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Celebrating World Parliament of Religions Chicago 2023 with Transformative Lessons for Today

The World Parliament of Religions took place in Chicago, USA from August 14-18th 2023. The World Parliament of Religions, founded 1893, is a global gathering of all religions. The 2023 International Conference lived to the spirit that created it 130 years ago around the theme, “A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom and Human Rights.” There were over 7,000 delegates at the McCormick Lakeside Centre. The different speakers and exhibitors portrayed a spirit of togetherness and filiality. The mood at the conference was carnival-like, as delegates were full of joy and laughter. They exhibited a high spirit of understanding that their differences should not stop them from being one people who mean well for humanity. One keynote speaker posed the question whether humanity can wear the same clothing, eat the same diet, and share the same lifestyle. That would be difficult given the needs, desires, feelings, geographic location and medical needs each person has. Therefore, it is better to respect and celebrate differences than being corralled into one way of thought and living. It made a lot of sense. But then what unites should help promote the common good and uplift the dignity of each and every person. Each society was challenged to explore means that uplift men, women, youth, children, from dungeons of hate and discrimination. No society should deny anyone the right to live a fulfilled life.

The conference was sponsored by many institutions led by Fetzer Institute, whose focus is around promoting a loving world where humanity is one family working for common goods, and the Ansari Institute, which supports studying, learning, and collaboration for the common good.

Unity on common concerns despite differences

Phyllis Curott, the Chair of the Programme Committee, said one of the fundamental crises today is authoritarianism. The growing authoritarianism suppresses freedoms, subverts democracies and murders the truth with lies. Therefore, celebrating differences has to be united on the defense of justice, freedom, human rights and democracy. This remark tied in well with Hon. Bobby L. Rush, Former Member of Congress and Chair of Chicago Host Committee Chair, who quoted the Book of Micah 6:8 to ask the question on our calling. What does the Lord ask of me, but do it justly and to love and to walk humbly? In other words, our commitment to the defense of justice, freedom, promotion of human rights can tame authoritarianism. The definition of authoritarianism should not be left to despotic leaders and those who alter constitutions to remain in office for eternity. But authoritarianism can be found within our faith communities, business Machiavellianism and family settings. At the centre of what we fight for should be unity around principles and values that promote the human dignity and work for the common goods. Authoritarianism should be challenged to the core.

Unity around climate change stood out. Every religion, faith, spirituality embraces this common global concern. The lectures and break away sessions incorporated climate change in their presentations. In the Global Missions University Panel and subsequent reflections argued why science and religion cannot walk separate paths but find commonality in this global challenge. Being united around common concerns smothers differences.

The World Parliament of Religion called for unity on complex matters and dialogue to forge an understanding that brings about long term solutions. Motivations around lifting the poor out of poverty should not come out of sympathy and empathy, but out of care for humanity and a desire to leave no one behind. An endowed small clique of elitists and the gentry should not be left to drive the economic wellbeing of the nation but can find ways to share their skills to help more people out of poverty.

Fighting fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is a great danger to humanity. The women of Afghanistan are crying out for justice in accessing education. Being denied education is a destruction of basic human rights. Taliban fundamentalism is not only a danger to humanity but exhibits the fear of success of people we value less. In the spirit of Beijing 1995, educating a woman educates the whole household and supplements in resources what the man does for the household. The fear and demonization of women should not happen in the contemporary world. The Parliament of Religion discussions raised concern on the Taliban fundamentalism against women’s education but also added the rising danger to value less human beings within certain faiths too where there might be dark spots that require enlightenment.

Fundamentalism is on the rise in the post Covid-19 situation. The example May 2023 discovery of the Shakahola cult’s self-imposed starvation suicides in Kilifi County (Kenya) resurrected questions whether religion contributes to any good considering over 300 lives seemed to agree to starve to death by a cultic pastor. Why would a person who means well for humanity abuse the very trust given him by his followers? Esther Oluff Pendersen explains why Karl Marx had observed his own society to present the metaphor that religion is ‘das opium des volks,’ or opium of the people. Well intending people can package religion to suit and serve their interests and leave the masses to be manipulated for selfish ends.

It implies believers of a particular religion and belonging to a particular faith have a clear understanding that people can live together and work for the common good. So, when the Shakahola self-imposed starvation suicide took place emotions were pitch high to scale down activities of certain faiths that lean towards cultism. This is not the same as celebrating differences but acting on areas that are a danger to humanity. Cultism can lead to loss of life and great schisms in human relations.

In an earlier discussion around fundamentalism, Hakan Yavuz, in the book Toward an Islamic Movement (2013), made a strong argument against cultic worship. A good level of education should help their followers to ask questions even if there are simple answers. Research guided reason to re-interpret religious and cultural traditions they live in across Africa, Asia and Europe through multi sectoral approaches. Immanuel Kant (1784) sees enlightenment as “man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity.” Karl Popper in Open Society and its Enemies (1945) defined enlightenment as “the effort of men to free themselves, to break out of the cage of closed society (fundamentalism) and to form an open society.” Shakahola debacle can be avoided with education that defines an enlightened person.

The path to finding truth

There was concern about how to derive truth. This is not a simple discourse especially when ridden by a moral and value ridden background. Discernment of self-truth could start from the family, education system one lived in, the ontology and epistemology of the community and how people define the sacred in that society.  If religion is central to defining truth, how do we derive truths found in many religions that do exist today? It is Roy Rappaport (1999) in Ritual and Religion in Making Humanity, who made the argument on discernment of truth. This was in reference to the earlier work by J.L Austin (1962). Roy questioned the process of deriving truth, accuracy or adequacy on what is presented to us. For Roy, truth can be determined by a given society around what is the sacred, holy books and ethical living, truth about doctrines of faith, what defines order of society, truth around writing a common constitution to make sound rulings and how to maintain order. Does what constitutes falsity present itself as an indicator of untruths or is the falsity driven by self-aesthetics on what is right and wrong? Some lectures at the World Parliament of Religion built on this argument to reflect on a series of situations where humanity has faulted itself by denying others fundamental rights to what is seen as truth. The Covid-19 situation called for saving lives by vaccine production. But there were the naysayers who did not embrace fundamental truths that vaccines could save lives.

However, dialogue around difficult situations can help reach certain universal truths which uphold human dignity and promote the universally seen as the common goods.

Therefore, this analysis illuminates the religious facticity and truth on one hand and the Durkheimian insights concerning ritual and religion as moral foundations on which society builds truth. In other words, suppose you found persons who derive truth only in science and not religion, shall one feel the other to be inferior or find common areas of dialogue for knowledge sharing? Truth will emerge when each side cedes to the centre what is common and keep what they consider contentious. The contentious grey areas require more dialogue through scientific study to arrive at some commonalities of reason. There will be truths in sociology, physics, engineering, ICT, psychosocial trauma healing and nature of things. Shall humanity quarrel over which direction is truth? Facts supported by science can find space in facts supported by religious discourse. In this context then we should celebrate differences, promote tolerance and champion acceptability.

The related question then was how do these truths drive order in society? Would one’s beliefs be enough to speak about order in regards to human rights and social justice? It is the combination of well-reasoned out values that constitute a system of laws, forged in a constitution that can unite a people to observe order. Driving laws help to know which side to drive and if one respects traffic lights, you avoid accidents. Different adherents to religion will be united under a certain code of conduct to maintain order.

Does that mean that the order cannot be reformed and allow widening of space for more actors without breaking common belief systems? It means that in every religion there will be voices asking for reforms, change, dialogue, discussing meaning of rituals, challenging spiritualities, and looking for answers. There will be no final answers to truth and order but continuous cycle of uncovering truths. Then should the leaders see these different voices as bad, who should be thrown away in dungeons? If acceptability, tolerance and celebrating differences disappear, then we shall defeat the very reason why World parliament of Religions was formed.

In conclusion, the World Parliament of Religion that meets every 3-4 years calls for humanity to work as one and be united against rising totalitarianism and dictatorship. The campaign for peace will also be accompanied justice, freedom, charity. Global harmony will mean no nation can invade another nation to impose its value system on it. Uplifting human dignity will not be done through the gun or military coups not by jailing those who seem opposed to our narrow value systems.

Remembering arguments by Mahbub Ul Haq and Amartya Sen (1990), while presenting the human development report to the United Nations put importance on why people matter. The people should be given (millions of) opportunities. The people then must make choices among these millions of opportunities to support what they value most in terms of relational wellbeing and economic wellbeing through rigorous social enterprise. World Parliament of Religions promotes this philosophy to all people in the world.