Category Archives: Religious Freedom

Sing to the Tune of a Different Choir

According to a poll released yesterday (9 October 2012) by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Americans in increasing numbers do not affiliate with any particular religious organization. The results are published here. There are a lot of data in the survey results, but the overall trend is that not belonging to a group is becoming more common among young people. That group tends to lean left in American politics. There’s no concentration in any one ethnic group, income level, or, surprisingly, education level. Almost seventy percent of the unaffiliated believe in God (or gods?) in some fashion. All told, one person out of five in this country now does not identify with an institution.

I see this as a good trend. As I’ve said before, I don’t trust large groups. Human beings, taken individually, are often good, but put them together, and they sink to the lowest level of behavior and mentality and stay there. This is true in businesses, academic institutions, governments, and religions. The megaphone of association magnifies the worst in us.

This is also a continuation of the Protestant movement that began in Europe in the late Middle Ages. The assertion of that movement was that an individual is responsible for and capable of communicating with the divine directly without the need of another person. That view was a heresy in the best sense of the word. Heresy comes from a Greek word meaning “choice.” In that way, Protestantism fits in nicely with the general trend toward individual rights that has been working its way through the minds of thinkers in the West for thousands of years. Institutions are often the antithesis of choice, and it’s good to see more and more Americans either loosening or leaving those institutions.

The trend here is reminiscent of a book by Martin Gardner, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. Gardner was a noted skeptic on matters of religion and the supernatural, and yet in that book, he identified himself as someone who believed in God and the afterlife. He did this on his own, as a result of his reading and thinking and also of his personal nature. He made a leap of faith, and that leap had to be done out of his own choice, not at the calling of an institution.

In summary, this is the distribution of power that is necessary for a functioning democracy. The more of us who take on intellectual and spiritual responsibility for our own lives, the better. Carry on, my brothers and sisters in personal faith.

Book Burning

The controversy over the plans of Pastor Terry Jones to burn a copy of The Qur’an this coming Saturday raises a number of points of interest for me, points that derive from contrasting values that I hold.  This plan challenges the idea of freedom, but also the extent of commitment to faith.

As a writer and teacher, I value books in general and abhor burning them.  I will not say that all books are sacred–if everything in a category is sacred, then effectively, nothing is–but the idea of books certainly is.  The Qur’an is clearly an important and complex text.  It comes out of the same Abrahamic tradition as the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.  I do not accept it as binding on my life, any more than the Bible, but I respect those who do, and I recognize the cultural value that it has.  Let’s remember that for many generations, Islamic societies led the world in scientific and economic development, and The Qur’an was a unifying and propulsive force in that.

At the same time, in America, we cannot be compelled to respect anyone’s sacred book.  According to today’s edition of the NPR news program Here and Now (9 September 2010), protesters in Pakistan are demanding that Pastor Jones be stopped from burning a copy of The Qur’an.  What they don’t understand is that this is impossible.  Yes, he does not have a permit to burn, so he may be fined, but that’s it.  The charge would be the same if he burned trash.  In this country, freedom of expression is recognized as a fundamental right.  We can burn flags, photograph crosses in urine, write dirty books, and practice infidel religions.  If that right is supressed, we lose our humanity.

I am concerned at the way that protesters are so willing to defend one book, but not others.  Recall the fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie because of his book, The Satanic Verses, and the death threats against Danish cartoonists who drew pictures of Muhammed.  Is a novel or a cartoon the equivalent of The Qur’an?  I argue that it is.  Each is an expression of ideas and art.  An act of violence against one idea threatens all.  There is a hypocrisy in those who insist that what they value must be respected, while the values of others are taken to be of no consequence.

What is the answer to all of this?  I quote Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California:  “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”  If Pastor Jones dislikes The Qur’an, I ask him to write his own book that explains why.  If Muslims oppose burning the book or are angered by someone else’s expression, they may preach and write in an effort to convince the rest of us to see things their way.  Ideas must be defended on their own terms:  in speech, in writing, in drawing, and in other forms of expression.  Argumentum ad Baculum in either case proves nothing beyond demonstrating which side has the greater force, and as history shows us, empires built on force inevitably fall.  By contrast, the great ideas make who we are, and their influence stays in us.

Build a Mosque, but Build It American

The controversy over building an Islamic center near Ground Zero is a blend of the just plain silly and the genuinely meaningful.  Let’s analyze what’s going on.

First, have a look at this article:

Matt Sledge uses Google Earth to show that the center is not being built on the site of the World Trade Center itself.  It will be two blocks away.  New Yorkers may feel free to correct me, but that distance in a large city strikes me as too far to get excited about.

But that’s not the heart of the matter.  The important question is one of American values and identity.  In this essay, I’m going to use the pronoun, we.  Understand it to mean Americans as a whole and the point of view that the many and the influential have held in this country.

Look at three religions that have shaped America’s history.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam battle with each other with such intensity because they are all three siblings. They worship the same God and draw from the same cultural and mythical sources.  Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages.  El and Allah–the first, a Hebrew and the second, an Arabic name for God–have the same root in the parent language.  All three faiths grew up out of the desert culture of the Middle East.  All three have a positive system of morality that is contrasted with other behaviors, and each insists that it is monotheistic.

That having been said, any of the three would make an effective core religion in America.  It does not matter which one.  What we do need to decide is what type of the religion will win here.  Americans have always been deeply religious, but we have a set of values that are in conflict.

We value individual liberty; we value being religious, but we also value converting others to the truth.  The Bill of Rights was a defining statement of our valuing personal rights, as was the American Revolution.  The fact that America is filled with churches and synagogues and mosques, despite having no official religion, shows our need for religion.  It may even be the result of our govenment acknowledging that we are free to believe by virtue of being human.  We have sent missionaries, soldiers, and businesspersons all over to remake the world in our image.

Note that these three values, when pushed to the extreme, contradict each other. What kind of Islam, what kind of Judaism, and what kind of Christianity is practiced here will determine whether any of them can be a truly American religion–a religion that is deeply held and loudly proclaimed, but not forced on anyone else.

With all this in mind, I say, build the Islamic center.  Some have argued that Saudi Arabia would not allow a church to be built in Mecca.  Whether or not that’s true, it’s irrelevant.  Saudi Arabia is not America.  It does not hold our values.  Our values support building mosques, so long as they are built American.  Build a mosque whose congregation values the separation of religion and state, the rights of women, and the sanctity of the individual.

In fact, as an American, I say, build the center, no matter what it’s like.  Just understand that if it goes against who we are, we’re free to speak out, and we will do so.