Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.
The ubiquity of religion in contemporary times gives a lie to the predictions of the 20th century which projected that religion will either disappear or lie aside calmly. Contrary to these projections, religion animates our lives as well as that of others on a daily basis across the world. In fact, most of the momentous instances of the last two decades have had to do with religion.
The advent of the 21st century has been strongly characterized by a migration process that touched almost all of the countries in the world. Such mobility of people has disrupted the homogeneity, whether real or perceived, of many societies and throws up new avenues of engagement of which religion seems to be most important.
Being brought up in a multi-faith household in South India and in a society where religious plurality and interaction is the norm rather than the exception, the upward surge in religious persecution, prejudice and alienation of minorities in contemporary India is quite unnerving. In the last few months in India, which has been held as a beacon of tolerance, a Muslim has been lynched for allegedly storing beef, Churches have been vandalized, and Dalits attacked. South Asia in general and India, in particular, have long been held as paragons of religious co-existence. This mosaic of religious co-existence and harmony has seen violent episodes in the past too but is being gradually chipped away with increasing velocity due to the rise of Hindu Nationalism and Hindutva forces. Friends from other religious communities, with whom I have grown up and played and eaten, feel insecure about being religious and understandably see their beliefs as increasingly coming under severe stress.
Vectors of religious intolerance, prejudice and persecution are becoming increasingly assertive across the world with alarming regularity, which is quite disheartening. They brush aside the idea that the past was one of cross-pollination and cross circulation of ideas and exchanges across religious communities and seek to put up insurmountable barriers by marketing religious identities as stable, immutable and exclusionary. The fears that emanate out of this kind of religious chauvinism are channelized optimally by political interests manufacturing an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and paranoia.
Strenuous attempts at hammering homogeneity into lives of other religious communities betray strong beliefs in a single good way of life whereby strictures are put up on how to live, eat and behave. In contemporary India, religious differences are projected as symptomatic of betrayal of the Hindu nation and religions other than Hinduism are routinely depicted as alien to the Indian subcontinent equating believers of other religions with unfortunate attributes.
The probability of our neighbors belonging to different religious traditions is much higher than what it was a century ago. Religions of the world have resources that can be recruited and used for harboring positive as well as negative conceptions of the ‘other’. But the positive aspects have to take charge if we are to live side by side with our neighbors. Every religion provides an avenue for engaging and embracing other religious communities which are instrumental in avoiding any cognitive barricades. Non-acceptance and rejection of the other feed into the regimented nature of exclusionary attitudes.
The new-found politics of fear and mistrust are channeled to the maximum by vested interests in putting up barriers and secluding religious communities from each other. Based on innate notions of one’s religious superiority or monopoly over the ultimate truth, it has become alarmingly commonplace to dub other religious communities as alien to one’s society, harking back to a pristine era where religious homogeneity was the norm.
In the current climate of fear, societies inclined to accommodate and engage with religious diversity across the world are increasingly coming under strain by falling prey to intolerance and new kinds of assertions for religious homogeneity. Fear, paranoia, and prejudice take over when it concerns the ‘other’. Across the world, the religious other is no longer a believer in a faraway land with exotic beliefs but the neighbor next door. In such a scenario, cultivating a need for engagement and empathy are not only required but sine qua non for a harmonious living. To stem the tide of non-acceptance, rejection, and alienation, recognition as well as engagement with the other is crucial. In the absence of such a scenario, it would only lead to an interminable conflict where one religious community seeks to perpetrate a single good conception of life upon others. Thus, it is of utmost significance to engage with other religious communities and build bridges that allow for tolerance with respect and dignity.