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Sectarian divides exist in most places in the world.

Lately we’ve come to associate the term with various conflicts between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, but India has warring Hindu sects; rival Tibetan Buddhist sects battled with each other for centuries; and Christian sects fought each other throughout Europe for almost a thousand years.

What does that say about religion?

Some people have concluded that sectarian conflict, hostility and warfare indicate that religion itself is fundamentally defective. More people than ever have simply opted out of any religious belief because the world’s major Faiths have generated so much fanaticism, conflict and division. “If religion can’t keep its own adherents from killing each other,” one atheist writer asked, “then why should anyone consider religion an effective force in the world—or even to be true?”

This serious and important line of inquiry calls into question the most basic moral foundations of religion. It asks us to judge the effectiveness of faith by deeds instead of words, exactly the standard that the founders of the world’s great Faiths advised us to use. It challenges the purpose and the portent of faith.

Syrian riot police

Syrian riot police

If you look at religion as a whole bunch of separate belief systems with different teachings; if you see your God competing with the gods of other religions; or if you view religion as only a human creation; then sectarian divides could seem natural and normal, the expected result of all the built-in conflicts of the varying and disagreeing religions. If you see human beings as inherently sinful, evil and violence-prone, you might expect all of us to continually make war on each other over our beliefs, and come to accept the human condition as fundamentally flawed and perennially conflicted.

But on the other hand, if you view religion as the Baha’is do—as one single system, a linked, sequential and progressive set of evolving spiritual teachings all from one God—then you can see that sectarian divides do not represent the normal human condition. If all Faith comes from one source, then we can understand the organic cycle of the rise and fall of the various chapters of that one holy book. If each of the former Faiths in the pantheon of history’s religions has risen to its apex and then declined, to be re-stated, replaced and revivified by the following Faith, then the sequence of multiple belief systems becomes logical and reasonable. If religion is one, then we have hope.

Baha’is look at sectarian conflicts and wars as fundamental misreadings of the religious teachings of all the Messengers of God. The Baha’i teachings say that religion comprises one truth which the sectarians have divided:

Still another cause of disagreement and dissension has been the formation of religious sects and denominations. Baha’u’llah said that God has sent religion for the purpose of establishing fellowship among humankind and not to create strife and discord, for all religion is founded upon the love of humanity. Abraham promulgated this principle, Moses summoned all to its recognition, Christ established it, and Muhammad directed mankind to its standard. This is the reality of religion. If we abandon hearsay and investigate the reality and inner significance of the heavenly teachings, we will find the same divine foundation of love for humanity. The purport is that religion is intended to be the cause of unity, love and fellowship and not discord, enmity and estrangement. Man has forsaken the foundation of divine religion and adhered to blind imitations. Each nation has clung to its own imitations, and because these are at variance, warfare, bloodshed and destruction of the foundation of humanity have resulted.

True religion is based upon love and agreement. Baha’u’llah has said, “If religion and faith are the causes of enmity and sedition, it is far better to be nonreligious, and the absence of religion would be preferable; for we desire religion to be the cause of amity and fellowship. If enmity and hatred exist, irreligion is preferable.” Therefore, the removal of this dissension has been specialized in Baha’u’llah, for religion is the divine remedy for human antagonism and discord. But when we make the remedy the cause of the disease, it would be better to do without the remedy. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 231-232.

“Far better to be nonreligious,” Baha’u’llah says, condemning enmity and hatred and all sectarian divides. It may seem exceedingly strange for the founder of the world’s newest major Faith to suggest abandoning your religion—but that’s exactly what Baha’u’llah advises us.

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