01/05/2018 12:29 EST | Updated 01/05/2018 12:30 EST

This Year, Let's Remember That Religion Is A Force For Good

If you associate hatred, violence and prejudice with religion, it may be time to check your blind spots.

Despite the predictions of many over the past decades, religion is not disappearing and is ever more present in public life. Unfortunately, what we mostly hear about is distressing, like the appalling acts of terror carried out by those who claim to be guided by religion. We shouldn't let those that invoke religion to justify evil actions prevent us from seeing all the good religion has to offer to society.

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In fact, anything to do with terror is not religion, because religion is about bringing people together. Let's stop focusing on the remote links between religion and violence. If we could explore more profoundly in the public arena what religion really means for people, we might learn a thing or two about the heart of human motivation, the purpose of life and the kind of society we want to see. We might see how religion is inspiring people to have a positive influence on those around them.

Let's stop focusing on the remote links between religion and violence.

Having this type of discussion is not necessarily an easy feat, considering how affected we all are by the horrible events committed in the name of religion. A year ago, even New Year's celebrations were overcast by an Islamic State terrorist attack, killing 39 people from a wide range of countries in a Turkish nightclub of Istanbul.

At the onset of 2018, religion is again bubbling up in the headlines, but this time there's a twist. Major upheavals in Iran over the past few days are shedding light on just how fed up the population of Iran is with a regime that uses religious rhetoric as a cover for a terrible record of human rights violations. Unbearable economic suffering caused by the corruption of governing clerics ripping off the country's wealth has led people to the streets.

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An Iranian friend, and PhD candidate at McGill, expressed his amazement in seeing the population rise against the clergy in the holy city of Qom. He translated a popular protest slogan for me: "You used Islam as a ladder, then crushed the people after." The demonstrations underway target many other social issues, but as my friend put it, people are realizing through it all the actions of fundamentalist Islamic politicians and clergy actually have little to do with religion.

Iran may seem far away, but the reputation religion has gained there is similar to what people think elsewhere in the world. Hatred and prejudice against the "other" has become associated with religion. The result is that religion itself, and the good that it can inspire in people, is rejected entirely; and the consequence may well be harming the global social fabric. Canada is not immune to these troubles, as these prevailing attitudes contribute to ghastly attacks on religious groups, like the one that killed six in a mosque of Quebec City last January.

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How do we find shelter in these acrimonious times? Wouldn't our country be better off if we tried to understand the positive aspects of religion? How can we beat hatred if not with some more positivity? After all, the language of religion stresses love and compassion. Isn't it time we tried bringing more of that into the current climate of polarization and animosity? That's why I've decided to make an effort to learn and share alternative perspectives on religion.

Conversations about religion remain uneasy and usually stay on the surface. We hear of hijabs and turbans, or churches and synagogues, but we don't discuss the reason why so many people turn to religion. Religion can be a source of strength and resilience through difficult times. Religion is a motivating impulse behind social action and altruistic endeavours.

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I have seen people from diverse backgrounds and personalities work together peacefully toward a common vision under the umbrella of one religious community. Why do not talk about this outside of religious circles? What are we afraid of?

I am hoping 2018 will bring more opportunities to delve into the topic of religion without prejudice and in a way that is informed by reason, allowing us to see religion for what it really is: a moral and spiritual stimulus helping human beings cooperate and advance.

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