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World Religion and World Politics


To entertain the notion of a World Religion is to ignore the deep cultural and historical roots out of which religious institutions emerge. While the globalization of science has occurred over the last century, this is certainly not true when it comes to systems of belief. Likewise true inter-religious dialogue only emerges when all parties are motivated by a deeply held common goal. One possible starting point for true dialogue could be the acknowledgement of a sense of the sacred that appears to be common to all religious persuasions.

Keywords: Religion and science, globalization, sacred, quantum theory, inscape, dialogue 


Is a world religion something that is possible, or even desirable? Could a world religion prove to be truly genuine and unifying for humanity, or would it be a shallow form of syncretism drawn from the spiritual supermarket of our modern age?

Much is written today about our living in ‘one world,’ with the increased homogenization of cultures and traditions. Some view this in the context of what is termed ‘globalization,’ which itself tends to be discussed in somewhat polarized ways. On the positive side, globalization offers the promise of international cooperation, world governance and the possibility of lasting peace and national and international levels. On the negative side it is viewed as involving a vast and unregulated network of international economic transactions, the dominance of certain brand names, the growth of multinational corporations which lie outside the control of any nation, and an increasing gap between rich and poor nations.

Globalization: New and Old

Yet taken in a wider context, global considerations are nothing new. 1864 saw the initiation of the International Red Cross, later joined by the Red Crescent. In that same year international negotiations began in Geneva to limit the impact of warfare on civilians and soldiers and resulted in a series of Geneva Conventions. In 1899 Count Muravyov, Czar Nicholas II’s minister for foreign affairs, called a meeting of 26 nations in The Hague to discuss world peace. The result was the outlawing of certain methods of warfare and the establishment of an International Court of Justice. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 established the League of Nations, while in 1945 the United Nations was founded and two years later a UN commission was formed to establish the principles of International Law. Thanks to the efforts of Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and other scientists the first Pugwash conference was held in 1957 and has led to continuing efforts to highlight the issues of nuclear war and global security.

Likewise a wide variety of international and humanitarian NGOs were created to provide aid and assistance across national boundaries. These include Médecins sans Frontières (to provide medical facilities in areas of famine, disease and civil war), the Italian-based Emergency (concerned with the abolition of landmines and treatment of those injured by mines), Amnesty International (highlighting the abuse of human rights) as well as such agencies as the Grameen Bank which supplies microcredits (often to women) to encourage the development of small enterprises and Heifer International which, rather than supplying milk and food to communities in need, provides them with the livestock and training in order to feed themselves.

A host of international humanitarian enterprises now operate at everything from the small to the large scale. There has also been the international recognition of issues that transcend the political boundaries drawn on any map—such as the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming and global dimming (by many if not all nations), the importance of preserving certain geographical areas such as the rain forests that supply the world’s oxygen and host a vast range of plant, insect and animal species, the dangers of various forms of pollutants, and the recognition that substances such as DDT not only propagate throughout the food chain but lead to highly resistant insect species.

At one level the history of the past century represents a significant move away from purely nationalistic or culturally-biased thinking to concern about humanity and the global environment as a whole; that it is the responsibility of all nations to express concern for all peoples and even for the plants and animals that inhabit our planet. Altruistic thinking holds that there should be justice for all, along with adequate food and medical services, education, the possibility of work and economic stability, and the freedom from warfare, famine, and extreme poverty. Yet during this same period we have also seen the darkest side of humanity—ethnic cleansing, civil war, torture, abuse of human rights, destruction of parts of the environment and the threats to global peace from nuclear, biological and nano weapons.

It is against this background that we should think about world religions. Can the recognition of a common humanity extend to some sense of a global religion? The difficult question is that while it may be possible to arrive at international agreements about what we mean by justice, human rights, and economic and environmental sustainability, it is far more problematic to agree upon a global ethic or a global belief system.

Human Institutions

Religions, no matter how they were inspired, are human institutions and contain within them an expression of a people’s history, origins, and identity. Religions may also be concerned with the nature of power and authority. In certain countries, for example, kings were considered to rule by Divine right. In others the power of the courts did not extend to jurisdiction over the clergy and church property. Likewise the teachings of Copernicus and Galileo, and indeed the rise of science itself with its appeal to observation and experiment, were considered to be a dangerous challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church. Even today, while at one level the individual scientist and religious person both experience a sense of wonder and awe at the cosmos and in their hearts have a deep desire to seek for truth, nevertheless, as members of an institution both have certain vested interests they wish to retain.

On the other hand, paradigms and ways of thinking exist that truly transcend the limitations of culture and nation. One of these is science—if by ‘science’ we mean the particular approach of investigation and structuring knowledge that grew out of 17th century Europe. Even at the height of the Cold War scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain communicated with each other and attended conferences. Some areas of investigation, such as seeking the ultimate levels of subatomic matter, can only be carried out at an international scale. Likewise the search for ever more fundamental theories transcends any cultural, political or religious belief. What is more, science has brought with it a wide variety of technologies that seem essential to our modern lives. No wonder that in some areas scientists are viewed as a sort of contemporary priesthood.

Yet it becomes dangerous to see science in such a light, or as a companion to religion, for science is about change, mutability and transformation. It is confined within the worlds of space, time and matter, while religions speak of that which lies beyond these confines. When science pronounces on the Big Bang origin of the cosmos, it is referring to a change in what already existed—the quantum vacuum state. When religion speaks of ‘Creation’ it refers to something that appears out of nothing that existed before—creation ex nihilo. Likewise, while religious texts can be subject to hermeneutic investigation, they are supposed to contain eternal truths, while the theories and explanations of science are in constant transformation. What we take as the Big Bang origin of the cosmos today may be interpreted in a very different light in fifty years time.

There are even more profound differences between science and religion which limit the universality of science. Science is based upon human reason and disciplined observation, observations albeit enhanced by radio telescopes and electron microscopes. These may be modern wonders yet, in the last analysis, they are no more than technical extensions of our five senses. Religions however are based on truths that lie in a different area—upon revelation and the words of a deity as transmitted to prophets, religious sages and mystics. For Muslims, the Koran, is the world of Allah as dictated directly to the Prophet by the Angel Gabriel. Unlike a scientific textbook its truths, for Muslims, are immutable and its authority is beyond question. Similarly for Jews and Christians the ten commandments were given to the Jews directly by God and are not of human origin. Similarly in the Abrahamic religions there is a long tradition of prophets who spoke directly with God. In particular, for Christians, there is the belief that the historical Christ was God incarnate and, for Catholics, that his mother, Mary, was conceived without sin and at her death bodily ascended into heaven.

In science it is always possible that a paradigm shift or a scientific revolution may lie around the next corner. At the level of international law, economics and trade it is possible to negotiate and create compromises agreeable to all parties. Yet when it comes to religion there will always be fixed positions of belief. Indeed it is by maintaining those positions that believers establish their identity.

It is sometimes argued that word ‘religion’ has its origins in rilegare—to bind together (the entomology of the world is not conclusive) indicating a spirit of unification and wholeness within a religion. And it is certainly true that religions establish a series of rituals and rules of conduct that bind people together and establish their identity. Yet this binding together also acts to establish a distinction between the devout and the Others, that is, those who do not believe. It has been argued, for example, that the Jewish dietary laws were, in part, a way of asserting identity and distinction by forbidding the appearance of foods on the table that were eaten by others in the area. In this sense therefore it is the very nature of religions, as human institutions, to retain a certain exclusivity. Indeed, this is marked by a right of transition that must be undertaken in order to leave the camp of ‘the Others’ and enter into the fold of a religion—for example, through ceremonies of naming, baptism or circumcision, all of which are symbolic of leaving one life and being born into another. In this sense, therefore, religions exercise a certain exclusivity on their believers and do not lend well to an overall ‘globalization of belief’ in which one picks the ‘best’ or ‘most attractive’ elements of each religion in order to blend them together into a form of spiritual soup.


But while a ‘world religion’ may be neither possible, nor desirable, this is not to negate the considerable importance of mutual respect along with serious and active dialogue between religions. However such dialogue must always take into account the fact that religions contain within them areas that are inviolate to the particular believer. For example, the divinity of Christ, or the authenticity of the Koran cannot be negotiated away.

There is also the danger that inter-religious dialogue can founder on details of hermeneutics and theology. Participants end up discussing the nature of their religions while at the same time forgetting to pay attention to the heart of their faith. In other words, in their desire to accommodate the debate they become obsessed with the details of the husk while ignoring the nut.

On the other hand, there have been individuals, such as Gandhi, as well as groups that have sought to transcend the limits of religious institutions. Some of the mystical branches of the world’s religions, such as Sufism, perceive a universality that underlies all religions. And in Canada, for example, the Catholic Mass is sometimes concelebrated with a Native American Elder who uses a peace pipe.

Transcendence of the structures and doctrines of a particular religion often revolve around the nature of the divine and, in particular, with those, such as Meister Eckhart, who pursue the via negativa and assert that while it is possible to speak about what God is not, it is not possible to contain God within the limits of any fixed definition. Likewise, for Duns Scotus, it is not possible to know God’s essence through reason, even to the point of asserting that ‘God does not know himself because He is not a what1.’ This resonates with the Hadith of the Prophet ‘I was the Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the world so I might be known2.’

Likewise, for Scotus, God has no name, for if we claim, ‘He is goodness’ we must take into account that ‘goodness,’ ‘truth,’ etc, have their opposites, but God can have no opposite. For his part Nicholas of Cusa asserted that in such matters we must enter into a deep state of ‘learned ignorance.’ Since God transcends all distinctions, He becomes the coincidence of opposites, both the center and the circumference, at one and the same time being, everywhere and yet nowhere. Faced with the desire to know the divine, Rumi asserted that he had become ‘an articulate confusion.’

For Ibn al’Arabi even the notion of ‘one God’ becomes a limitation (and one that begins to exclude the authenticity of other religions). Rather the divine is approached as an infinite unity, that which cannot be named, that which transcends all beliefs. Indeed wujud, or ‘finding’ or ‘experiencing’ the divine requires a radical change of vision that moves beyond what can be encompassed by pure reason. In a particular sense it becomes a matter of the taste of experience, rather than its analytic exploration. For to the ‘people of Faith, true insight and experience’ the divine is directly perceptible and visible, while the created world is approached though the intellect. These are the people who drink of the sweet water. But for those who taste only the bitter water, creation is directly visible but the divine or ‘Real’ can only be intelligible through reason and not experienced directly.

Paradoxically, of course, it takes a highly refined and subtle intellect to arrive at the conclusion that reason and intellect have reached their limits.

The Veiled Reality

The discussions, held my many faiths, upon the limitations of discursive reason and the necessity to move beyond what can be named were in many ways echoed during the twentieth century in the debates over the nature of ‘quantum reality.’ European languages with their subject/predicate structure lead very naturally to our reifying of things—in this way ideas and concepts so easily become objects in the world of thought. Such languages, in which the world is pictured as a series of nouns (things) interacting and relating to each other (verbs) becomes a perfect mirror of the Newtonian worldview consisting of well-defined physical objects in interaction via forces.

As the disagreements between Bohr and Einstein highlighted, the quantum world is very different. For Einstein, the world must be created out of ‘independent elements of reality’ so that it must be possible to speak of an isolated elementary particle as having a well-defined position and speed. If there is an element of Heisenbergian uncertainty in its properties this must be because any attempt to measure one of these intrinsic properties acts to disturb the system in an unpredictable way. Bohr countered this by arguing that in no sense can an elementary particle be said to ‘possess’ a position or a speed. Rather a particular arrangement of experimental apparatus gives rise to an answer that we can interpret as indicating ‘speed’ or ‘position.’ Another disposition of apparatus produces a different answer. However, it is not legitimate to say that the particle ‘possessed’ these properties between each measurement. The best we can do is use the mathematics of quantum theory to correlated different answers.

But Bohr went further by asserting that the quantum world is radically different from that of large-scale classical objects. However the languages we use evolved though our experiences as humans in this large-scale world and therefore contain all manner of hidden assumptions about space, time, causality and the nature of objects. As soon as we begin to speak, therefore; as soon as we attempt to discuss or explain the nature of the quantum world, we unconsciously import all manner of assumptions that contaminate the conversation. The result, for Bohr is that ‘we are suspended in language such that we do not know what is up and what is down.’ The French physicist and philosopher, Bernard d’Espagnet, spoke of the quantum world as being a ‘veiled reality.’ Yet implicit in that metaphor is the existence of a real face concealed beneath the veil. But if we are to push Bohr to his limits then we cannot even assert the existence of a face, albeit it one that is forever veiled from us. It is simply that language, and thought which is framed in language, acts as a barrier to our ever entering into whatever reality happens to lie below the atom3.

As with de Cusa’s ‘coincidence of opposites Bohr also introduced the notion of complementarity, that is, reality is so rich that it cannot be exhausted in a single level of description. Rather we must entertain complementary, and even paradoxically opposed, descriptions.

It is interesting that our contemporary attempts to come to grips with subatomic reality evoke the medieval discussions about that which transcends our everyday reality in that the divine cannot be captured in words, definitions and proofs.


Earlier we argued that science should never be used to offer proofs for the foundations of religious beliefs. On the other hand there are ways in which the sincere pursuit of knowledge can lead to a deepening of the connection between those with different religious beliefs.

One such example of inter-religious cooperation took place, beginning in the 10th century, in Al-Andalus a period when Arabs, Jews and Christians lived together in harmony. It was a period that saw the flowering of astronomy, medicine, mathematics and botany—all thanks to the knowledge preserved and discovered by Arab scholars. It was a time when translations of key works were being made into Hebrew, Arabic and Latin and the town of Cordoba could boast such citizens as Averroes, Moses, Maimonides and Ibn ‘Arabi. Much what is of importance in European civilization was born in that period, a time when Europeans moved from Roman to Arabic numerals, made use of the compass for navigation out of sight of land, developed the use of logical argument in philosophy and employed double entry bookkeeping in order to keep track of commercial transactions. In many ways that period was far more revolutionary and influential from an intellectual and social perspective than the Renaissance that followed, indeed it was itself a true Renaissance—the birthplace of new knowledge4.

What is particularly significant about this period is that the source of this collaboration between religions and cultures was not founded upon what today would be terms ‘inter religious dialogue’ but out of a deep and genuine desire on the part of scholars to explore and share new areas of knowledge and study texts that were key to these other cultures. It is out of collaboration that relationships were born. It was out of the scholarly need to advance and share knowledge that Jews, Christians and Muslims sat at the same table. In Toledo, for example, the creation of the Alba bible was the result of Jews, Christians and Muslims working together at all levels from translation and commentary to the physical process of illuminating and book making5.

If one were to seek similar examples today it would be in the field of the sciences, such as elementary particle physics where at CERN in Geneva, for example, scientists from many nations some together to study the ultimate nature of matter. Symbolically the particle accelerator itself transcends national boundaries as the elementary particles follow a circular track that takes them back and forth across the border between France and Switzerland at close to the speed of light.

In the field of the arts there is today a healthy exploration of world cultures. ‘World music’ is enjoyed both by serious composers and pop artists who employ elements from Europe, Africa and Asian traditions. The English novel has been deeply enriched from writers who come from many different cultures including India, Africa, Japan and the Caribbean, each bring with them a particular cultural attitude and extending the metaphors and syntax of the language. Likewise visual artists, performers and film directors are employing materials from a variety of traditions.

Would it be possible for cultures and religions to come together in such a way again, though the genuine pursuit of a common interest? At first sight it seems dubious, given the political current climate in which political rhetoric, with its talk about an ‘Axis of Evil’ and references to Crusades, slides so easily into the stereotyping of religions. (As an example, according to an article in the New York Review of Books a senior official in the US Department of Defense declared in reference to a Muslim war lord, ‘My God was bigger than his. I knew my God was a real God and his an idol6.’

There are those who argue that humanity may come together in the face of common dangers that threaten the planet—the consequences of global warming, the continued existence of an enormous number of nuclear weapons and the added danger from chemical, biological and nano- weapons—but maybe this is only wishful thinking. Yet there is perhaps one ground in which we can all share and that is in what could be called the sacred.

The Sacred

While individuals may differ in their religious beliefs, and some even deny the value of religion or a belief in a creator God, most would agree that, within certain situations, they experience a strong sense of the sacred. This may occur when looking at the night sky or contemplating the vastness of the universe. It may be evoked by particular areas of great beauty or vastness, or pristine preservation of the natural world. It may arise when we consider the great web of life on this planet, or the appearance of a newborn7. For some it is associated with significant works of architecture such as temples, mosques or cathedrals, for others by works of art or musical compositions. The writer James Joyce referred to epiphanies—those moments when events around us coalesce into a meaningful and symbolic pattern8. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of inscape—the authentic voice dwelling within the natural world that he expressed in poetry with such lines as

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.

It is an expression of the uniqueness of things, the authentic song of their being,

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow: sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him9.

It is here that the mystic, the orthodox believer and the agnostic are united in recognizing that which is sacred, inviolate and greater than their own temporal and limited lives. It is at this point where true dialogue can begin.


1For an overview of the philosophy of Scotus see, for example, Fredrick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, II, Augustine to Scotus, Doubleday, NY, 1985. For the de Cusa see Copleston, A History of Philosophy, III, Ockham to Suarez, Doubleday, NY, 1985

2Stephen Hirstenstein, The Unlimited Mercifier: the spiritual life and thought of Ibn ‘Arabi, Anqa Pubs, Oxford, 1999 and William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination, SUNY, Albany, NY, 1989.

3For a general discussion of the debates surrounding the interpretation of the quantum theory, along with reprints of the key papers, see J.A. Wheeler and W.H. Zurek, eds, Quantum Theory and Measurement, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1983

4For an account of then way these new ideas permeated Europe see Alfred W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997

5Adriaan Keller, ‘The Alba Bible,’ talk given during the conference ‘A Dialogue between Three Communities and Science,’ Pari Center for New Learning, Pari, Italy June 28-30, 2002.

6Garry Wills, ‘Fringe Government,’ New York Review of Books, October 6, 2005, 46-50.

7See, for example, Ben Rogers, ed, Is Nothing Sacred, Routledge, London, 2004.

8See, for example, The Dead in John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley, editors, James Joyce’s Dubliners: An Illustrated Edition with Annotations, St Martin’s Press, NY, 1993.

9W.H. Gardner, editor Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1953