by: Micah Fries

Coexist. That bumper sticker is all over the place. A lot of folks don’t like it. They fear that the underlying principle behind it is to diminish distinctive belief, or even worse, to deny someone’s particular belief. That’s a real fear. The world is filled with many different religious beliefs. However, what shouldn’t be in question is whether we coexist with those who believe differently than we do, or who even disagree with what we believe. The alternative to coexistence is either everyone believing the same thing and agreeing with each other, or forcible compliance for those who do not hold the same views. The first idea, everyone in agreement, is never going to happen and the second concept is the source of wars throughout history. 

We need to be able to get along peaceably, to coexist, and be able to work together for the sake of our communities, nations, the world, etc. How we coexist is an important question to consider, though. I am troubled with the suggestion that we should coexist because of common beliefs. In other words, the idea that all religions are essentially the same is problematic in that it’s simply not true. There are certainly those, both from a negative and positive perspective, who will try to argue that all religions are the same. In his book “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins quotes Cathy Ladman who said, “All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays.” On the more positive side, a number of people have echoed the basic thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi who said, “The essence of all religions is one. Only their approaches are different.” While I appreciate voices that are different from my own, I don’t think we can make these claims. First, I obviously believe in religion – in faith – and practice it. Beyond that, though, a study of various faiths will demonstrate that there are fundamental disagreements within those faiths. Some are more universal in nature, but others are exclusivist. They have points where they not only disagree, but some religions have places where they are irreconcilable with each other. There are, no doubt, some commonalities in various religious systems; but it is deeply problematic to say that all religious systems are essentially the same. It overlooks, or even denies, the very real differences that we have. The truth is that many of the world’s belief systems have irreconcilable beliefs. Instead of emphasizing common belief, I think we ought to root our coexistence in the dignity and worth of every person, and most religions teach this, though they get to that conclusion from different places. 

As a Christian I believe that every person is created in the image of God. In that case, every person has dignity, worth and value that has nothing to do with their belief or practice. We have value because we exist. Other faiths do not embrace the idea that every person is made in the image of God, but nearly all religions still affirm the dignity, value and worth of every person. If that is the case, every person should have the right to live and practice their faith/religious beliefs without fear of persecution or reprisal. This is the heart of religious freedom. It’s central in the pursuit of universal human rights. And we ought to be able to work side by side, cooperatively, even (and especially) when we fundamentally disagree. We should be able to love one another, freely work together where we can, share our faith and our lives with one another, and do so even in the midst of disagreement. If we cannot do this, we will continue to tear down and destroy each other. In other words, we need to coexist, or we will cease to exist. 

As a Christian, I would love for every person in the world to follow Jesus, but because I believe in the worth, dignity and value of every person, if they choose not to, I’m still going to love them and treat them with kindness and (hopefully) continue to be their friend regardless. This is at the heart of my own faith and practice. I want to coexist, but I want a more honest approach to coexistence, one which does not try to force an artificial agreement upon all people, but rather one that acknowledges human dignity, and rallies around that as our source of coexistence and collaboration. In my understanding, human dignity is the only lasting ground for authentic peaceful coexistence.