It has often been said that more wars have been fought in the name of religion than anything else. While that statement is completely inaccurate, many people still ponder the question, "Why can’t religions coexist peacefully?" The short answer is because the various religions are competing with one another for the hearts and souls of men. The very nature of religious belief is exclusive, because each religion makes claims about truth that are at odds with the claims of other religions.
Every religion addresses these basic questions: Where did man come from, and why is he here? Is there life after death? Is there a God, and how can we know him? These questions help frame one’s worldview, the foundational philosophy of how one deals with life. When two people have different answers to these questions, there is bound to be conflict of some sort. This conflict can range from a friendly disagreement to a life-and-death battle, depending on the people involved. Since there are hundreds of different religions in the world, and millions of people framing their worldview, it is easy to see how things can escalate.
Typically, when the question "why can’t religions coexist" is asked, the focus is on the historic struggles among Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, although other religions are often included. Sometimes, a contrast is drawn between the pacifism of Eastern mysticism and the violence of traditional monotheism (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), though violence and extremism can also be found among the mystic religions. A brief look at history will confirm that every religion has its extremists and carries its share of blame for violence. An important question to ask is whether the bloodshed can be attributed to a religion’s essential teachings, or if it comes from a twisted application of those beliefs.
Christianity is often blamed for atrocities committed in the name of Jesus Christ. The Crusades (1096-1272), the Inquisition (1200-1800), and the French Wars of Religion (1562-98) are common examples. All these events were carried out under the auspices of and with the approval of the Roman Catholic Church, yet they were clearly in violation of the teachings of Jesus Christ. In fact, both the Inquisition and the French Wars of Religion were attacks by Catholics against Christians who disagreed with the doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church. Writing of this history, Noah Webster said, "The ecclesiastical establishments of Europe which serve to support tyrannical governments are not the Christian religion but abuses and corruptions of it."
When the teachings of Jesus and the apostles are examined, it is clear that Christians are expected to live lives characterized by peace. Romans 12:14 and 18 say, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. . . . If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Jesus said in Matthew 5:39, "Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." Peter wrote, "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing" (1 Peter 3:9).
Judaism is accused of stirring up violence, yet throughout history, the Jews have been on the receiving end of violence for more than two thousand years. In every country where they have lived, they have been maligned and persecuted, even though they lived peacefully and provided goods and services to others. Some will point to passages in the Old Testament in which the Jews were commanded to exterminate other nations and say this proves the violent undertones of Judaism. Interestingly, even though God commanded the Jews to wipe out the inhabitants of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 7:1-5) in order to prevent His people from falling into idolatry, He also commanded them not to "mistreat or oppress a foreigner"(Exodus 22:21). And He extended an invitation to everyone, not just Jews, to believe in Him and be saved (Isaiah 45:22; Romans 10:12; 1 Timothy 2:4). God’s intention is to bless all people through the Jews (Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 49:6). Judaism teaches people "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).
Islam has also been accused of violence, and in recent years many have tried to distinguish between Islamic extremism and the "religion of peace," as Islam is sometimes called. There is no doubt that there are many peaceful followers of Islam, but it is also clear that the very foundation of Islam is rooted in violence. Muhammad (570-632), the founder and prophet of Islam, was raised in the city of Mecca and began preaching his revelations at the age of 40. When some tribes opposed him, he led his followers on a brutal campaign to defeat and convert them. Many revelations were given encouraging Muslims to kill those who did not believe (Surah 2:191; 4:74; 8:12), and that is the primary way Islam has spread throughout its history. When the United States was at war with the Barbary pirates, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering said, "Taught by revelation that war with the Christians will guarantee the salvation of their souls, and finding so great secular advantages in the observance of this religious duty, their inducements to desperate fighting are very powerful." In contrast to Christian extremists who have clearly twisted Scripture to justify their violence, Muslim extremists can point to the clear teaching and practice of their founder to support their acts. It is the moderates in Islam who have to explain away verses condoning violence.
One word can sum up the reason why religions cannot coexist peacefully: sin. Because sin affects all men, the tendency to fight can rise up even in religious contexts. While different religions may have similar positive benefits to society, all religions are not equal. Only Christianity addresses the sin problem by changing the heart of man. "If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17).