Religion is, and according to recorded history always has been, a major source of conflict between groups of peoples. This article addresses what the writer perceives to be a pervasive root of conflict at the basic level between believers—“who has the “right” God?” As found by a recent BBC Poll, over 60% of the world population holds “ethnocentric religious beliefs” in that they believe their religion or God is the only true religion or God.

To begin, it should be recognized that most religions, or at least most religious texts, provide evidence of a preference for compromise to resolve conflict. The goal in religious conflict resolution then, as stated by one academic article, “is to facilitate a change from the participants’ narrow, exclusionist, antagonistic, or prejudiced attitudes and perspectives to a more tolerant and open minded attitude.” Mohammed Abu-Nimer, 38 J. PEACE RESEARCH 685, 686 (Nov. 2001). This article provides a broad overview of how getting past the “belief” to the relationship between the believer and the belief may bring diverse religious perspectives to some consensus.

Three Strategies

1. Humanize the Other Side
Figure 1, to the right, presents a diagram of a basic fundamental religious conflict. In this scenario, each party is trying to convince the other that their God is the “true” God. Each party is therefore inclined to strive to explain their “truth” to the other side—they are trying to get the other to make a connection with their God, as represented by the dashed lines. For some believers, this connection may not be possible or even desirable, and trying to force the issue may alienate the peacemaker in their eyes.

It may nevertheless be possible to get each party to understand that the other has a “relationship” with his or her own God, and that the other’s relationship is valid to them. Essentially, the goal is to humanize each side in the other’s eyes. William Thomas concludes in his research on fundamentalism that fundamentalist groups tend to demonize “others” including anyone that is not of their religious group. Gurus and Guerrillas: Religious Fundamentalism and Dispute Resolution, 4 HARV. NEG. L. REV. 115 (1999). Humanization of the other side is a vital step toward overcoming this fundamentalist position and moving toward reconciliation.

2. Move to Recognize Individual Relationships with “God”
It is this writer’s belief that many religious conflicts arise from a lack of understanding of another’s relationship to God. For parties with a strong personal sense of their relationship with God, exploring the similarities between each individuals’ relationship to God may help them to identify with one another. This approach is presented in Figure 2, where the goal changes from attempting to convince the other side that one’s God is “the true God” to recognizing that another’s relationship with his or her God is legitimate and similar in nature to one’s own relationship to his or her God. This takes the idea of humanization one step further and embraces the possibility that the lives of these two believers, while couched on different terms and outward expressions of faith, are similar in the way they relate to the divine.

As a subset of this idea, focus may be directed to one’s relationship to sacred texts instead of their relationship to God. Even at the literal level, it is possible that individuals of different religions have similar relationships with their sacred texts. As an example, one might say, “I am Christian because it is the way, the truth, and the life. I find application of the principles in the Bible to be a guiding light in my life.” Further exploration may reveal that this person means that Christianity defines their morality. Once this connection is made, it may be possible to show them that what they have described is essentially identical to what the “other” person describes receiving from their relationship with their religious doctrines, albeit in different terms. While this discussion is not likely to lead to a consensus on who has the right God or the right Book, the two sides may take a first step toward respecting the other by acknowledging that the other side’s religion provides them a viewpoint that is similar on many levels.

Similarly, the focus may be moved from relationship between party and God to relationship between party and church, synagogue, or mosque to find similarity. This might be most useful for a party that appeals strongly to church doctrine for their belief system. Thus, a peacemaker may bring parties together by illustrating similarities of their respective “houses of worship.”

3. Move to Recognize Relationship Between “Gods”
Of course, not all adherents of a religion have the same beliefs as all others of that religion. Rather, individuals vary tremendously in their interpretation and application of their own religion. In the proper context (i.e. with parties that are willing and well prepared), a discussion of God as universal (illustrated in Figure 3) may bring the parties together. However, this may be more than many are willing to consider, and presenting it could harm the peacebuilder’s credibility if presented to the wrong parties or at the wrong time or in the wrong way.

In conclusion, consensus between religions, or at least between religious individuals, is almost always possible at some level. Through enhanced understandings of other religions, all people of faith may deepen their own spiritual journey.

by Jasper Ozbirn

Jasper L. Ozbirn received a LL.M. in Dispute Resolution with an Emphasis in Mediation from the Straus Institute, Pepperdine University School of Law in May of 2011. He is presently an associate attorney with Citron & Citron in Santa Monica, California.