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Cambridge Interfaith Programme

CIP speakers address the audience from their computers

As part of the 2021 Cambridge Alumni Festival, researchers from Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme came together online to discuss Religious Pluralism. Chairing the session, Dr Giles Waller (above right) asked: Is the presence of different religious groups in society a source of conflict or a resource for social flourishing?

What is conflict? Starting the discussion, Dr Safet HadžiMuhamedović (second right) reflected on the question itself. Does this presume that conflict is always negative? Fist-fighting in southern Bosnia serves to relieve tensions during harvest time. Such ritual conflict can have benefits. The Shared Sacred Landscapes exhibition documents many other examples of peaceful interreligious relations. Of course, we more readily conceive of conflict with reference to negative extremes, especially state-led violence. But is this religious conflict?

Right-wing politicians pedal a myth of Christian Europe under threat. This threat is given historical roots. To survive, such nationalists argue, we must fight the old enemy. They ignore past realities. Alliances have often crossed borders. Cultures mix. In Bosnia, Muslim love songs gained Sephardic Jewish notes. Such creativity often acts as a form of grassroots resistance to hostile nationalist narratives.

Do we imagine conflict as occurring between very separate and very different groups? Professor Esra ‌Özyürek (left) rejects this scenario. Religious pluralism and conflict are part of the very human process of differentiation.

Humans like to know who belongs to “our pack”. As a pack grows, it splinters. Given distance or time, languages evolve and separate. Religions also splinter. Conflict most often occurs between closely related groups: Protestant and Catholic communities, Sunni and Shia, etc. Religious pluralism is not something we can avoid. Humans create it.

Humans are also travellers, and imitators. We learn from and copy each other. Religions spread through such encounter. Those who convert act as a reminder that religious inheritance always involves choice—whether someone chooses to inherit the religion of their grandparents or someone else’s. Religious pluralism is not accidental. It is a fact of being human, just as learning from others is key to human survival.

Should we neglect violent scriptural texts and hope they’ll escape notice? That’s unlikely to be the best approach counsels Dr Daniel Weiss (second left). Texts apparently promoting violence are part of religious canons. If we pretend that they’re not there, others will discover them.

Inspired by Scriptural Reasoning in the University conferences, Cambridge researchers created workshop materials to help interested groups discover what religious traditions do with their own problematic texts. For example, a text from Deuteronomy mandates stoning as punishment for a disobedient son. In centuries-old legal discussion, rabbis discussed this passage. To qualify, they judged:

  • the boy must be aged more than 12 and less than 13;
  • he must have eaten an (improbably) large amount of stolen meat; and
  • his parents must have identical sounding voices and be exactly the same height.

Could such a son ever exist? (No, said most rabbis.)

Just as Jewish teachers looked to reduce harm, legal scholars in Islam also limit how harsh texts are applied. Learning about such reading practices, workshop participants overcome prejudices. People with little experience of formal religion are often reassured to discover how religious traditions handle violent passages. The Scripture and Violence project shows we may reduce antisemitism and Islamophobia by talking about these difficult texts.

Panellists continued to discuss what constitutes religious conflict, the importance of former religious identities in conversion, and the perception that religious plurality causes problems. Hop across to our YouTube playlist to watch video of the full session including audience Q&A.


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