Over the summer I have been reading Jonathan Sacks Not in God’s Name (Hodder 2015). The book is concerned with the relationship between religion and violence. The backdrop is the seemingly relentless acts of terror committed by individuals and groups claiming they are enacting God’s will, while at the same time there is an increase in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and genocidal acts on particular religiously identified groups. As I write, Rohingya Muslims are fleeing such acts and the Christians still remaining in Iraq and Syria wait to see whether their plight is better or worse now that ISIS appears to be losing the war.

Sacks does not see the relationship between religion and violence as simple. He does not excuse religions for the part they have played in war and other forms of violence, but he does not believe that religions are primarily a source or cause of violence. Indeed most religions claim to be about peace, (that is certainly the claim of all three Abrahamic faiths). Rather he offers us an evolutionary analysis of the role of religion. In the Darwinian framework of natural selection, individuals seek to survive in order to pass on their genes, but humans, like many other animals, find that there is more chance of survival in groups. Indeed, altruism and sacrifice can readily occur in these communities, for the sake of the group, where individual survival would not find these virtues helpful. In a community, however, they may enhance cohesion, trust and loyalty and thus give the community greater chance of survival.

Tribes and clans seemingly have a role in the ecology of evolution but they face two problems. First, for a group to gain this corporate identity, it needs to define itself over against other groups or tribes. There is thus an ‘Us and Them’. Tribes may often need to compete for scarce resources and this may lead to friction and even war between them.

The other problem for the tribe, is that there are physical limitations to community. It can never be fully open to strangers, and cannot be extended over large numbers of people or different localities because trust cannot be maintained in such a large enterprise. Religions, according to Sacks, meet this need. Religions provide a cultural and ideological framework in which one can relate to those beyond one’s tribe and location. Thus the major world religions provide an identity across millions of people and even across different cultures and languages.

The problem of competition, of us and them, of the friend and the enemy, is simply moved to another place. Now religions carry the power to nurture love, trust and altruism internally but intentionally or unintentionally nurture caution and suspicion of those outside the faith. This is not the same as promoting or advocating violence but it is not difficult to see how, under some conditions, religions could be drawn in to justify or promote violence. Once a religious group believes it is the victim of injustice at the hands of another faith; once a group starts to dehumanise or demonise the other; once dualism enters the story, wherein the world is divided into the children of light and the children of darkness; then violence quickly follows.

It is important to stress that Sacks is not discussing here the truth claims of one religion over another, nor is he saying that there is no truth in religion. Rather he is recognising that religions have a role in evolution for good and for ill. Moreover, he is not saying that religions are the only large-scale organisation to exhibit these features; political ideologies can function in the same way. Look for example at Nazism, Stalinist Communism, or the Khmer Rouge for example of non-religious ideologies which have resulted in violence.

If his analysis is correct, what might it say to us in our multi-faith and violent world? What does it say to our current situation in the cities and towns of West Yorkshire? How can we avoid the negative tendencies of being members of a religion (whichever one we belong to) and find the peace which we claim?

Let me tentatively suggest some possibilities.

Be alert to the implicit dangers of religion. Because our faith is so central to our identity and so precious to our lives, we should be fooled into thinking that there are no dangers associated with being part of a religion, particularly the tendency to see those outside the faith or of other faiths in a less favourable light or as rivals. We need to be alert to the subtle way this works. Jesus told a parable about how religion can make us think less of others. (Luke 18.10-14). A religious man looks down on a tax collector and thanks God he is not like him. Apparently, a Christian coming out of church having listened to this parable was heard to say ‘I am glad I am not like that religious man’ missing both the point and the irony!

Take steps to resist the forces that exacerbate and exploit the natural weaknesses. In the towns of Yorkshire, we are used to those from extreme right-wing organisations who want to come to stir up division. In Bradford, Leeds, and Keighley people of different faiths have regularly stood together to resist such divisiveness. This is necessary so that people of faith are not drawn towards the fear of the other which prevents us respecting one another and building strong, diverse communities.

Nurture relationship, friendship and partnership across the boundaries of religion. We overcome the ‘fear of the other’ by getting to knowing people. Some of that will arise naturally in our workplaces and with our neighbours but we may need to be intentional about it too. Visiting each other places of worship and learning from one another has been a staple for many years but we need more intentional shared activities. Touchstone in Bradford is famous for engaging in dialogue through hospitality and the creative arts, which enables honest debate and provides a safe space for difficult conversations. There are also other initiatives in youth work and partnerships around responding to the hungry or homeless together. Anne Morisy speaks of three types of social capital: bonding social capital which strengths the bonds between people in a community; bridging capital which builds ways of working across different communities; and brave social capital which takes risks to create new possibilities. We need to invest in all three.

Re-examine our own traditions to see how they speak to these dangerous tendencies. Here again, we may be able to help each other. Jonathan Sacks offers a deep and stimulating reading of Genesis which draws out the underlying counter-narratives about sibling rivalry that runs through the book (Cain and Abel; Isaac and Ismael; Jacob and Easu; Rachel and Leah). Jonathan, a Jewish Rabbi, opened my eyes, those of a Christian minister, to things I had missed, though I have read Genesis many times. Scriptural Reasoning – the practice of reading together the scriptures of different faiths – is a growing area which may help us to understand our own tradition better, as well as to understand the sacred writings of others and we may find that there are deep things which help us face the weakness of an organised religion.

Nurture deep empathy. Jonathan Sacks believes that only by being able to enter deeply into other people’s experience can we truly know them and build mutual respect, and thus avoid the stereotyping and fear of the other. He calls this role reversal, where you put yourself in the other person’s situation and examine your attitudes and actions. This can come out of remembering our own experiences or through sensitive imagination. Either way, it can open up understanding and build relationships.

If God is at work in our religion, then God will have made provision for us to overcome the limitations of evolutionary history. Just as human nature, flawed as it is, is no barrier to the grace of God, so the fact that religions have an evolutionary function need not define or confine us. We are called towards something ultimately more liberating and wonderful and the means may be to do it together.

Roger L Walton

Chair of the Yorkshire West Methodist District

and former President of the Methodist Conference