Does anyone know how to end religious violence?

We need to come up with new narratives and adjust those that seem set in stone (Getty)

Confronting Religious Violence
Edited by Richard A Burridge and Jonathan Sacks
SCM Press, 280pp, £25/$29.95

How do you solve a problem like religious violence? Assembling a team of academics (however eminent) to toss around ideas about recasting and revisiting age-old tales of sibling rivalry between the great faiths might seem like a rather meek and meagre approach. But as Jonathan Sacks argues here, the troubles all began with the stories we told about each other, so perhaps a forceful counter-narrative might just do the trick. As another contributor puts it, we might place less blame on the stories and more on our “unsophisticated hermeneutics”.

As this volume stresses time and time and again, its not about grinning around the conference table and inventing false commonalities: to ignore difference is a doomed pursuit. But routes towards justice and tolerance can still be located.

The opening chapters travel far back in time. Just as Sacks examines afresh tales of sibling rivalry in Hebrew Scripture, so Richard Burridge offers a provocative analysis of one of the New Testament’s leading men. We should not look for some radical transformation from Saul the Jew to a converted “anti-Jewish zealot”, he writes. To be sure, Paul had some harsh words for those of Judaising tastes in the early days, but he remained proud of his Jewish heritage and was keen to help his fellow Jews. He often adopted a relatively pacific tone. He was not the first snowball in a supersessionist avalanche that tore monotheism apart.

That had to wait: first for the deep divisions between Rabbinic and Messianic Judaism following the fall of the temple in 70 AD and, as Guy Stroumsa explains, the creation of a unique Christian identity and a default anti-Semitic tone during the 4th century. The Jewish siblings had assuredly been crossed off the metaphorical Christmas card list by then. The great Christian dissonance between universalist aims and exclusivist realities had arrived.

The book then leapfrogs over more than a few centuries to the recent past and present. The rivalries are in depressingly rude health. Eliza Griswold takes us to sub-Saharan Africa, where religious identity counts for everything. Here is a potential powder keg of violence, especially with the spectres of global warming and dwindling natural resources. In places where migration defines societies, Amineh Hoti finds cultures of anger, not empathy, and invites religious leaders and the young to work through their problems. But how do you find values that transcend phobias, especially when the filters of the media’s reportage do as much harm as good?

Should we be looking at the age-old big questions? Can religious freedom ever truly be altruistic, Robert George asks; or is it always about a delicate contract – don’t pick on me and I won’t pick on you? It would be nice if religious freedom were a right – precious because it so perfectly captures the idea of human dignity.

Or perhaps we should think in minuscule terms. David Sloan Wilson applies ideas from neuroscience and multi-layered evolution where adaptation can occur at the group as well as the individual level. Religious ideas, it seems, are very much like genes: they switch on and off depending upon what texts you are exposed to and churches can be likened to cultural genomes. Regrettably, he locates violent DNA in every religious text he has encountered.

Many of the authors offer detailed programmes refined in the trenches of religious violence. One nifty notion is “compassionate reason” that requires both empathy and sophisticated understanding. Tactics such as exploring emotion, attentive listening and using the right words are all trumpeted. William Storrar has spent years working with Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars in environments that foster humility and “interpretive hospitality”; though, of course, it can be a long way from a comfy seminar room at Yale to the world’s hotspots of religious violence.

But where else are you going to start? I dare say many a revolution or cultural earthquake began life in a Left Bank bistro over some cheap wine. Voices would have been raised and certainties challenged. So why not come up with new narratives and adjust those that seem set in stone?

Stacks containing the books that argue the opposite position could probably cover most of Paris. It is us versus them and religion thrives on the fact. A Kantian sense of good will, of universal imperatives that shatter every point of contention, is probably a pipe dream. But its worth the search, and religion, which – guess what? – does good things too, is an excellent test case. As one contributor puts it, alarm bells about the inevitability of religious violence keep sounding, but happier sounds can be heard.

I was always taught to read an important text twice. Fifty might be a better number. The human habit of swallowing the conventional interpretation is shameful. Quills and word processors don’t kill people; lazy readers do.