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Roles of Religious Culture in Peaceful Settlements

Diversity among religions

The area that is now occupied by the United States has always been a place of multiculturalism and religious diversity.  This was the case many generations before the arrival of the first undocumented immigrants coming from Spain, England, the Netherlands, and France.  Those immigrants had long been preceded by hundreds of different native tribes of somewhat diverse ethnicity, often with different languages and religious practices.  

The American traditions of religious tolerance and disestablishmentarianism commenced not with the English or Spanish, but in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam.  Not long after the colony was founded in 1624 it was settled not only by members of the Dutch Reformed Church, but also by Sephardic Jews, French Huguenots, Quakers, and many others.  By 1638 there were already 18 different languages identified in New Amsterdam. 

The adoption of the United States Constitution was followed in 1791 by the Bill of Rights, and it is significant that the very first section of the First Amendment reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …” 

In the present-day United States, three-fourths of adults claim to be Christian, and of those 2/3rds belong to various mainly Protestant denominations and 1/3rd are Roman Catholic.  Another 4% or more of the total includes Jews, Moslems, Hindus, and Buddhists.  The number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the United States may be as high as 20% or more.

In Northern Virginia, where I live, within about a 10-mile radius of my home one can find Protestant churches of all denominations (including two mega churches, an evangelical Hispanic church, and a Primitive Baptist church), two large Roman Catholic churches and a few smaller ones (one of which is a Latin mass church), a Sikh temple, several Moslem Jema’ah prayer centers, a Synagogue, a Latter Day Saints church, a Coptic Orthodox church, a Unitarian-Universalist church, a Baha’i center, a Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi house, two Jehovah’s Witnesses halls, a Quaker meeting house, and a Christian Science location.   

My clients in the past 35 years have come from all parts of the United States and from over 85 different countries.  In addition to English, the most common first languages of my clients are Spanish, Mandarin, Farsi, Arabic, Hindi, Vietnamese, Urdu, Korean, Thai, French, German, Cantonese, Russian, Portuguese, and Turkish.  The most common religions represented are Protestant Christian, Roman Catholic, Islam, Hindu, and Jewish.  Some clients whom I would consider very spiritual are not affiliated with any particular faith.

Perhaps the most spiritual client I have ever met is an engineer from Pakistan who went on the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) in the middle of his divorce.  He came back glowing with spirituality and appeared to be very much at peace with himself (much as Malcolm X described himself after the same journey).  I also remember another client, a Protestant minister who was dismissed from his parish due to doctrinal differences.  When I met with him a few months later he told me that he was working as a limousine taxi driver, and that he was not only making much more money, but that he found it to be a more spiritual experience!

At present, approximately 33% of the world’s peoples identify themselves as Christian, and over 22% as Moslem, 15% as Hindu, and 6% as Buddhist.  Of the remaining 24%, perhaps no other single religion has even 1% of the total.  These include Jews, Sikhs, and Baha’is.  Perhaps as many as 15% or even more of the world’s adults do not claim or practice any particular religious affiliation.  Although there are many faiths outside of the top four with more adherents than Judaism, the historical and cultural influences of the Jewish faith mean that an American mediator needs to think in terms of five major religions, not four.

Diversity within major religious traditions

Americans are very much aware of the diversity among Christians, not only between Catholics and Protestants, but among the multiple Protestant denominations.  There are also other quite separate approaches to Christianity, including the Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science.  We are generally less aware of the specific differences in doctrine and rituals among these denominations.  Every one of the major religions, including Judaism, embodies a wide spectrum of denominations, sects, and sub-groups.

With Islam, we are constantly reminded of the division between Sunnis and Shiites.  What we may not know is that the spectrum of historical and doctrinal differences among all of the various branches of Islam is just as wide as among the different approaches to Christianity.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by the controversy over the creation after 9/11 of Park51, an Islamic center within two blocks of the World Trade site.  When that was proposed, there were immediate protests that the opening of such an Islamic center in that area would be a victory for Al-Qaeda.  In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.  The center was mainly a Sufi Islam project.  Sufism is one of the most tolerant and peaceful branches of Islam.  Al-Qaeda hates the Sufis for their tolerance, and they showed it recently by hunting down and killing Sufis in Mali.  In 2009 the first stage of Park51 finally opened without incident.  Al-Qaeda would have considered it a victory if the center had been prevented from opening.

There is much misunderstanding about Islam.  To begin with, at one level the doctrinal differences between the two major branches of Islam, Sunni and Shite, may be somewhat overstated.  Yet each of those two main branches also has many diverse sects and a wide variety of approaches to the Islamic faith.  To some extent the more important differences may exist between some Islamic countries.  Even though both countries have large Sunni majorities, many Turkish Sunnis differ from Saudi Arabian Sunnis in a number of basic religious attitudes.  These differences cover such crucial matters as tolerance, the acceptance of secularism, women’s rights and dress, the use of alcohol, and religious freedoms generally.

A male person should not offer to shake hands with a female wearing an Islamic headscarf unless she invites him to do so.  In many such encounters in the United States, the male is offered a handshake, but be aware that some females who wear headscarves do not extend such an invitation.  It is, and should be, their choice.

A substantial majority of the world’s Moslems are not Arabs.  The country with the largest Moslem population in the world is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan and India (which are virtually tied as to the number of adherents in each country).  Bangladesh is fourth, followed by Nigeria, Iran, and Turkey.  Only then do Arab countries show up – Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Iraq.  Saudi Arabia has less Moslems than Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, or Uzbekistan. 

Each of the four major religious groups has some history of religious wars, intolerance, and even atrocities.  Buddhism has perhaps the best record of tolerance, although there have been recent reports of Buddhist persecution of Moslems in Burma.  The cruel and bitter 30 Years War in Europe (1618-1648) was fought between Catholics and Protestants.  The Holocaust was carried out by the secular leaders of a Christian country.  Gandhi was horrified by the Hindu massacres of Moslems at the time when India became independent in 1948.  Palestinians and Israelis keep killing each other as their long conflict continues.  The present horrible situation is Syria is partially a war among Islamic sects.  Al-Qaeda and the Taliban continue to carry on their version of jihad.  The Crusades at times caused as much harm to Byzantine Christians as to Moslems.

Peace and war in religious traditions

Every one of the major religions has much doctrine and history dealing with peace and peacemaking, but also with war and the waging of war.  Even “jihad” has a dual meaning.  Every religious person more or less “picks and chooses” the religious texts he or she considers the most important, and that includes even the Pope and the Dalai Lama.  “Fundamentalists” may be defined as those adherents who are less concerned about the history or context underlying the texts they may choose, and instead focus more on the literal words of those texts.   

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are monotheistic religions.  The Hindu religion has a number of God figures, but some Hindu denominations have found ways to consider their religion monotheistic.  Buddhists generally consider monotheism vs. polytheism, or indeed any kind of theism, to be irrelevant.  Perhaps there is a bit more emphasis on war in the monotheistic religions because of the sense of a calling to fight on behalf of the Deity. 

At the level of the individual, all of the major religions have doctrines that stress one’s peace with oneself and with one’s neighbors.  To be sure, there are always the texts that seem to encourage retribution – “an eye for an eye”.  But for every such text, there is at least another one urging forgiveness, or counseling to “turn the other cheek”.  Kindness generally begets praise, even when the person who practices it is a Samaritan!  Peace and forgiveness are common threads in the teachings of every major religion. 

The nature of religion

Religion is many things.  Every major religion has a theology with certain doctrines.  Each has a history and handed down stories, as well as traditional rituals.  Religions each also have a culture and set of religious practices that may go well beyond, or even differ from, their doctrine.  A dramatic example of the differences between doctrine and practice is birth control among Roman Catholics.  The Church’s doctrine is clear and firm, and in practice it is ignored by as many as 85% of professed American Catholics.  Most French citizens profess to be Catholics, and yet for many of them their religion consists of little more than the rituals of Christmas and Easter services, weddings, baptisms, an occasional confessional, and last rites.

In other words, the ways in which people describe their religion may or may not have much to do with how important their religion is in their daily lives, or what they believe and what they practice.  For some people, however, the teachings of their professed religion are crucial to any understanding of how they conduct their lives.  At least 60% of Americans claim to be religious, but that may mean a much different thing even as between two persons who adhere to the same specific denomination.

“Religion” tends to focus more on organized religion, while “spirituality” is a more individualized sense of awe and wonder.

The spiritual journey and the divorce process

Perhaps the best way to describe our path through life is that we are each on a spiritual journey.  The thing that makes the journey “spiritual” is our constant search for ways to give meaning to our lives, using that word in its transcendent sense.  We keep asking ourselves, “Why am I here?”  “What is the purpose of my life?”  We do this because we want our lives to be in harmony with a greater goal.

Marital separation and divorce are major life events that can bring the spiritual and material sides of our lives into sharp focus.  Our path has taken us on a fork that seems to move us away from our working life plan.  We may have chosen that fork, or it may have been chosen for us, or we may just have found ourselves wandering there.  No matter which, both our spiritual path and our material environment are now open to changes, often major changes.

One spiritual task of the mediator is to help people get back in touch with their better selves.  A possible key to that goal is to help the clients reconnect with their most basic sources of strength.  Everyone has sources of strength, although these differ from person to person, and they can be material as well as spiritual.  The list of possibilities goes on and on – parents, children, siblings, extended family, close friends, co-workers, teachers, role models, counselors, ministers, even at times the separated spouse – work, a profession, one’s home, a sacred text, a denominational church, an AA group, a reading group, a prayer circle, music, art, a hobby, reading, poetry, yoga, family history, travel, humor, bicycling, walking or jogging, cooking, drama, writing, even pets – and so forth. 

Everyone’s lists are somewhat different.  And some of these sources of strength can as well be sources of “bad vibes” (such as frustration or even obsession).  The sorting out is for the clients on their own time, both as to the priorities in their sources of strength and in focusing on the “good vibes”, not the bad ones. 

The problem when spouses separate is that their material situations are more likely to seem and often actually to be worse, not better, in regard to matters of income and expenses.  Options for the present may have more problems and the future may appear to be less bright.  It’s hard to pick up on one’s spiritual journey when one is worried about finances. 

So some reframing may be needed.  Remember the lyrics of the old depression era song by the Carter Family, “There’s a dark and a weary side of life.  There’s a bright and a sunny side too.”  That doesn’t mean to invite clients into the world of Pollyanna, where there is always a bright side to every disappointment.  But it does mean using the transitions of divorce as an opportunity to take advantage of both one’s fortunate and unfortunate past experiences in making wiser and more practical choices for the future.   Our spirituality can be part of what helps us get through difficult times.

The mediator’s job, of course, is to help the clients find the fairest and most practical ways to preserve and extend their material surroundings for both the immediate present and the longer-term future.  This is best accomplished when it can be done in a manner that is consistent with each client’s self-determination.  Such a goal is an important touchstone of ethical mediation. 

Beyond that, the refocused spiritual journey still takes place post-divorce in the context of the material world.  Still, at core it has to be a spiritual journey, not a material passage.  Yet it’s not a quest to envision an all-encompassing celestial light, such as Dante tried to describe at the end of Paradiso, or the search for a mystical union with God, such as Sufi dervishes seek to experience.

Our lives are full of stories that transcend abstractions.  So maybe our spiritual journey can be in part a search for stories that teach us and have a spiritual point.  We can find these in the four Gospels and the Midrashim, and in the humor of Zen Buddhism and the poetry of Mevlana Jelalu’ddin Rumi, and even in anecdotes about Albert Einstein.  Or elsewhere, depending upon the particular religious or secular background each of us possesses. 

The stuff of stories is relationships.  Our relationship with God may be what we have learned in a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, or may be based upon an entity that we otherwise try to conceptualize, such as the force that we believe drives the universe, or even the absence of any of these.  Or we can believe – in addition to or in lieu of these – that our relationship with God during our lifetimes must mainly play out in terms of our relationships with other people.

So if we believe that our spiritual journey won’t necessarily unfold just in abstract concepts of God, but rather is more likely to be carried out through human relationships, then our journey can take us to the spiritual as well as the material sides of those relationships.  It can help us find a broader definition of “family”.  It can help us find more things to respect in other people.  It can make us more likely to be in touch with our genuine spirituality and sources of strength as we encounter these in others.  And we can relearn ways to avoid being judgmental.

As we look for the stories in our own lives, we can also appreciate the stories that other people bring to us.  And thereby we can better help them to get refocused on their new spiritual journeys through the material world of present family finances and future security.


Larry Gaughan

Larry Gaughan was the Professional Director of Family Mediation of Greater Washington beginning in 1980.  He was admitted to the Bar in Montana in 1957 and in Virginia in 1967.  Larry was a full-time professor at three law schools, Virginia, Washington & Lee, and George Mason.  He did a year… MORE >

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