Sectarian Splits: A Common Theme Across All Religions
Monday, July 18 is Nelson Mandela Day, celebrating the birthdate of Nelson Mandela, the “Father of the Nation” of South Africa who is remembered as a symbol of hope for reconciling sectarian splits—religious or otherwise—that were thought to be unresolvable.
Religion is all about oneness and unity. It is one of the greatest ironies in human history that the biggest divisions take place through the medium of religion – not just between faiths, but even within the faith. This has happened almost uniformly across religions.
When a faith splinters, the different sects may treat each other with mutual respect, but in many cases the splintering leads to senseless violence. There is no reason why sub sects within a religion should fuss over minor differences. Yet, history is littered with examples of people missing the forest for the trees, often with tragic consequences.
Jews have split into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. Christians fall into one of three broad divisions—Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox—and within these broad divisions are a plethora of sub-sects. In fact, most estimates place the total number of Christian denominations across the globe at around 40,000! But the 3 main divisions arose due to 2 great schisms in the history of Christianity. First, the Catholic-Orthodox split occurred due to a combination of political and theological differences, such as the degree of authority that the Pope should have and the way that holy sacraments like Communion should be conducted. Similarly, Protestants split from Catholics due to ideological differences that, again, had a lot to do with disagreements of how much power the Papal authorities should have, especially due to questions about their abuse of power.
New religions spring forth within the old, as a result of new revelations from God: for instance, God speaks to Moses and Judaism is founded; or the prophet Gabriel is sent to Mohammed, which eventually results in Islam. But prophets and religious leaders almost never seek to found new religions — they intend to correct the mistakes of existing ones.
Islam is considered to have three sects: Sunni and Shia, and the mystical branch of the Sufis. The Sunni—Shia split occurred due to a disagreement over who Muhammad’s successor should be, and Sufism further distinguished itself from these other 2 main sects by placing more emphasis on the unity of all religions, embracing many teachings from outside of Islam.
Hindus have far too many sects to count, since each of the numerous gods in the vast pantheon has its own following. The three main sects are Vaishnavism (followers of Vishnu), Shaivism (believers in Shiva), and Shaktism (the goddess). Within that are innumerable ways and deities of worship. But the essence of Hinduism lies in the idea of oneness and therefore all Hindus recognize the truth and validity of all deities and all sects, even though they may focus particular attention on one over the others.
Buddhism is split mainly into Theravada (the traditional teachings of the Buddha), Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The Mahayana sect developed from new teachers and texts that emphasized the importance of the bodhisattva way of life—working to help others achieve enlightenment before achieving your own final state of Nirvana. And Vajrayana, the smallest sect, places emphasis on Tantric methods of practice, which draw upon mysticism and see the body as the gateway to enlightenment.
Taoism has a complicated religious history, but it has seen the rise and fall of different schools of thought. Confucianism is not defined by sects like these other religions, but after Confucius’ death there were eight successors who had their own versions of the teachings.
We should remember that our similarities outweigh our differences, especially when the differences are merely different variations on the same religious teaching. This is what the prophets taught—that we are all one and should not let minor differences divide us. Unfortunately, many of the priests that have filled in the leadership roles left by the prophets after their passing have divided us, either due to their lack of vision, lack of ability, or out of vested interest for political power.
“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.”
—The New Testament (Titus 3:1-11), Christian text
“There is nothing more serious than the sacrilege of schism because there is no just cause for severing the unity of the Church.”
—Augustine of Hippo, Christian saint
“As for those who have divided their religion and broken up into factions, have nothing to do with them [Prophet]. Their case rests with God: in time He will tell them about their deeds.”
—The Qur’an (6:159), Muslim text
“Hold fast to God’s rope all together; do not split into factions. Remember God’s favour to you: you were enemies and then He brought your hearts together and you became brothers by His grace; you were about to fall into a pit of Fire and He saved you from it.”
—Qur’an (3:103-04), Muslim text
“ ‘Do not break up into clusters’ (Deut. 14: 1). Do not form many [small] clusters, but all of you stay as one cluster. ‘Do not break up into clusters.’ Do not divide in dissent against one another, lest you bring about a ‘baldness’ within your number, as Korah did. He divided Israel, making them into many small clusters, and thus brought about a lrorhah, a ‘baldness,’ in Israel.”
—Sefer Ha-Aggadah, collection of Jewish writings
“Most conflicts and wars have nothing to do with religion. They are about power, territory, and glory, things that are secular, even profane. But if religion can be enlisted, it will be.”
-- Jonathan Sacks, British Rabbi
“A new religious principle is that prejudice and fanaticism -- whether sectarian, denominational, patriotic or political -- are destructive to the foundation of human solidarity; therefore, man should release himself from such bonds in order that the oneness of the world of humanity may become manifest.”
--‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader
“The sundering of science and religion is but one example of the tendency of the human mind (which is necessarily limited in its capacity) to concentrate on one virtue, one aspect of truth, one goal, to the exclusion of others. This leads, in extreme cases, to fanaticism and the utter distortion of truth, and in all cases to some degree of imbalance and inaccuracy.”
--Universal House of Justice, Baha’i governing body
“Sectarian feelings and criticism of other teachings or other sects is very bad, poisonous, and should be avoided.”
--The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist leader and activist
“The varieties of religious belief are an advantage, since all faiths are good, so far as they encourage us to lead a religious life. The more sects there are, the more opportunities there are for making a successful appeal to the divine instinct in all of us.”
--Swami Vivekananda, Hindu monk
“God laughs on two occasions. He laughs when the physician says to the patient's mother, "Don't be afraid, mother; I shall certainly cure your boy." God laughs, saying to Himself, "I am going to take his life, and this man says he will save it!" The physician thinks he is the master, forgetting that God is the Master. God laughs again when two brothers divide their land with a string, saying to each other, "This side is mine and that side is yours." He laughs and says to Himself, "The whole universe belongs to Me, but they say they own this portion or that portion."”
--Sri Ramakrishna, Hindu saint
“The Superior Man is all-embracing and not partial. The inferior man is partial and not all-embracing.”
--The Analects, Confucian text
“When the Tao is obscured by pettiness and the words are obscured by elaboration, then we end up having the ‘this is, this is not’ of the Confucians and Mohists, with what one of them calls reality being denied by the other, and what the other calls real disputed by the first. If we want to confound what they call right and confirm what they call right, we need to shed light on both of them.”
--Book of Chuang Tzu, Daoist text
“Schisms do not originate in a love of truth, which is a source of courtesy and gentleness, but rather in an inordinate desire for supremacy.”
--Baruch Spinoza, Dutch philosopher
“All -isms end up in schisms.”
--Huston Smith, scholar of religion