places its faith in the dignity of man, which “rests in his freedom, his capacity, and his need to direct and shape his own life.”

Humanism expresses man’s ultimate responsibility to the highest potentialities of his innate nature. Through the exercise of reason, man “has freedom either to raise himself above the angels or reduce himself below the beasts.”

As the core philosophy of the Goethe Bicentennial in 1949 and the founding principle of The Aspen Institute in 1950, humanism calls on human beings to live according to a balance of freedom and responsibility.

If you think Hirschfield was right about choice in the duality in human nature, then it’s imperative to choose the higher ground. That doesn’t mean segregation, hatred and war, it means unity, love and peace.

If your church rules out contrary beliefs and denigrates others in the name of God, give it up. Take some time to connect with the higher potential of mankind through self-knowledge.

In this crazy, war-torn world of religious persecution, political mayhem, greed and brutality, humanism may be our final prayer.

Paul Andersen wonders why we build walls around our beliefs. His column appears on Mondays.


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