Friday, June 22, 2007

Dealing with Religious Differences

It is always difficult dealing with religious differences. So difficult, in fact, that many people either demonize those with different religious views or to ignore the differences of religious opinion, claiming that differences are irrelevant. The proper way of dealing with religious differences should be both loving and willing to recognize that differences exist and can be significant.

I recently wrote an article in which I discussed whether or not voters should take a presidential candidate’s religion into account when casting their votes. I was surprised at the emails I received. Some indicated that I simply did not like people of a particular religion. Others claimed that that religion did not hold to the tenets that it has proclaimed in many of its writings and even in the displays that it uses to attract converts at its historical sites. I am also surprised at how many people want to say that significant religious differences are irrelevant in life. And I am horrified by people who are willing to respond to religious differences with violent hatred and bitterness.

All human beings are created in the image of God. They all have an inherent dignity and are entitled to be treated with respect. But for God’s grace, everyone would be mired in religious falsehoods. We need to deal kindly and graciously with those who we believe to be in error. Besides, if we really want to convert others to Christianity, we really need to remember that people are much more likely to respond to the love we show than to bigotry or hostility.

But it is not inherently bigoted or wrong to admit that religious differences exist or that they have significant impacts. Many speak as if religion was akin to sex, race, or height - something that is somehow passed down from our parents or created in us by our environment – something beyond our control. Even though as a reformed Christian I believe in the doctrine of election, it is nevertheless the case, that from a human point of view, religion is based on what we choose to believe, not upon our genetic makeup or our birth. One of the great shortcomings of some of the world’s “great” religions is that they maintain adherents not through persuasion, but through coercion that extends from birth to death. When Christians have used coercion to make or maintain adherents, they have been wrong in doing so. One cannot be coerced into believing the truth or having a genuine relationship with God.

An example of how modern man has treated religion is in John Rawls’ foundational myth of the “Original Position.” In order to design an ideal polity, Rawls uses the argumentative device of mythical people placed in a situation in which they do not know things about themselves which would lead them to design the system to favor people with their genetic or circumstantial attributes. Rawls called this lack of self knowledge the “veil of ignorance.” So Rawls “founders” do not know if they will be healthy or sick, rich or poor, wise or foolish—but according to Rawls they also don’t know what religious beliefs they will have. As a result, they do not take anything religious or metaphysical into account in designing the ideal polity. They would not do so because they do not know anything about what they believe religiously.

Of course Rawls’ myth does not ring true. Ultimate beliefs about reality are “religious” beliefs, including beliefs about justice, fairness, equality, etc. Rawls regime is based on belief in the appropriateness of reciprocity – but that is a belief that is ultimately “religious” in the sense that it does not come by measurement or randomness – but by faith in the idea and faith that it will produce desirable outcomes and corresponds to what we feel is “right.” (From a Christian world view a regime based entirely upon reciprocity has a certain degree of fairness, but is not necessarily based on the highest or most pure truth.) Rawls shows his colors—his belief that religion is something that we sort of end up with rather than something that is based upon an evaluation of objectively available truth.

I would agree with Rawls that an ideal society would be a society in which we respect religious differences and have religious freedom. But I also believe that an ideal society is one that takes available truth into consideration, and that some truths that are foundational to the existence of freedom and to the achievement of social good are truths that can only be honestly described as religious. In some instances, they are truths that all the orthodox versions of the world’s major religions generally agree upon. But they are nevertheless truths that are not established through the measuring regimes of science or through universal selfishness or self-interest. Many of the most important truths are based upon the universal moral revelation that God has provided to us in the natural law.

By contrast to the attitude evidenced by Rawls, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not imply that religion is simply something we are born with and stuck with, but rather that religion really is a matter of thought and freedom. In article 1 and 2, it states that even people with whom we have major religious differences are entitled to dignity and to human rights:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in the spirit of brotherhood. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

“Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of political, jurisdictional, or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also acknowledges the freedom of debate in Articles 18 and 19:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and deceit, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

As I have said before in this blog and still maintain, if the United States and the West are going to win the war on terror, the only long-term solution is going to be to persuade radical Islamists to believe something else. We can succeed in so defeating the radical Islamists militarily that they no longer see a short-term chance of success and decide to recede into the woodwork until at some point in future generations they feel they have a greater opportunity at success. But the problem is only going to really go away permanently when we succeed in changing the minds of those who hold Islamo-Fascist views. It would at least be somewhat better for the West if they came to believe a traditional, more moderate and less violent version of Islam that is more affected by mysticism and less affected by Heidegger. But what would really be best not only for the West but for the Islamists is if they came to lose their beliefs both in a radical version of Islam and in a fascist outlook on philosophy and life and instead became true believers in Jesus Christ. I know that this will shock many and particularly dismay those atheists among us who blame religion for all the world’s violence. But it must be remembered that it was essentially anti-Christian and anti-religious regimes in the form of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s Korea, Castro’s Cuba and Pol Pot’s Cambodia that have been responsible for massacring more people in the last century than all of the religious wars in history combined.

Religious differences may also be relevant in politics. In the political realm we need to be honest about beliefs and characterizations of other religions. But when a religions’ views affect how that religion’s adherents see the world around them, that may be relevant in political debate. A candidate can always say “the official position of my religion is X, but I personally do not hold to X” when an examination of the presuppositions of their faith does not accurately reflect what they personally believe. If a candidate separates their personal understanding of man and reality from the political process, that is also relevant – although then the hunt is on to understand what faith they do apply to politics- materialism? A composite civil religion? It really does matter.

Religious differences are significant. What people believe really does affect how they act and how they treat others. But change in religious opinion cannot be had through coercion; it must be had through gentle persuasion. We should not seek to coerce others, but we should seek to persuade them. But persuasion requires the ability to actually discuss our disagreements in a civil way – not ignorance of real differences, name calling toward those who identify differences, nor the violence offered by the Islamo-fascists.


David M. Smith said...

Dean McConnell,

As always, extremely will said.

Do you teach any classes at Trinity?

Dean McConnell said...

Thanks Dave. I do. I teach "Legal Institutions and Values." I did not invent the course title. Otherwise it would not have the word "values" in it. It is a survey of legal history, philosophy, and theology. We discus how the law developed, Western institutions, morality and human law, the foundation of the traditional western view of law, and a lot more.

Sacchiel said...

Well put Dean!