Religion in Contemporary World: The  Role of Religion in Promoting Virtues and Human and Ethical Values

Paper presented in Third Round of Dialogue between the Iranian Organization for Culture and Islamic Communications and the Korean Community of Religions for Peace, Tehran, Aug. 28, 2013.

At the outset, I would like to welcome our Korean friends and colleagues to Tehran and wish them a very enjoyable stay and a very fruitful conference here in Tehran, the same way that we had them both in Korea last year, thanks to the exemplary Korean hospitality. I would also like to thank the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization and our friends Dr. Dehshiri, Dr. Helmi, Dr. Shojakhani and the rest for arranging this esteemed conference and inviting me to address this august meeting. I sincerely hope that our deliberations today will lead us one step ahead in our ambitious aim of bringing our two cultures & religious traditions closer to mutual understanding and cooperation.

Because of time limitation, I would like to present my paper in one short introduction, three parts, and one brief summary and conclusion.


Today, humanity, exhausted with two World Wars, and so many small and large scale local-national, regional and international disputes and serious conflicts, is looking forward into a new understanding of science and technology, religion and ethics, virtue and spirituality, human rights and dignity, and finally encounter or clash of cultures and civilizations, in order to build a new and more prosperous, democratic, and more dignified world.

In the light of the above, it seems that, nowadays, the old formal approaches, rhetoric discussions, and hostile missionary attitudes are no more useful or productive for the new generation, especially elites and intellectuals. Thus, we have to pursue the path of a well-documented and quite rational/logical dialogue and discussion.

In the words of Sohrab-e Sepehri, a modern Iranian poet and artist, “We have to wash our eyes and see the world around us anew”, enabling ourselves to better understand the others and find common areas of interest for cooperation.

Historical Background

Indeed, in the long religious history of mankind, it has not always been the case that religion has promoted human values and virtues within and between human societies. Nevertheless, it could certainly be the case, and religion, especially divine religions, have had such a capacity or potential. But the fact is that, unfortunately, as we shall see in a moment, it has not been so, and sometimes world religions, in spite of their origin and the will of their founders, have played a role quite contrary to these aspirations. In the words of Maulana, the great mystic poet of Iran:

Although the book is intended for some other purpose,
If you use it as a pillow, that is also possible.

In our opinion, the fair recognition and acknowledgment of many inner-religious and inter-religious conflicts during the long religious life of mankind is the necessary condition for a correct understanding and impression of the positive and negative feelings and actions in man’s religious thought. Nonetheless, yet there is no scholarly consensus on the level, scope, limits, and intensity of such conflicts and or interactions, to the extent that in our own age and generation, on the one hand scholars such as Edward Said, the author of the classic book “Orientalism”, speaks of the domineering and imperious attitude of the Christian West towards the Muslim East (see Orientalism, Routledge & Kegan Poul, London, 1978, et. passim), and on the other hand authors such as Richard W. Bulliet write about “the case for Islamic-Christian Civilization” (Columbia University Press, New York, 2004) and elaborate on the historical connection between Islam and the West. In the light of all these, it deems appropriate to agree with the honest assertation of late professor Annemarie Schimmel that: “Among all the religions which Christianity had to confront and deal with, Islam was both misunderstood and attacked most intensely. For more than a millennium Islam seemed to be a major-if not the major threat for the people of Europe, and this feeling has contributed to the fact that Islam and those who confessed it, the Muslims, were regarded as arch enemies of Christianity and the western civilization” (Islam: an Introduction, State University of New York press, 1992, p.1).

Thus, it is obvious that although the main purpose of religion is to play a positive and constructive role in promoting virtues and ethical and humanitarian values in human societies, this mission has sometimes been reversed and the very religious traditions have been the source of many conflicts and destruction, examples of which are abundant in religious history of mankind. Although, in our opinion, these alterations and deviations are not inherent characteristics of religion per se, but are the result of people’s misuse of religion and religious sentiments of the masses.


Present World Situation

The plain fact is that, in today’s world, religion, which according to the wishes of great prophets Moses, Jesus, and Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.), and great leaders such as Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-Tze, has been established to promote the welfare and spiritual elevation and eternal salvation of mankind, along with social justice and peaceful coexistence of the whole humanity, disregard of their race, colour, and social class, not only has not succeeded in fully attaining its genuine goals and objectives, but has been drawn into unnecessary destructive disputes between different factions and denominations internally (such as between Shiite & Sunnite branches in Islam, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christianity, various branches of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, etc) and different traditions externally.

On the other hand, the emergence of various ethical, social, economic, philosophical and even doctrinal schools during recent years, has faced the camp of believers with new challenges, expectations, and serious questions of faith. Nowadays, issues such as widespread poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, class inequality, environment, population increase, global warming, weapons of mass destruction, nuclear technology, trade imbalance, unlimited industrial development regardless of resource scarcity, immigration, and soon has posed serious threats against the modern man, not mentioning the excesses of such schools as materialism, liberalism, secularism, fascism, nihilism, Nazism, against man’s cardinal beliefs and its very basic mental/spiritual framework and intellectual/doctrinal system.

As a matter of fact, in our traditional eastern societies, the ultimate goal of science (ilm) has long been wisdom (hikma), while, in the modern western societies, the main or ultimate goal of science has turned to be power, wealth, and the like. Recently, a western scholar has asserted that in the United States of America, around one-half or fifty percent of all the scientific achievements is at the service of the military, political, security, and spying purposes, while this figure is one-third or 30% for Europe.

Let me ask you, my dear Korean friends and colleagues, what is the main purpose of the socio-political leaders of today’s Korea, those who relate themselves to this or that dominant religion (Buddhism, Christianity, etc.)? Is that to remove poverty, reduce income gap, promote ethical/religious norms and values, abolish social corruption, crime, and injustice, or just to strengthen their individual, group, or country power, wealth, political base, and so on?

Our Christian brothers blame part of the Muslim world for its obvious backwardness, poverty, illiteracy, etc., while they ignore the situation in most parts of the Christian Latin America, with so many people living under the line of poverty (not mentioning some Christian Asian countries such as Philippine and the rest). That is why we say that Islam and Christianity (and Buddhism and Hinduism and other living traditions, except Judaism which is a racial religion with quite different goals and objectives), instead of engaging in unhealthy missionary activities and trying to accuse each other of all sorts of accusations, is better to join hands and, in the light of a better understanding and interaction, try to address many problems or rather calamities of the present world and the modern man.


New hopes and possibilities

Great Iranian religious philosopher and scholar, Morteza Mutahhari, about fifty years ago, in his scholarly introduction to his famous book “Divine Justice”, wrote: “Islam is an unknown religion, and this is not just because of western imperialistic propaganda against Islam, but more because of the wrong teachings that we are propagating under the banner of Islam”. He then continues: “this sacred religion, at the present time, is being damaged, more than anything else, by those who claim to be its advocates and supporters” (Divine Justice, Sadra publications, Qom, tenth edition, 1979, p. 8). In our opinion, his assertion holds somehow true about all great living traditions of the world. There is a famous saying in Iranian literature which says: Islam, as such, has no defects, whatever fault there is, is due to our Muslimhood.

When, in the Muslim world, i.e. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, most of the conflicts and blood shedding is between Shiite and Sunnite Muslims, under the guise of Salafis, al-Qaeda, Taliban, etc., and in the Christian world, like your esteemed country Korea, the strongest negative sentiments are expressed between Catholics and Protestants (and not-surprisingly- between Christians and, let’s say, Buddhists), then how can we talk about interdisciplinary understanding and approach between Christians and Muslims (in the Islamic World) or between Christians and Buddhists (in countries such as Korea)?

When we-Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and others have not yet put our houses in order and have not yet ceased our internal conflict and war of words, how can we elaborate on the common responsibility of all the believers vis-à-vis the camp of unbelievers-i.e. atheists, seculars, materialists, and others?

Religion, and especially the two great traditions of Islam and Christianity, in order to bloom or blossom their inherent capacities of promoting welfare, prosperity, and spiritual elevation of mankind, should get rid of all biased, rigid, and unhealthy prejudices against each other and try to follow the path of their honourable prophets based on serious rationality (أن تَقوُموُا لله مَثنی و فُرادی، ثُم تَتَفَکَّرُوا), benevolence, service to others (النّاس كلّهم عيال الله فاحبّهم اليه انفعهم لعياله), perfectionism, transcendentalism, toleration, indulgence, inclusiveness (اِنِّى بُعثْتُ عَلَى الشَّريعَةِ السَّمْحَةِ السَّهْلَةِ) and finally devoid of any dogmatism, and illusionary egoism and despotism. That is, to stick to a natural, logical, descent, sacred, and divine religion.

Let us emphasize that such a religion not only can promote human values and virtues all over the world, but it is only through such a religion, and not by any other means, that promotion of virtues and human ethical values is ever possible; through the sacred time and space, through divine hierophany and epiphany, through divine revelations and divine words, through Islam and Christianity and all other manifestations (for details see Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed and Ward, London, 1979, et. passim).

In our opinion any meaningful virtue, ethics, value, humanitarian law, order, and even world view, not based on a permanent and eternal divine/sacred foundation will inevitably be temporal, transient, and relative matter subject to the changing spirit and attitude of human beings, a product of man’s illusion and imagination and not the eternal / absolute truth.


Summary and Conclusion

Obviously, religion has the latent potential of playing a positive and constructive role in man’s life, especially in promoting ethical and spiritual values in human societies, but, as the eight Shiite Imam says: (بشرطها و شروطها) which means: “under certain conditions”; and among these conditions or prerequisites are that, firstly, religion be understood and practiced correctly; and, secondly, instead of unhealthy inner-religious and inter-religious, or factional and traditional competitions, which perhaps the Crusades is the worst historical example of that, religion engages in such healthy activities as promoting man’s temporal as well as eternal welfare, prosperity, intelligent and pleasant (طیّبه) life, along with its permanent salvation. In Islam we say:
(الدنيا مزرعة الاخرة) “this world is like the ploughing land or the farm of the other-future-world”, or (من لامعاش له، لا معادله) “whoever does not have a proper livelihood, will not have a proper afterlife either”.

In my long-term studies and research, in the genuine teachings of Buddha, Jesus, and prophet Muhammad, I have not found anything but kindness, mercy
(و ما أرسلناك إلّا رحمة للعالمین) “we have not sent you, but as a mercy to the whole world” (Holy Qur’an, 21/107) and affection and love towards the others (هل الدین الا المحبه) “is religion anything but affection?” (Imam Sadiq in the book, “Khisal-e Saduq”), and similar humanitarian and ethical values. All the rest are but a bunch of misunderstanding, aberration, misbehavior, dogmatism, despotism, and greed for wealth & power accumulation in the name of Islam, Christianity and other great traditions, resulting in Crusades, Dark Ages, inquisition, al-Qaeda, Taliban, etc.


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