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Cliff finds faith in interview on religious tolerance

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Gareth Cliff, a long-time religious sceptic, had a moment of revelation on Wednesday, 14 April, when he interviewed Rabbi David Rosen on national television for his ENCA programme, So What Now.

Rosen is known for his work on promoting interfaith dialogue around the world. Cliff is known for being a “shock jock” who airs controversial views, including his opposition to religion and religious practitioners.

“For a very long time, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve been a vehement critic of religion,” Cliff said in the interview. “I’ve laid the blame for some of the world’s major tragedies at the door of religion. But I do appreciate the profound, positive influence of religion for so many people. Religion has helped many people through this tough time, and so much good is being done by religious leaders.”

Cliff explained why he chose to feature Rosen on his national television programme. “He is the foremost voice in the world on interfaith dialogue. It was interesting to hear his thoughts on how much we have in common, and how the differences we have can be respected, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or non-religious. In the interview, I reflected on my own changing opinions with respect to religion. This pandemic has been particularly difficult for many people and connection, religion, and spirituality has helped many through it.”

Rosen’s international accolades are long, including knighthoods by the Vatican for his work in promoting reconciliation between Catholicism and Judaism, and by Queen Elizabeth for promoting interfaith relations. He holds senior positions in interreligious affairs and intercultural dialogue across the religious spectrum.

The rabbi spent five years in South Africa in the 1970s as rabbi of the then largest Orthodox Jewish community in the world – Sea Point’s Marais Road Shul. He regards this time as being seminal to his career. “It determined my future,” he said of seeking to break down apartheid’s divisions. Out of this commitment to social justice, Rosen discovered interfaith relations.

In response to Cliff’s question about growing atheism and intolerance between religions in a “progressivist” society, Rosen said, “What sells media is sensation, and that’s mostly negative news. However, the truth is that never in the history of time has there been as much communication and collaboration as we have in our time.

“Generally speaking, the world is getting more religious,” Rosen said, referring to a recent United States Pew Research Center poll in which 84% of the world described religion as important in their life. It contradicts many other surveys which show people defining themselves as not having a particular faith. “What we can conclude from that is that there are many who aren’t religiously affiliated, but define themselves as deeply spiritual and are searching for meaning,” Rosen said.

“Young people are looking for their identity in areas like politics, which gives them less fruit than religion,” Cliff said.

“Many of the problems of affluent society with drug culture, cults, and so on is that people are searching for stimulation because they find their lives boring or meaningless,” Rosen said. “However, religions haven’t stepped up to the plate adequately. Institutional religion globally hasn’t succeeded in responding to the search of young people.”

Rosen maintained that some religions had dealt with pandemic restrictions better than others. Faiths which depend on mass gatherings or services have struggled more than those that “infuse daily life with a sense of holiness”, like Judaism, for example.

“For Judaism, synagogue is a secondary institution. Home is the primary religious institution – major celebrations are around the family table. It’s okay to pray at home by yourself,” although he admitted there were challenges around marriages and burials.

“One of the fascinating things is the alacrity of religion’s response to modern technology,” Rosen said. “There has been a remarkable collaboration between science and religion. Often these are stupidly juxtaposed as polar opposites. Science tells us how things work, religion tells us what they work for.”

On the subject of religion and philanthropy, he said, “Mosques and churches get to numbers that no NGO [nongovernment organisation] can reach. The largest world interfaith body, Religions for Peace, received a large grant from the Gates Foundation to assist AIDS orphans. Why? Because so much care and social services are provided by religious institutions.”

He pointed out that mental health had become an equally pressing issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Religions give a sense of security, value, and meaning beyond the material. It has become more important to people when facing challenges like the existential challenges faced this year.”

Asked by Cliff about religion’s history of intolerance, Ruben quipped, “Just because there’s such a thing as the mafia, doesn’t mean that families are bad. We have an awful history as humanity in how we have addressed the diversity and glory of creation. We need to take responsibility for that, and confess our guilt for the failures of the past.

“Difference is part of the glory of creation. We should be able to identify commonalities, but there’s nothing wrong with being able to admire something that’s not part of your own identity, culture, and religious tradition, and celebrate that.

“Something only religion can teach is that human beings are created in the divine image, and the way you treat the other is ultimately the way you relate to G-d. This is basic to all religions, but we haven’t actually preached it. We need to reconnect with the authentic moral, ethical message of our traditions.”

He maintained that much of our current progressive, liberal framework is built upon the scaffolding of Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition. “Values of justice, righteousness, love, caring for the vulnerable in society don’t come from the materialistic world view. Moral impulse is rooted in the religious world. Secular society is the beneficiary of this.”

Nevertheless, Rosen pointed out that the tension between secular society, modernity, and religion was necessary to contain religion’s power, which when unchecked, could be abused.

Cliff said the interview had generated a positive response, saying, “People are hungry for conversations that don’t just scratch the surface, or deliver watered-down opinions and social-media rhetoric.”

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