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Religious liberty?

February 24, 2011

When I was working on one of the virtual presentations for the library and was doing research on religion in the United States, I found a web site called Patheos.  It is an interesting site, whose motto is “Balanced Views of Religion and Spirituality.” It provided some good resource information and also has interesting articles. Whether or not I agree with what the articles say is not relevant – the thing is, they are there. They can be there because we have freedom of religion in our country.

Freedom of religion is, by all accounts, one of the cornerstones of democracy – if people feel as if one religion is shoved down their throats, if they are prevented from being able to worship as they choose (or don’t choose) – then one of our basic human rights is taken away from us.

Religion is also a very touchy topic for people. People often do not want to get into a discussion that touches upon religion in any way, because they fear that they will be mocked or judged. We have devolved to the point where we have people yelling at each other because “their” religion is the “right” one, and the others are all wrong. I once had a woman tell me I was going to Hell (this when I was volunteering as an Escort at Planned Parenthood). I wanted to reply that it was a good thing I don’t believe in it, but it would have only added fuel to her fire. She yelled at me enough anyway.

One of the reasons I converted religions was because in Judaism I found a religion that encourages people to question, to discuss, to debate, without judgment or mockery. It is what is called “a thinking man’s religion” and I loved going to classes where we would explore and discuss topics from the Torah to Kabbalah and others. I find it interesting that in the U.S., people would find out that I converted, and the only ones who asked why were other Jews. I did not do so lightly – it was a process that took many years – my first doubts of my religion were as a child, and I did much reading and exploring of religions before realizing that Judaism was the one that “fit”.

This background is perhaps why I found one of the articles on Patheos today so interesting. It is titled “Can Religious Liberty Become ‘Halal‘?” Well, of course that title got my interest, far more than some of the others that I have seen, and as I read it, I recognized that much of what he was discussing seemed familiar. He too is questioning the future of democracy in the Arab world: “The choice is up to new leaders of the Middle East, who will (hopefully) continue to topple authoritarian governments, or at least extract substantial reforms.” However, he goes on to focus more on religion – something I touched upon in my last post, but did not go into in any depth: “As we have seen…”democracy” is a sham without real religious liberty. Islam’s detractors say that Muslims are incapable of embracing religious liberty, because Islam is an inherently coercive faith. Let us hope that events will prove that assumption untrue.”

It is interesting, this idea that has become attached to Islam – when and who decided these things about Islam? Did it happen after the events of September 11, 2001, because the people who attacked the U.S. happened to be (radical) Muslims? Were these thoughts always there, under the surface, and only came up because it became okay to say such things? What is it about another religion, or race, or ethnicity, or any number of other things that strikes such fear in people? Are we so uncertain in ourselves that we think someone else can change our views?

The concept of Islams as an “inherently coercive faith” is not only untrue, it is laughable. As with anything related to religion and “the scriptures,” it is all in the context and in the interpretation. I also find it interesting how quickly people forget that “their” religion was also, at one time, the oppressors. The author of the article brings up just a few examples:

“…there was a time when Christians brutally suppressed religious dissent, too. Christians began as persecuted sectarians who hoped only to win the freedom to worship. They got their wish when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313. But that development set the stage for Christianity to become the state religion of the Roman Empire, and later, for the Catholic powers of medieval Europe. The Catholic Inquisitions were an extreme version of the suppression of religious dissent, and the wars of the Reformation led both Protestants and Catholics to stifle unorthodox sects.

“The Puritans of New England, too, outlawed dissenting religious groups such as Baptists, Quakers, and Anglicans. They saw it as a religious duty to expel dissenters such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, and in the most tragic case, they hung three recalcitrant Quakers in the years 1659-1661. Freedom of religion, to the early Puritans, meant freedom to leave New England if you did not agree with them.

“America’s pattern of religious persecution only gradually abated during the 18th century. Until the eve of the American Revolution, state-sanctioned maltreatment of dissenting Christians continued. A number of Baptists were put in jail for illegal preaching in Virginia as late as the 1770s, a development that leaders such as Patrick Henry and James Madison watched with disgust. Their revulsion shaped the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, which affirmed not just “toleration” of dissenters, but the “free exercise of religion.” Baptists continued to insist, however, that real religious liberty meant not only stopping the abuse of dissenters, but abolishing official state denominations. This was the triumph of the First Amendment’s ban on an “establishment of religion”: the United States, unlike England, would not have a national church.”

The author of the article only brought forth a few examples, and they are mainly focused on the United States (well, he is an American). There are innumerable other examples throughout history (the Crusades, anyone?) of religious oppression.

Such an examination is again worthwhile. Why is it that humans seem to be condemned to repeat our past mistakes, instead of learning from them? Will these revolutions break the cycle, or bring further religious oppression to these countries? Will they really move toward democracy and freedom, or maintain intolerance of forms of expression that fall outside the “norm”?

Once again, I have no answers, only questions. As we move further along in this momentous time in history, I will be following with much interest. I have a feeling I will continue to have more questions, too.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Heidi permalink
    February 24, 2011 1:39 pm

    I have always found this very interesting. 🙂

  2. Melanie permalink
    February 26, 2011 12:52 pm

    I wish this type of closed mindedness and persecution were limited to just Christians, that would mean it was less common than it actually is. I am not sure there is one religion that can claim they have never persecuted people who didn’t agree with them. No religion is above this very unfortunate practice.

    PS- I asked you why, and I am not Jewish. 🙂

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