By Maggie Hall
Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of the Humanists UK Dialogue Network, and a Humanists UK School Speaker. She is also a retired Teacher of Speech and Drama. In this article she looks at the reasons why people who supposedly worship the same god seem to have such difficulty in getting along together.
It's estimated that there are something close to 5,000 religions in existence today, most of them variations of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Some of them are polytheistic. For example, Hinduism has approximately forty to fifty named gods, plus approximately 300 alternative names for those same forty to fifty, although this is a simplification of its vast pantheon of gods. Sikhs believe in only one ‘Immortal Being’ and Jains do not believe in a creator god but that God in some way consists of the combined souls of all living beings. Some branches of Buddhism honour certain deities in the form of spiritual guides rather than all-powerful gods, but there are also entirely secular forms of Buddhism.
The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) all spring from worship of the same god, variously known as Yahweh, Jehovah, Elohim, Allah or, in English, just God, with an initial capital. It is interesting to note that it is these Abrahamic faiths, all supposedly worshipping the same god, which seem to disagree most strongly with each other, often to an extreme degree, resulting in innumerable wars, atrocities and genocides throughout history.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of this particular god, but it is generally thought that he was originally a Canaanite deity, just one of a large pantheon, headed by a father-god known as El. When El allocated specific regions to each of his 70 children, Baal was given Canaan, whilst Yahweh became the god of Israel. For some time there was great competition between the followers of these two gods, but ultimately Yahwists prevailed, and he became the deity now recognised as the same god in all the Abrahamic religions.
So why the disagreement?
Although all the Abrahamic religions began with followers of the same god, as the faith spread and diversified among different populations, so ideas of the nature of the god and the correct way to perceive him and worship him also differed, resulting in the disparate and sometimes totally contradictory iterations that we see today.
The most obvious disagreement between Christians and Jews is about the divinity of Jesus. Whilst Jesus, to Christians, is the son of God, forming one aspect of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to Jews he was an ordinary Jewish preacher and a false Messiah. Christians see Jesus as the ‘anointed one’ of God, sent as the ultimate sacrifice for the salvation of the world. To Christians he is the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures, but the majority of contemporary Jews in the time of early Christianity rejected this belief and continue to do so today.
The notion, arising in early Christianity, that the Jewish people were ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus is based on Matthew 27:24-25: ‘So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”’ Over time, the demonisation of Jews as Christ-killers, together with numerous false conspiracy theories such as the ‘blood libel’, accusing Jews of murdering Christians in order to use their blood in the performance of religious rituals, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, believed to have been fabricated under the direction of the Russian secret police in Paris between 1897 and 1899 which details a purported Jewish plot for global domination, have spawned countless acts of anti-Jewish violence. These include pogroms, massacres of Jews during the Crusades, expulsions of the Jews from European countries, including England, France, Spain and Portugal, torture during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions and culminating in the Nazi genocide known as the Holocaust. Relations between Jews and Christians began to improve after the Second World War, partly due to the recognition of the willingness of Christian rescuers who risked their lives to hide Jews or help them escape, but also because Christians were forced to face up to the part their religion had played in demonising Jews to the point where the Holocaust was possible.
Tensions with the Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic declaration Nostra Aetate (‘In Our Time’), also known as the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965. It ‘decries hatred, persecution, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,’ and calls for ‘mutual respect and knowledge’ between Catholics and Jews. In 2000, Pope Paul VI apologised for the Church’s past ‘sins’ but did not specifically mention the Holocaust, upsetting many Jews. Another source of tension centres on the proposed beatification of Pope Pius XII: many Jewish leaders consider he could have done much more than he did to help put an end to the Nazi genocide.
Evangelical Christians, being of a more recent origin than Roman Catholicism, are by comparison freer from the stain of historical antisemitism. Being strongly based in biblical fundamentalism, the Evangelical position tends to support what they see as the God-given right of Jews to live in Israel. This is founded not only in the eschatological prophecies of Revelation, but also in a reverence for the Old Testament depiction of Jews as God’s ‘chosen people’. Not all evangelicals are specifically Zionist, but in general there is a special regard for the Jewish people as fellow ‘people of the Book’.
Muslims and Jews
People of the Book, or Ahl al-kitāb, is an Islamic term usually used to refer to people Muslims consider to have been guided by pre-Quranic revelations, particularly with regard to scripture. Much of the Quran is a retelling of what Jews and Christians would recognise as stories from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Historically, these people were given special protection by Muhammad, as he viewed them as natural allies. However, most Jews rejected many of the ideas of Islam, particularly the viewing Jesus as an Islamic prophets. The Jewish Talmud states that Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi, who lived centuries before, were the last prophets. Muslims claim to be restoring Abrahamic monotheism, which is perceived to have been corrupted by both Christians and Jews. The Quran condemns Jews and Christians who reject the message of Islam to an eternity in Hell (Surah 98:6).
Muslims and Christians
Islam considers Christians to be polytheists due to the Christian concept of the Trinity. Christian views of Islam are various and wide-ranging, but in general Christians view Islam as a false religion because of its rejection of Christ’s divinity, the crucifixion and resurrection. Muslims share with Christians the belief that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and was indeed the prophesied Messiah, but not that he was the divine, incarnate son of God. They agree that Jesus was condemned to be crucified but that he was saved from the cross and ascended to Heaven, another person who resembled him being crucified in his place (Surah 4:157). Both Christians and Muslims believe in the second coming of Jesus and his victory over an evil figure known in Christianity as the anti-Christ and in Islam as the Dajjal. Many Christians believe that Jesus will then rule for a millennium, whereas Muslims believe he will reign for forty years, during which time he will marry and produce children. The Crusades to the ‘Holy Land’, during the 11th-13th centuries, were religious wars initiated by the Catholic Latin Church with the aim of reclaiming Jerusalem and its surrounding areas from Islamic rule. The Crusades form a long and complicated history involving the deaths of many Muslims, Jews and Christians over a period of some three hundred years.
Do Jews, Christians and Muslims consider that they follow the same God?
One Christian source answers this question as follows:
‘On the face of it, it seems that three of the world’s main religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam worship the same God – the God of Abraham, the ancient Hebrew nomad, who lived in the Middle East about 4,000 years ago. But not all Christians share this view... while Christians share some of Islam’s understandings of what God is like (e.g. merciful, almighty), there are important differences (Christians would not call God ‘the withholder’, ‘the deceiver’, which are both among the 99 ‘beautiful names’ of Allah). Most importantly, Muslims believe the concept of God as a Trinity is a serious misrepresentation and a grave error, and likewise do not view Jesus as the Son of God.’
On Hinduism and Buddhism the article merely states that they have ‘a different take on the idea of god’. This does not seem to me to be answering the question at all. It certainly lays out the differences in the concept of God between the religions but does not really come down on one side or the other as to whether it is basically the same god that is being worshipped by them all. However, the article concludes: ‘A close, personal relationship with God is possible only because of Jesus Christ – it is a gift, not something that can be earned. This way of understanding and experiencing God is unique to Christianity.’ Which could, I suppose, be read as saying that even if they are all worshipping the same god it is only Christians who have the correct approach and will therefore be the only ones who will win the ultimate prize of eternal bliss.
A Jewish perspective on this question is as follows:
‘I want to enter this discussion within the parameters set by traditional rabbinic doctrine. But I discover that, on this question, there are rabbinic sources for both affirming and denying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, creator of heaven and earth. As a consequence, I read rabbinic doctrine as sending me out to look and see and hear about the practices of this or that Christian and this or that Muslim before I would be able offer a reasonable judgment about whose worship may or may not complement my worship.’
It's more difficult to find an answer to this question by a practising Muslim but, as mentioned earlier, the Quran considers that all ‘people of the book’ share a belief in the same god but the teachings of the scriptures have been corrupted, which is why Allah revealed the Quran to the prophet Muhammad, in order to put the record straight. A professor of Islamic studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland has been quoted as saying that Muslims today worship the same God that Abraham and Isaac worshipped – in other words, the same God worshipped by Jews.
"My fervent hope is that one day the madness may cease with the realisation that their disagreements stem from the fact that all gods are invented by fallible human beings."
So it would seem that, whilst the answer to the question is quite clear to historians, it is not as clear to most believers, with the possible exception of Muslims, who don’t seem to have a problem with the idea of sharing a belief in the same deity, just that the beliefs of all the other believers have been corrupted. The answer to the question ‘Why can’t they get along’ is not really to do with the god they are worshipping, but rather which of them is worshipping the god in the right way. Unfortunately, for many centuries, these theological differences have been addressed by the sword, the torture chamber, the gun and the explosive device rather than by any effort at mutual understanding. Today, although wars and atrocities originally spawned by these religious schisms still rage on, there is at last an appetite for “interfaith” dialogue, at least in the West. My fervent hope is that one day the madness may cease with the realisation that their disagreements stem from the fact that all gods are invented by fallible human beings.