Hello fellow travelers of life, welcome to another Sunday sermon.
I’ve spent the previous five sermons analyzing the God of the Abrahamic religions (admittedly, focusing most on the Christian interpretation since I’m most familiar with those versions). So, this week I’d like to step back and have a thought about the notion of belief itself, how it shapes our world views, our interactions with people, our laws, politics and view of rights and responsibilities.
To begin with, everyone believes something. Except nihilists, who believe in nothing, which is still a kind of something so… Anyway, the notion that everyone believes something (and not necessarily a deistic thing) is important because (1) all too often, deists will claim that atheists believe in nothing, which is clearly and demonstrable not true, (2) the fact that we all believe in something is at least one small common ground in a highly divided world.
Unfortunately, it is a small commonality and one that is lost too quickly in our attention to differences. Or, it is exaggerated in ways that are both harmful and incorrect.
A strong liberal religious education, for example, teaches that all religions are essentially the same. This can been easily seen from a perusal of the Religious Education programs of state schools in England, exemplified here.
Note the emphasis on similarities between three religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism). The notion that each religion is essentially described as monotheistic, even those with a clear pantheon such as Hinduism (in reality even Catholicism, the dominant form of Christianity, has a pantheon of deific figures: God x 3, angels, saints). There’s also a noted absence of any discussion of Islam, the principal competitor to Christianity (the dominant religion in UK), make of that what you will.
Overall, there seems to be a clear attempt to instill the idea that all beliefs are essentially the same. Not just equally valid but, in essence, different window dressing on the same ideas.
Unfortunately, reality teaches us something quite different, as anyone who’s had a partner of a different belief can attest to. I know from personal experience that it’s very challenging working and living with someone who’s world view diverges dramatically from your own. Considering that, in most cases, said beliefs are based on nothing but upbringing and ancients texts lends another degree of difficulty to the task of understanding.
Still, there would be nothing wrong with a liberal religious view if everyone kept their beliefs to themselves. But the nature of belief often conflicts with that notion. And the stronger one believes, the stronger the conflict. This naturally leads to proselytizing, missionary work, and, eventually, discrimination on the basis of religion.
Witness this fundamentalist Christian web site:
Not only are there highly discriminatory views expressed in the article and the forums, but the article espouses discrimination against another group (in this case, homosexuals) due to religious beliefs. It seems that some Christians refuse to serve homosexuals in shops, and when they are charged under the law of the land, they feel they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs. The real irony in this particular situation is that may of those being discriminated against (the homosexuals) undoubtedly consider themselves to also be Christian.
Those following doctrines espoused by such websites are people, not unlike suicide bombers, for whom a liberal religious education will not prepare one to understand. They are true believers. They are people who see nothing wrong with harming those who don’t share their beliefs, and nothing and no one can change their view.
In a modern, democratic, civilized, global society, we recognize the diversity of experience and belief. But we also recognize that certain common rules are required for all to live by to prevent such a diverse community from degenerating into anarchy and chaos. Despite liberal religious teachings, many religious beliefs are mutually exclusive. So, it is at this point that the individual’s right to believe ends and the community’s right to exist peacefully takes over.
That is, everyone has a right to believe what they want, as long as their belief doesn’t infringe on the human rights of other members of that society. It’s crucially important to realize that no one has a right to express their beliefs if it results in harm to someone else.
It doesn’t take a futurist or science fiction writer to perceive what could result from complete and total religious freedom, just the ability to mentally step out from your own community.
Most of those who oppose limitations on religious freedom (i.e. when it discriminates against others) do so through fear. The fear that they will wake up one day and find they are the minority in their community and suddenly they have to believe something they don’t want to. Ironically, in a kind of pre-emptive discrimination, this leads them to fight for imposing, on groups they ‘don’t agree with’, the very same restrictions they would not have used against them.
It is for this reason that governments in civilized, democratic countries must impose certain laws that trump freedom of religion. After all, if everyone was allowed to act on whatever small-minded, or hate-filled prejudice that entered their head, in the name of a religion, just imagine the violent, murder-filled world we would live in. So, instead, certain laws of society, that supersede religious beliefs, must be established to protect the safety, happiness, health — human rights — of all members of the society. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
Insight and longevity,