“World Religions and World Federation”
Posted Jun 17, 2008

“World Religions and World Federation”

by David C. Oughton, Ph.D.

I. Different Levels of Peace

Crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, genocides, imperialism, holy wars, and terrorism:  these are some of the examples that the philosopher Bertrand Russell and modern writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have in mind when they express their belief that the world’s religions are not only untrue but harmful.  Their solution is to do away with all religions.  Karl Marx also advocated that the religions, which he called “the opium of the people,” be eliminated because of their support of oppressive systems over the proletariat and because of their emphasis on the afterlife at the expense of solving problems of justice in this lifetime.

Even the ecumenical theologian Hans Küng admits that “the most fanatical, the cruelest political struggles are those that have been colored, inspired, and legitimized by religion.”1   But Küng believes, and I agree with him, that this need not be the case.  The religions of the world share a responsibility to be positive forces in world history by promoting peace, love, justice, sister/brotherhood, the human family, the world community, the messianic age, and nirvana.  Nobel peace laureates such as Dr. Martin Luther King, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa, and Albert Schweitzer as well as leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Pope John Paul II are famous examples of people who condemned and fought against segregation, apartheid, antisemitism, poverty, hunger, aggression, war, genocide, and the military-industrial complex because of their religious faith.  Furthermore, liberation theology has been an important response to Marx’s criticism of religion as an opiate.   

Instead of getting rid of the religions of the world, I agree with the following three American philosophers.  One possibility is to do what John Dewey suggested—to reconstruct the religious institutions in light of the scientific method and to make explicit and militant “the common faith” of humanity by “conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”2 Another possibility is to do what Henry Nelson Wieman suggested—to convince people from every religion to give their ultimate commitment to the divine process of creative interchange by which they can learn from and improve each other.3 A third possibility is to do what Huston Smith has suggested—to run a strainer through the world’s religions and lift out nonessential but traditional elements such as antiquated cosmologies, caste systems, and unequal gender relationships but retain those elements of these wisdom traditions that guide humans in any age, especially in a scientific age, namely, shared moral values and a vision that reality is more unified, mysterious, and hopeful than what we can detect by our senses.4

Eliminating every religion because some have contained negative and harmful elements would be throwing out the baby with the dirty bathwater.  There is great art and music as well as terrible art and music.  We obviously want to preserve, encourage, and teach about the former while eliminating the latter.  Likewise, the great potential of the world’s religious traditions to inspire unity, harmony, and acts of peace and justice need to be promoted while their potential to promote disorder, hatred, and fanaticism needs to be eradicated.   

People in different religions speak about peace in various ways or, I would say, emphasize different levels of peace.  Some religious people emphasize inner peace, the serenity of mind and conscience.  This kind of peace arises from a proper relationship and oneness with the divine or with reality.  This level of peace is often called “nirvana” by Hindus and Buddhists.  A second level of peace involves love and harmony between people.  Some religious people base this kind of peace on the biblical commandment “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  This level of peace, when combined with justice, will promote the “reign of God” or the “messianic age.”  A third meaning of peace concerns public order and security.  We seek to live in peaceful neighborhoods, cities, states, countries, and to experience peaceful relations between countries.5   I believe that all three meanings or levels of peace are necessary.     

II. Experiments in Interreligious Dialogue

On the international level, there have been several attempts at interreligious dialogue.  The first major example was the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 during the World’s Fair in Chicago.  This was the first time in human history when representatives of many different religions sat on the same stage as equals.  Because the 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history, it was decided to revive the parliament on a regular basis.  I have been fortunate to participate in the last three modern parliaments at Chicago in 1993, at Cape Town, South Africa in 1999, and at Barcelona, Spain in 2004.  I look forward to attending the next parliament at Melbourne, Australia in 2009.  At each of these parliaments, thousands of leaders and representative of the world’s religions come together in order to pray together, meditate together, sing and dance together, and listen to each other.

At the 1993 Parliament, Professor Diana Eck of Harvard University noted that “a hundred years ago at the Chicago Parliament of the Religions, the chairman of the Parliament said, ‘Henceforth the religions of the world will make war not on each other but on the giant evils that afflict humankind.’  But wars continue and our religious traditions continue to provide the fuel for the world strife.”  Rabbi James Rudin, director of the American Jewish Committee, observed that “over fifty wars are going on now which are based in part on religions.  But we live in a time with its unprecedented opportunities to build human bridges of understanding among, not just between, but among all of us who are peoples of faith.”  When the Dalai Lama addressed the Parliament, he said that “harmony between the religions is extremely important.  Otherwise religions also become an instrument of more division among humanity.  Sometimes religion also becomes a source of conflict.  That’s really unfortunate.”  Professor Hans Küng reminded the participants of his main thesis:  “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.  Therefore, the religions themselves have to use every possible means to clear up misunderstandings, to do away with stereotyped images of the other religions, to break down hatred, and to reflect on what they have in common.”6

Throughout his later writings, Professor Küng has argued these other points:  “there will be no dialogue among the religions without investigation into common theological and philosophical foundations,” and “there will be no world peace without a common global ethic.”7   He is the main author of the “Declaration of a Global Ethic” which many thousands at the parliaments and around the world have signed.

During the last twenty-two years, I have tried to implement Küng’s theses on the local level.  I founded and organize St. Louis’ Dialogue Group of the World’s Religions and Philosophies.  In order to discuss their common questions, concerns, and hopes, representatives of various branches of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Baha’i Faith, Unitarian-Universalism, Ethical Culture, Religious Humanism, Native American Spirituality, and several other groups have been meeting together several times a year. 

At the first meeting each of the participants presented questions that their religion tries to answer.  Representatives of monotheistic religions presented metaphysical questions about the nature of God, salvation, and the existence of the afterlife.  Others asked questions about the cause and overcoming of suffering, about our duty to our fellow human beings, and about the possibility of true freedom, peace, and happiness.  Many participants have come to realize that their religious and philosophic traditions agree more on the level of ethics and human conduct than on questions about ultimate reality.  At that first meeting, I presented questions for an interreligious approach using ideas from Wieman:  (1) “What is it within human experience that creates, sustains, saves, and transforms toward the greater good in ways we humans cannot do ourselves alone which deserves our ultimate commitment and our passionate devotion?”  (2) “How can we humans provide the required conditions for this divine process to work in our lives?”  (3) “How can members of the various religions of the world learn to appreciate each others’ search for answers to the great mysteries of life?” and (4) “How can they develop a commitment to creative interchange between diverse perspectives?”

Ever since the first meeting we have been discussing our common questions.  At each meeting we concentrate on a particular question and see how different religions or philosophies answer that question.  We have usually used panels and small group discussions.  So far we have discussed issues concerning peace, justice, the natural environment, poverty, hunger, human rights, sexuality, morality, the role of women, world population, war, and genocide as well as various concepts of God, the afterlife, the founders and history of each religion, religious holidays and festivals, and religious ceremonies concerning birth, adolescence, marriage, and death.

Participants have discussed these questions rationally, patiently, and often with good humor.  Many of my students who have attended a dialogue meeting have remarked:  “I couldn’t believe that so many people from so many different national, racial, and religious backgrounds could calmly and respectfully discuss their different beliefs and practices and not yell at each other or try to convert each other.”

Participants in interreligious dialogue have also joined together for an annual bus tour pilgrimage to many different houses of worship and for an annual Interfaith Gathering for Peace on United Nations Day.  Many have worked with the organization Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls in order to promote programs for the poor.

III. Levels of Interreligious Dialogue

Participants in interreligious dialogue have reached various stages.  The first stage is tolerance of different beliefs and practices.  Political and religious fundamentalists are psychologically uncomfortable with uncertainty, doubts, and the possibility of multiple perspectives.  Most religious fundamentalists refuse to participate in interreligious dialogue because of their assumption that they are right and everyone else is wrong.  Some individuals and groups within certain religions interpret their religious teachings in a dogmatic, fundamentalist, and authoritarian way.  John Stoessinger’s thesis is that “whether one is a Jew, Christian, Muslim, or anything else, if people believe in a dogmatic way, they will tend to contribute to war; if they believe in the humanistic or the more democratic way, they will contribute to peace.”8  

Besides the manner of believing, another factor concerning tolerance is how members of one religion view the very existence of other religions.  There are three basic ways.  The first stance is called “exclusivist.”  It holds that there can only be one true religion; therefore, all other religions are false.  The problem with this fundamentalist approach is that no one would ever say “there can be only one true religion but it is not my religion”!  Anyone who holds the exclusivist position always adds “and it is my religion.”  This attitude is how many people still rationalize the goodness of their own religion while denying any goodness in all other religions.  A second stance is called “inclusivist.”  Someone who maintains this view says that their religion includes other religions and is therefore better than others because it is the new, improved version of others.  A third position is called “pluralist.”  It holds that the great religious traditions of the world each try to describe ultimate reality and the mystery or purpose of life in various ways.  According to the pluralist position, no one historic religious tradition has a monopoly on truth and goodness.  A commitment to tolerance means abandoning the attitude that has caused so much bloodshed in the past and is still held by various kinds of fanatical fundamentalists—that my group alone has all truth and divine sanction and all others are wrong or even demonic, and thus others must be either destroyed, subdued, or converted to my group’s beliefs. 

Another major factor concerning tolerance is competition and control over the same land by groups having different historical claims.  Catholics and Protestants fighting in Northern Ireland, Israelis and Palestinians fighting over borders, and territorial disputes between India and Pakistan are the most obvious examples of groups representing different religions which fight or terrorize each other because these situations lack either a neutral umpire or nonviolent means for settling these controversies once and for all. 

Understanding is a second stage of interreligious dialogue.  In contrast to a debate, the primary purpose of a dialogue is not to convince others of the superiority of one’s own beliefs and the inferiority of the others’ beliefs, but to learn from others and thus change ourselves.  Everyone will be changed for the better and will have expanded and enriched their limited perspectives if they come to the dialogue with the attitude of learning and openness to expansion of one’s way of viewing life. 

Those who participate in interreligious dialogue come to understand the similarities and the differences between the world’s major religions.  They all accept the Golden Rule of human conduct (some like Jesus said it positively:  ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’ while others like Kung fu-tzu said it negatively:  ‘do not do to others what you do not want done to you’).  They all accept six basic commands:  do not kill, do not commit sexual immorality, do not steal, do not lie, respect the elderly, and help the helpless.  They all emphasize the importance of family relationships, virtues (such as respect, humility, and compassion), and the avoidance of vices (such as egoism, hatred, and anger). 

Even though the major religions have many similar ethical teachings, interreligious dialogue also reveals their differences in philosophy, organization, system of authority, methods of spirituality, and social customs.  Concerning philosophy, the world religions disagree on the following questions:  whether God is a personal supreme Being or whether God is an impersonal cosmic mind, force, or natural process; whether humans live only one lifetime or many lifetimes in various earthly forms; whether this is the only universe that has and will ever exist or whether this universe is one of an infinite number of past and future universes; whether time and history are linear or cyclic; and whether humans are essentially good by nature, whether human nature possesses both good and evil inclinations, or whether human nature is essentially flawed and thus in need of salvation. 

A third goal of interreligious dialogue is cooperation.  Those who tolerate and understand differences between groups realize that people of different religions, social systems, and nations can and must work together on their common problems and concerns.  All peoples must fight against their common enemies:  war, pollution, depletion of natural resources, ignorance, prejudice, injustices, violence, poverty, hunger, and any other dehumanizing condition.  On the local level, members of different religions have joined together to fight against one of St. Louis’ greatest problems—racism.

Beyond tolerance, understanding, and cooperation is appreciation of different perspectives.  This means respecting what is valuable within different religions and cultures.  Gentiles do not have to convert to Judaism in order to appreciate what the Sabbath implies for needed rest, reflection, and the building of deeper family and community ties.  Non-Buddhists do not have to convert to Buddhism in order to appreciate the need for the regular practice of meditation.  Non-Taoists do not have to become Taoists in order to appreciate the teaching of harmony with the Way or Tao of Nature/Reality.  One does not have to become a Jain in order to appreciate Mahavira’s teaching of ahimsa or non-injury toward any living creatures.  Whereas dogmatists view the founder of their religion as an authority who has already found “the right answer,” those committed to interreligious dialogue discover that the founders of the world religions have much to teach everyone.  According to Wieman, people such as Confucius, Lao Tzu, Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Mahavira, Baha’u'llah, and Guru Nanak should be viewed as individuals “who have struggled earnestly and persistently with the ultimate issues of life and death…  We should study reverently their lives and their teaching to understand the issues…  These great souls call to us to join with them in the struggle to find a better answer.“9  

The final goal of interreligious dialogue is promoting the process of creative interchange.  This means expanding one’s perspective by intercommunication with those who have different experiences, beliefs, and values in order to develop community.  One’s ultimate commitment should not be to the dogmas and beliefs of one’s religion, nation, or culture but rather to this process of creative interchange.  Such a process implies that religions and philosophies must be open to the possibility of learning from those who have different perspectives.  By learning from persons of different religions or cultures, we will often find ourselves saying “I never thought of that idea or method before.  Now I look upon this problem or this topic in a different way.  Now I see more possibilities and options.”  Because of interreligious dialogue, many in St. Louis and around the world have kept their minds open, receptive, inquiring, and outreaching.
The goal should not be to make everyone in the world a member of the same religion or philosophy.  The goal should be that everyone becomes committed to the practice of peace, justice, and compassion for their fellow beings, and that they devote their lives to providing the conditions for creative interchanges between people.  The value of any religion or philosophy depends on what it can contribute to promoting creative interchanges between parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors, various ethnic groups and cultures, and other religions and philosophies.

IV. The World Community Needs a Democratic System of Enforceable World Laws

In response to the threat of large-scale violent conflicts or wars, religions have promoted either pacifism, on the one hand, or some version of the just war tradition or military jihad, on the other.  This second option includes the principles of just cause, legitimate authority, proportionality, noncombatant immunity, and last resort.

Because of the complicated relationship between peace and justice, both pacifism and the just war tradition are necessary moral perspectives in order to limit wars.  Of course, it is very easy to justify and rationalize one’s own domestic and foreign policy as being consistent with the just war teaching while portraying others as evil empires and axes of evil that must be humiliated and destroyed.  But as long as the war system exists under the international system of sovereign nation-states and under the confederal United Nations system, the religions of the world need to teach and insist on a strict adherence to just war principles and international laws, especially in our modern era of weapons of mass destruction. 

According to both Wieman and Küng, we must distinguish between the foundation of world community and the necessary superstructure for world peace.  The religions of the world have the primary responsibility for building the foundation through interreligious dialogue and a common commitment to the process of creative interchange.  But the necessary superstructure for world peace is a democratic system of enforceable world laws.  According to the American philosopher Ronald Glossop, what is needed is a transformation of the current war system and confederal United Nations Organization into a peace system and a world federal government, based on the principle of subsidiarity, that would create, enforce, and adjudicate world laws as well as have the power to arrest and incarcerate individuals who violate them.10   The permanent International Criminal Court that began in 2002 is an important step in that direction.

Several religious groups have been teaching about the importance of creating a democratic world federation.  Many Unitarian-Universalists are world federalists.  The Baha’i Faith since the revelation of its founder Baha’u’llah in the 19th century has taught the need for a democratic world federal government as a required condition leading to “the Most Great Peace,” the spiritual unification of our planet.  According to Baha’i Universal House of Justice, acceptance of the oneness of humanity is the first prerequisite for establishing a world government.  This spiritual principle of the oneness of humanity must be universally proclaimed, taught in schools around the world, and constantly asserted in every nation.  In a future world federal government, every nation will give up every claim to make war and will only be allowed to maintain armaments for purposes of maintaining internal order.  A world federal government should have an International Executive, a World Parliament, and a Supreme Tribunal.11

Swami Satprakashananda of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, was an example of a Hindu leader who gave much thought to achieving world peace.  He believed that the solution of the war problem must be one consistent whole—economically, politically, socially, culturally, and spiritually.  Swami described his comprehensive peace plan in this way:  “When the political systems of the different nations will be so interrelated as to constitute one world government; when the economic order of each country will form an integral part of the world economy; when the social institutions of various races will make no invidious distinction between human and human, claim no undue privileges, and be free from narrowness and prejudice; when the diverse religious faiths of the world will shake off bigotry, intolerance, and fanaticism, and live in complete harmony as so many phases of the one universal religion, then alone will the world have peace.”12

Many Buddhists have been promoting Buddha’s goal of relieving suffering for all beings through love, compassion, and nonviolence.  If this is done, according to the Japanese Buddhist scholar Nikkyo Niwano, the whole world will become one “buddha-land.”  In order to work for this goal, Niwano says that a world federation should be our blueprint.13

The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church have also promoted the need for a world federation.  The bishops at the Second Vatican Council told Catholics around the world that “it is our clear duty to strain every muscle as we work for the time when all war can be completely outlawed by international consent.  This goal undoubtedly requires the establishment of some universal public authority acknowledged as such by all, and endowed with effective power to safeguard, on the behalf of all, security, regard for justice, and respect for rights.”14   In their 1983 Peace Pastoral, the American Catholic bishops said, “Just as the nation-state was a step in the evolution of government at a time when expanding trade and new weapons technologies made the feudal system inadequate to manage conflicts and provide security, so we are now entering an era of new global interdependencies requiring global systems of governance to manage the resulting conflicts and ensure our common security…  Mutual security and survival require a new vision of the world as one interdependent planet.”15  

Because nationalism and patriotism are both causes and effects of the current war system, the religions of the world need to promote globalism, world citizenship, and “humatriotism” (loyalty to the human family) which will be causes and effects of a new peace system.  World citizenship and world democracy can be promoted by a pledge of allegiance to the world16, a world flag and other global symbols, a world anthem, and the teaching of a universal auxiliary language such as Esperanto.17  

World peace, like local and national peace, requires structures, laws, customs, and a sense of community for implementing nonviolent methods for resolving conflicts that naturally arise between individuals and large groups of people.  Religions can play a positive role in achieving both local and global peace by teaching the Golden Rule, their common principles of justice and humane living, the global ethic, and the realization that the nations and peoples of the world form an interdependent world community which needs a global system of laws and security in order to survive. 


1. Hans Küng, Christianity and the World Religions (Garden City, N.Y.:  Doubleday and Company, 1986), p. 442.
2. John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1934), p. 87.
3. See David Oughton, “Wieman and One of His Disciples,” Religious Humanism (Vol. 31, Nos. 1 & 2, Winter/Spring, 1997, pp. 57-70).  This is his tribute to his teacher, Professor John Broyer of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.  For a detailed exposition of Wieman’s empirical philosophy of religion, see David Oughton’s dissertation, The Implications of Henry Nelson Wieman’s Philosophy of Creative Interchange for World Peace (Saint Louis University, 1998).  See also Wieman’s Man’s Ultimate Commitment (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1958).
4.  See Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters (San Francisco:  Harper, 2001).
5. These descriptions of different levels of peace are from Benjamin Seaver, “Three Definitions of Peace,” Friends Peace Committee Pamphlet.
6. These quotations from Eck, Rudin, the Dalai Lama, and Küng are from the videotape Peace Like a River:  The Parliament of the World’s Religions, 1893-1993, CSEC Productions, 1994.
7. See Hans Küng, Global Responsibility:  In Search of a New World Ethic (New York:  Crossroad, 1991).
8. See John Stoessinger, “The Great Religions in Peace and War,” Religious Humanism (Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer 1981, pp. 108-113).
9. Henry Nelson Wieman, Intellectual Foundation of Faith (New York:  Philosophical Library, 1961), p. 3.
10. See Ronald Glossop, Confronting War (Jefferson, NC:  McFarland, 4th edition, 2001) and his World Federation?:  A Critical Analysis of Federal World Government (Jefferson, NC:  McFarland, 1993).
11. See “The Promise of World Peace” by the Universal House of Justice of the Baha’i Faith, 1985, especially Section III.
12. Swami Satprakashananda, “World Peace—How?,” Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1973.
13. See Nikkyo Niwano, A Buddhist Approach to Peace (Tokyo:  Kosei, 1977).
14. Second Vatican Council, The Church Today, Chapter 5, #82.
15. American Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace:  God’s Promise and Our Response, 1983, #242 and #244.
16. One possible world pledge is:  “I pledge allegiance to the world, to cherish every living thing, to care for earth and seas and air, with peace and justice everywhere.”
17. The adoption of a universal auxiliary language like Esperanto is an important aspect of a world democracy.  See Ronald J. Glossop, “Language Policy and a Just World Order,” Alternatives, Vol. XIII, #3, July, 1988, p. 396, and John Roberts, “World Language for One World,” Esperanto/USA, 1994 (2).