09/16/2013 04:18 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Does Religion Promote Violence?

Does religion promote violence? In our post 9/11 world this is a question that people are increasingly asking. Does religion make you a better person, or does it in fact do the opposite, and instead foster hate, fear, and violence? One does not have to look far to find examples of violence done at the hands of religious power, but is religion itself really to blame?

This is a touchy theme that tends to evoke both debate and strong emotions, regardless of which side of the debate one falls onto. For people of faith like myself, the tendency is to see this as an attack, and become defensive. So for a long time my response would have been to deny this claim, and in response to defend my faith's validity and value. As a progressive I would have stressed that faith can be characterized by good things like grace and compassion. I would have insisted that this is really what faith is about.

I still believe that. However, if I'm honest, a more accurate answer to the question would be that it depends on what kind of religion: Some types of religion can definitely foster and give legitimacy to violence and hate. Religion that seeks to demonize and scapegoat the other can. Religion that is characterized by threat and fear can. And religion that demands unquestioning obedience to its commands, overriding conscience and common sense, definitely can.

Now there are two caveats I need to make here: The first is that one can of course be intolerant and judgmental even if they do not subscribe to any faith at all. (If you ever need evidence of this, just read the comment section). Secondly, there are plenty of us whose beliefs and convictions (whether these are religious or secular) do not fit into the above mold.

Perhaps the more important question we ought to be asking however is whether our beliefs and convictions actively promote peace? Instead of pointing the finger or claiming innocence, maybe we need to take a look at what we are doing to actively promote dialog and understanding with those with whom we disagree. What are we doing to build bridges in our increasingly polarized culture? What are we doing to actively foster compassion and respect? What are we doing to break the cycle of retaliation in the name of "justice" and instead promote reconciliation and restoration?

It's not enough to claim that our beliefs are not causing the problem, we need to be an active part of the solution. Again, that goes for all of us -- regardless of whether we ascribe to a particular belief system or not. Because the issue of promoting and justifying violence is not simply one confined to the religious sphere, but one that takes on a global scale. We have, as a society, a tendency to see retaliatory violence as a good and justified response to violence, and as a result violence is perpetuated and glorified as what it means to be strong and good. We hear this narrative of redemptive violence espoused constantly from our politicians -- on both sides of the aisle. In fact, violence is often presented to us as the only viable response to violence: We can either bomb the bad guys, or we can do nothing. We can either be tough on crime, or let it run rampant. But is that really the only choice we have?

Rather than asking when violence is justified, perhaps we instead need to be looking for ways to actively promote peace -- not by inaction, but by finding ways to make things right in our world. Rather than accusing the other, and as a result contributing to the increasing religious and political polarization that has sadly become so characteristic of our country's public discourse, perhaps we all need to start asking ourselves is this simple question:

How do your beliefs and convictions actively promote peace and compassion?