cosmopolis rivista di filosofia e politica
Cosmopolis menu cosmopolis rivista di filosofia e teoria politica

Religions and Global Ethic

Günther Gebhardt
Interview by Gianmaria Zamagni

Dear dr. Gebhardt, you are just back from Kyoto, where you took part, along with Prof. Hans Küng, to the Eighth World Assembly of Religions for Peace. Could you give Cosmopolis a brief survey of what the world conference is, and what were the main concerns of this last occasion of meeting in Kyoto?

“Religions for Peace” (rfp, formerly “World Conference of Religions for Peace”, wcrp) is an international non-governmental organization which promotes cooperation among leaders and believers of all world religions for peace and justice. It is headquartered in New York but it has national sections in many countries, also in Italy. A major project of rfp is to facilitate the establishment of councils of religious leaders (“inter-religious councils”) in as many countries as possible.
At Kyoto, rfp had been founded in 1970, and for its 8th World Assembly it returned to its birthplace. 800 delegates and altogether 2,000 participants gathered around the theme: Confronting Violence and Advancing Shared Security. Before the main Assembly, special assemblies for the young generation and for women took place, the outcome of which was brought to the main Assembly and inspired its discussions and Final Declaration. The Assembly had basically three dimensions.
First, the statutory meetings of the delegates, e.g. for electing a new International Governing Board, composed of about 50 leading figures from all religions and continents. There is nobody from Italy on the board, and only very few Europeans. In this sense, the Assembly reflected well the real conflict areas of our world: there were many speakers and participants from Africa and other countries of the Southern hemisphere but only a small number from Europe.
Second, the work in plenary and working groups on various aspects of the topic. Eminent speakers addressed the plenary, such as the then Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Koizumi, ex-president Khatami of Iran, Prince Hassan of Jordan, ex-Prime Minister Bondevik of Norway, Katherine Marshall of the World Bank, Professor Hans Küng and many others. The working groups achieved substantive results, especially the group on peace education that presented an elaborate declaration with many practical suggestions.
The third dimension was kept quite discrete until the closing session but it shows an important role of rfp: senior religious leaders from conflict areas of our world met behind closed doors during the Assembly to freely discuss their thorny issues in a safe and confidential environment. Such meetings could rarely take place in the conflict areas themselves but rfp as an impartial inter-religious organization provides space for this. At Kyoto, there was a large inter-religious delegation from Iraq: Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians of various denominations; there were also leaders from Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda, Israel and Palestine, North Asia. It was moving at the closing ceremony to listen to the reports of these leaders and to feel their sincere desire and efforts for understanding and peace in their countries – but also to witness the large gaps that continue to exist, especially between Israelis and Palestinians.
The rationale for the Assembly is clearly expressed in its Final Declaration: «The moral and ethical convictions of our diverse religious traditions provide a moral foundation for confronting violence in its many forms and for suggesting a vision of shared security» [1]. The moderate, peaceful people and groups in all religions, certainly the vast majority, have to counteract fanaticism and should become partners of secular actors in the promotion of peace and justice. The Kyoto Assembly showed that there is indeed growing trust and interest in religious partners from the side of politics and economics. For many years already, rfp has for instance been cooperating with UNICEF and other partners and has been running joint projects for orphans of HIV/AIDS in some African countries. The added value of religious communities is that they reach out to the remotest villages all over the world. And if religions cooperate inter-religiously for common issues this brings even additional credibility and power. The role of rfp is equally expressed in the Final Declaration of its 8th Assembly: «Religions for Peace has become a major global multi-religious voice and agent for peace. Guided by respect for religious differences, the global Religions for Peace network fosters multi-religious collaboration harnessing the power of religious communities to transform conflict, build peace, and advance sustainable development» [2].

Religions, so often called to account for their violent potential, are here, on the other side, trying to more fully develop their peace effort. But which is, in your opinion, the common ground that makes this possible? In other words, how can so different beliefs engage themselves in a common project for dialogue and peace among peoples?

At the 8th World Assembly of Religions for Peace in Kyoto, the delegates nearly unanimously endorsed the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1993 [3]. This is the first document in history by which representatives of all world religions agreed upon a set of shared ethical values, norms and attitudes. This is the meaning of a “Global Ethic”. By endorsing this groundbreaking document of 1993 the “Religions for Peace” delegates in 2006 affirmed that interreligious cooperation for peace requires a common ethical basis. Once religious people have become aware that they hold so much in common precisely on the level of ethics or rather of elementary ethic they can gain stronger motivation to cooperate. It is interesting to recall that already the First World Conference on Religion and Peace in Kyoto in 1970 [4] agreed on some shared convictions that can be considered as stepping stones towards what would 20 years later be elaborated as a Global Ethic.
Religious and non-religious people alike should become aware that they form a community of destiny, they share the destiny of our planet earth. They share therefore also the responsibility to care for this precious planet, they form also a community of responsibility. They can assume this responsibility together because in all religious and ethical traditions of humanity there are very similar guidelines on how humans should act and behave in this world. The Global Ethic as presented in the Chicago Declaration of 1993 is based on two principles without which a human community or society can hardly survive. First, what is common to all human beings is their humanity, and therefore «Every human being should be treated humanely», according to his or her inalienable human dignity, foundation also of the universal human rights. This principle still remains very formal and therefore the declaration recalls a second principle, «which is found and has persisted in many religious and ethical traditions of humankind...». This is known as the “Golden Rule” of reciprocity: «What you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others». In positive terms: «What you wish done to yourself, do to others». It is striking to discover that this basic rule of human behaviour appears already in the Analects of the Chinese Master Confucius, five centuries BCE, and can indeed be found, in slightly differing formulations, in the teachings of all religions. It was also discussed by non-religious philosophers such as Immanuel Kant in the Age of Enlightenment in Europe (18th century) and is constantly being revitalized by philosophers of our times.
The Chicago Declaration goes on by applying these two principles to four central aspects of human life and puts forward four guidelines which should sustain a truly humane culture. They are formulated as commitments:
Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life, recalling the ancient directive “You shall not kill! — Have respect for life!”.
Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order: “You shall not steal! — Deal honestly and fairly!”.
Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness: “You shall not lie! — Speak and act truthfully!”.
Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women: “You shall not abuse sexuality! — Respect and love one another!”.
This common ethical ground should encourage religious and non-religious people to cooperate in building these four “cultures”.

A possible – and indeed very “popular” – objection to this efforts, is that the deep and ancient heritage of religions (and maybe of Christendom in particular) appears to some reduced to a sort of civil religion. How would you answer to these kind of objections? On the other hand, would Weltethos represent a sort of manifesto for an intercultural civil religion for peace among religions and cultures?

It is obvious that the dimension of ethics or ethic does not exhaust the reality of a religion. Religions are far more than just ethical systems, they form a complex structure of reference to the transcendent dimension of reality, through spiritual experience, mystics, doctrines, ritual and so on. Ethics is however a core dimension of religion because it enables humans to discern how to act in this world in the most appropriate way. In most religions, the guidelines how to discern, which are called ethical norms, are considered as given by the Divine. So, when the Global Ethic recalls and formulates some elementary values and norms that all religions hold in common it does in no way reduce religion to ethics. It is only concerned with the ethical dimension of religion and does not touch all its other aspects. Neither is a Global Ethic an attempt to invent some kind of “civil religion”. The term “civil religion” has a special meaning anyway: in the line of the US sociologist Bellah who applied the term (that originates from Rousseau) to the USA, it refers to phenomena and rites in the life of a secular society or a nation that create a sense of identity by borrowing from religious ritual but transforming it into secular ritual (e.g. national anthems, flag ceremonies etc.). Bellah wrote that civil religion was «an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation» [5]. Nothing to do with the rationale and purpose of a Global Ethic. But more so, a Global Ethic is of course not a religion at all: it only points to the ethical wisdom of every single religion and by comparison discovers that there are a lot of similarities. A Global Ethic means neither a global ideology, nor a single unified global religion or a super-religion transcending all existing religions, nor a mixture of all religions. Nor does a Global Ethic seek to replace the high ethics of the individual religions with an ethical minimalism. A Global Ethic does not reduce the religions to an ethical minimalism but represents the minimum of what the religions of the world already have in common in the ethical sphere. It requires and calls for absolute respect for the plurality of religions and for the specificity of each one of them. It is also important to note that in English we speak intentionally of a Global Ethic, not of ethics (with “s”): the elementary ethic underlies the many specialized ethics (peace ethics, business ethics, medical ethics, environmental ethics etc.). How to act in all these special issues is again the matter of the various cultural, religious and philosophical ethics. There cannot be “global ethics” but only a Global Ethic. In many languages this distinction is of course not possible. Anyway, far from aiming at an “intercultural civil religion” a Global Ethic simply offers elements of an intercultural ethic which is so urgently needed in our pluralistic and globalizing world.

A topic of concern widely present in debates is now also the necessity of religious “normative premises”, or foundations, for society and government [6]. What do you think about this scenario? How the Weltethos project is theoretically different from these attempts?

A secular democratic and pluralistic state must first of all be based on the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, human rights, and the rule of law. What experts like former German High Court judge Böckenförde argue is not at all that such a modern state would need “religious normative premises”! This would be a backlash to the “Ancien Régime”! No, Böckenförde argues that such a state, by its very pluralistic and neutral character, cannot and must not prescribe any set normative basis for all its citizens and residents. This is the very meaning of pluralism. A modern state in which live people of many religions and with no religion alike is however based on prerequisites that it cannot guarantee itself, this is the famous statement by Judge Böckenförde. It needs some pre-legal consensus to ensure its cohesion. One may call this an underlying elementary ethic. It is necessary that the vast majority of citizens shows the ethical will to act and behave according to the laws, to solve their conflicts in a non-violent way for instance. Otherwise a state cannot fulfil its mandate and task and the society would break apart. How to arrive at such a basic ethical consensus? By involving all partners in a dialogue, and of course the religions are important partners because they possess remarkable ethical treasures. But also various kinds of non-religious humanistic philosophies do, and they are equally valuable partners in this dialogue. The state can facilitate this ongoing societal dialogue and guarantee that it takes place but it must not privilege one single approach, be it religious or not. The state has to guarantee freedom for all religious and non-religious expressions and to pass appropriate legislation that allows this freedom to exist. The underlying ethical consensus of a society and a state has constantly to be negotiated among all stakeholders. In this context, the Global Ethic guidelines, non-violence, justice, tolerance and truthfulness, and partnership between men and women, can offer very helpful elements in the search for an underlying ethic of a modern pluralistic state and society.

Interview given on October 29, 2006

View also:
Global Ethic Foundation


[1] Religioni per la pace-Sezione italiana, Lettera, n. 96, 10 settembre 2006 [N.d.C.].
[2] Ibidem [N.d.C.].
[3] Può essere letta in italiano in H. KÜNG – K.-J. KUSCHEL (edd), Per un’etica mondiale. La dichiarazione del Parlamento delle religioni mondiali, Rizzoli, Milano 1995 [N.d.C.].
[4] Cfr. M.A. LÜCKER (ed), Religionen, Frieden, Menschenrechte. Dokumentation der ersten Weltkonferenz der Religionen für den Frieden. Kyoto 1970, Jugenddienst, Wuppertal 1971 [N.d.C.].
[5] Cfr. R. N. BELLAH, Beyond Belief. Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World, Harper and Row, New York-Evanston-London 1970, p. 175 [N.d.C.].
[6] Fa riferimento a questo tema Gustavo Zagrebelsky, Gli atei clericali e la fonte del potere, «La Repubblica», 5 luglio 2005, e rimanda a un saggio di Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, Die Entstehung des Staates als Vorgang der Säkularisation [La formazione dello Stato come processo della secolarizzazione], in ID., Recht, Staat, Freiheit. Studien zur Rechtsphilosophie, Staatstheorie und Verfassunsgeschichte, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1991, pp. 92-114 (p. 112) [N.d.C.]
torna su