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Jun 30 2010

When religion clashes with secular values

My views on religion are not well-liked by believers. Those of you who read the comments attached to my posts may have seen a back-and-forth I had with a Baltimore-based columnist named Rene over my invocation of Russel’s teapot. I like Rene – he’s a funny guy who shares my views on people who stubbornly refuse to accept reason or evidence when it comes to vaccinating their children. However, when I applied the same reason and evidence (or lack thereof) to belief in a deity, I found myself in a fight with him.

Rene, and many of my friends who are believers, are paradoxically the best and worst kind of religious people. Best, because their religious beliefs are personal, and generally serve the purpose of helping them deal with ultimate questions of reality, or as a moral guide. Worst, because while they might deplore the things done in the name of religion, they always seem to make excuses as to why it’s okay to believe some religious things but others are clearly wrong. Worst of all, these are generally the kinds of people who don’t speak up when members of their faith do something deplorable with religious justification on their lips. “Those people aren’t real Christians/Muslims/Hindus/Sikhs/Rastafari/etc.” they say “that’s not what I believe, so there’s no need for me to say anything.” Of course this is simply trivial goal-post shifting – they believe all the same things you do, plus a bunch of stuff you don’t. If you call yourself a Christian, then it’s up to you to speak out against people who use Christianity to commit atrocities.

So today I thought I’d present a few conundrums, and ask those readers who are believers to try and explain them away.

Imagine you are an Israeli Jew, who believes that the Torah is the revealed word of God. You use scriptural guidance to make all of your decisions, particularly those that pertain to raising your children. However, a different group of Israeli Jews allow their children to watch TV and use the internet. They are full of sinful ideas, and you want to protect your children from their malevolent influence. The government says that you’re not allowed to segregate your children into their own schools. Which argument is the “correct” one – that you should be allowed to raise your children as you see fit, or that it’s in the best interest of your children not to be insulated from the outside world and remain walled off from any questioning of their parents’ religious beliefs?

Isn’t it nice to see different faiths coming together and agreeing on what’s really important in life – penises. Amazing the power that one organ can have to bring people together (but if it brings them together in the wrong way, that’s a sin). Both the Christian Bible and the Qu’ran are very clear that homosexuality is wrong (although the Bible is far more homophobic, explicitly counseling that homosexuals be killed). What are you to do as a believer when gay people are flocking to your country, fleeing persecution by your brethren? What is the reason why you can ignore some of what the Bible says (a woman should be killed if she fails to cry out while being raped), but not the other parts (homosexuals should be killed, just because)?

I seem to be picking on Kenya today… What do you do when you’re at church and your imam or priest says that a new government initiative to amend the constitution is expressly in contravention of your religious beliefs? What if the government wants to pass a law that says abortion is legal, or that doesn’t recognize the validity your religious courts, instead wanting to have one set of laws that apply to all people regardless of faith? What if they say that allying with the constitution will cause a religious war? Do you side with the creation of a secular standard of law and order, or do you follow your religious teachings?

I saved this one for you, Rene. What would you do if you were a good, God-fearing Christian who believed that God will heal the righteous, and will punish those who doubt his powers by attempting to intervene unnaturally (Matthew 9:22 – “But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.”)? Someone from the government comes and tells you that the sickness in your children, which is (like all sickness) caused by sin (John 5:14) can be prevented by the evil machinations of mankind? Do you have a responsibility to save your child’s life or their soul?

The answer from non-fundamentalist believers is that it’s okay to ignore some things in the Bible that are clearly wrong, or subject to misinterpretation. What separates misinterpretation from just regular interpretation? How do we know what’s the correct view of Biblical passages? Are we holding them to some standard of good and evil that are external to the Bible? What commandments should we follow, and which ones should we ignore? How do we know?

It’s all well and good to say “well everyone can make their own choice“, but that’s not what’s happening here. People are using their religious beliefs to justify making choices for other people. When your beliefs and my beliefs come into conflict, we have a way to resolve them that has nothing to do with faith in anything.

So I put the question to you, believers: what would you do if the government of the country you live in tried to pass a law that conflicted with your faith? What if, for whatever reason, you were forced to make a decision between your religious beliefs and a well-reasoned law that was for the good of society at large? Saying “it would never happen” is not a permissible answer to the question – it happens all the time. Laws are passed in my country and in yours that are in conflict with the Bible every day. If you were put in a corner and you had to make a decision, what would you do?

If the answer is that you would side with your faith, then you are no different (philosophically) than fundamentalists, it’s just a coincidence that your personal beliefs aren’t as strict as theirs.

If the answer is that you would side with a reasonable law, then your belief in logic and evidence is stronger than your belief in religious edicts, and I invite you to take the final step across the line and accept the fact that you don’t need religion to be a good person.

If you don’t know what you would do, or if you refuse to engage in a line of thought which causes your beliefs to come under scrutiny, then maybe you should re-examine how strong your faith is.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Ian

    What is this, evidence? How dare you present evidence to the true believers who need no such thing. Don’t you know how great faith is?

  2. 2
    crommunist

    Tastes like chicken.

  3. 3
    Brian Lynchehaun

    “well everyone can make their own choice“

    Choice is way more complicated than most people seem to think that it is…

  4. 4
    crommunist

    I think the complications arise when you talk about the concept of “own”. Not own as in ownership, but own as is “my own choice”. It stops being “your own choice” when it affects the welfare of another person. You may not be ethically obligated to act to aid someone else (though the world is a better place when you do), but if your decision to act affects someone else then you have to factor them into the decision-making process.

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