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Is it Time to Re-evaluate our Attitude to Religious Freedoms?

From time to time, I feel compelled to express an opinion about some matter or other. As a writer, with my own blog, I consider this the most appropriate place for such things. Please join the discussion. And, if you’re easily offended, please avoid these topics.

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religionall

It has happened again: a terrorist attack on people going about their normal daily business. As a result, I’m asking a question many will consider irreverent, some will see as inflammatory, and some will believe to be anti whatever faith they espouse.

It’s none of these things. My question is aimed at starting a debate, a discussion on the validity of treating religion uniquely as something allowed to exist without the necessary questions being asked of it.

So, to my question:

Why is religion, of every sort, protected against serious debate by laws and attitudes that treat it as sacrosanct?

Faith is a quality that allows followers to indulge in beliefs that, on any real examination, rest on questionable foundations. Every so-called sacred text is open to interpretation, and therefore to misinterpretation. Because of this, no such text can be considered a definitive guide to actions, thoughts or beliefs. If the words of the text were, as they’re claimed to be, the words of a deity, then they clearly would be given in a form that was not open to interpretation. Only a deity with a twisted approach to disciples would produce a text open to misinterpretation. Only a deity desirous of creating conflict and war would permit followers to place absolute faith in a text that can be read to mean different things to different peoples. And such a deity is surely not worthy of the worship of anyone with a heart, let alone a brain and a soul.

Every sect claims its particular interpretation of their sacred text as the ‘right’ one. Each sect condemns those who fail to agree with its own strict understanding of the rules, rites, rituals and events recorded therein. Since all sects disagree with each other to some extent, and it’s impossible to form any neutral determination of which of the many, if any, might actually be the ‘right’ one, we must conclude that none of them are correct.

I won’t insult your intelligence by enumerating the many contradictions that bedevil sacred texts: these are easily accessible for anyone with concern for the truth.

The very fact that holy books are open to interpretation allows different groups to claim justification for the acts of violence, injustice and terror they perpetrate on others. This misinterpretation has more recently been combined with political and financial upheaval to permit extreme groups to justify the most appalling, criminal, acts of destruction and evil on often innocent people.

If we are ever to redress the balance and open a responsible and comprehensive debate on the place of religion, its role and value in society, we must first remove every barrier to discussion. That means we must allow insult, joke, ridicule, unbiased analysis and the publication and widespread dissemination of historical truth. Whilst we should avoid permitting the spread of hate messages, we must free the subject from the bindings of prejudice, fear and ignorance that currently allow it to be abused and employed by those who would profit from the distortions and mistruths they purvey.

If we are to reduce the influence of criminal gangs of extremists over the gullible and the ignorant we must allow open discussion of the realities, without fear of prosecution under over-protective legislation that allows religion a place of privilege but fails to require it to conduct its activities responsibly.

Let’s unwrap religious sensibility from its cotton wool shield and expose it to the harsh truths of the world where it can be analysed and required to explain its reality in the glare of public scrutiny, with all the fervour and passion the subject deserves, shall we?

Does religion have anything to fear from such exposure? I don’t know. That’s surely the point. Until we strip away the false reverence in which faith is held, how can we hope to understand it properly?

24 Responses to “Is it Time to Re-evaluate our Attitude to Religious Freedoms?”

  1. stuartaken

    Glen, you’re absolutely right about respect being governed by fear with so many regarding religious comment. And, yes, I agree, it’s almost impossible to discuss science with religious people without seeming condescending.
    Mick, I understand your stance on respect for sensibilities, but I fear that those who take umbrage at questions regarding their religious beliefs won’t necessarily respect those who disagree with them. Humour and satire have helped maintain dictator-free states all over the world. Look at those states that punish those who criticise their leaders and you’ll see that every one of them is a dictatorship in all but name. If we are to have freedom of thought, we need to ditch respect for ideas that perpetuate the idea of authority in the guise of mythical deity, I think.

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  2. glenavailable

    “I’ve got nothing against God. It’s his fan club I can’t stand” is a slogan that holds a lot of truth for me.
    Once more Stuart, dare I say it, but spoken like a true sage.
    Reason and common sense certainly has a voice in you.

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    • stuartaken

      Thanks, Glen. That’s a great quote. There are a great many very good ‘religious’ people. Whether the same can be said about the leaders of religious organisations, however, is a different matter.

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  3. saharafoley

    Some of the biggest mass murders in history are due to religion. Have we forgotten the Crusades? And the Holocaust? A few bad people? Really? I agree with the fact that IF there really were a deity overseeing us, that deity would not have made the text so ambiguous that it has incited massive wars and genocides. That type of deity does not deserve the status we have attached to it. This is why I do not believe in some all powerful being giving a shit for our small, little planet.

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    • stuartaken

      I’ve deliberately left my personal stance on the question of God out of this post, as I want to hear as many opinions as possible on the main topic. However, Sahara, I agree with your statement. And it is the ambiguity of sacred texts that provides extremists and their disciples with the ammunition they need to convert the gullible to their distorted views of the world.

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  4. stuartaken

    JMPayer, thanks for your comment. You have, in your opening sentence, illustrated the point I’m making here: that discussion of religion is a minefield. My question is: why should it be? What is it about religion that separates it from all other topics of debate and prevents a rational and informed approach to discussion? If we fail to discuss something that is so fundamental to so many people then we fail to question the ideas that inform, drive and motivate many of the actions of those who do things in the name of their faith.
    It’s interesting that you believe that religion has nothing to do with the problems of the world. I suspect that the crusades, a cause of much death and destruction, can reliably be laid at the door of religion. That’s an ancient example, of course. But people act from a set of beliefs. They pursue their passions according to a set of convictions. They rarely act alone or without motive. As things stand at present (and as they have been for many decades) many wicked acts have been perpetrated in the name of the various religions. Religion not only allows people to act on ideas that are without an evidential base, it actively encourages a mindset that praises belief without evidence. Faith is a matter of belief, not a quality arising from analysis and evidence. To promote such ideas is to give the ignorant, the superstitious, the gullible and the oppressed what amounts to approval to believe in anything they wish to believe in. It is an encouragement to the mad, bad and dangerous to acts of wickedness in the name of whatever deity they claim to follow.
    Unless we remove the ‘special status’ that religion has garnered we cannot properly discuss these issues. And, if we are prevented from free discussion, the people who abuse this special status will continue to hide behind their defensive wall and throw bombs at others.
    As you say, getting rid of religion is unlikely to be possible: it’s clearly a common human need. But removing its ability to exist without fear of question and analysis, without fear of proper debate, places it into a dangerous position where it is open to abuse by those who seek power. Of course it is people who perpetrate acts of either good or evil, but they do these things as the result of being exposed to certain ideas. When those ideas are enclosed within a wall of protective silence, they become suspect and open to abuse, as has been proven time and again by the events of history.

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    • jmpayer

      Apologies, I didn’t see your reply until today.

      In a way, you’ve answered your own question. Religion as a topic is a minefield because of the egos of people, because of their desire for control or power or just to be right and others to be wrong.

      If you look at he religious texts, they’re all remarkably similar. Love your neighbors, forgive those that trespass, spread the word and be fruitful, etc, etc, etc. But then people get involved and sometimes, somehow those key tenets get conveniently forgotten. A fun example, Mohammed says that Muslims should love Jews and Christians because they worship the same god.

      But that’s my point, it’s people – not the religions.

      I was close to bringing up the crusades and/or the inquisition in my original reply but didn’t want to go on too long. So, you think those things comply with the religions they’re blamed on? “They rarely act without motive”. Absolutely true, but where in the bible does it say it’s okay to kill thousands of people in Christ’s name? I would argue that power, territory, control, ego, bigotry. and money were far larger motives. The religion was just the excuse.

      And, honestly, I can empathize with religious people for not wanting to discuss their faith in a “rational” manner, often the only purpose of such “discussion” is to question their beliefs. It’s their faith, their belief, what good does it do for them? If I was a Muslim I certainly wouldn’t be advertising that fact and wanting to talk about it with the current climate in the states. Or large parts of Europe.

      I’m not religious myself but I learned a long time ago that we all believe in something, we all have faith in something.

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      • stuartaken

        Re the Bible and the destruction of thousands, JM; there are many accounts in the Old Testament reporting how God encouraged the Hebrews to annihilate those occupying the lands they wished to occupy. There are many stories of violence done in the name of their god in that book.

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        • jmpayer

          Yes, good point, I wasn’t thinking old testament because it’s mostly anecdotal history rather than commandment or law.

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  5. stuartaken

    Mick, it’s certainly true, in this country, that we can discuss religion without fear of being put to death. Not so in certain regimes around the world, however. I understand that the discussion of religion is always a difficult enterprise, which is why I posted this. My point is that it should not be difficult. It has to be brought out into the open and removed from the false protection it has built for itself over the centuries. We cannot properly discuss the issues, as you have said, because of the underlying problems of prejudice, alienation, irrational passion and fear. It is religion’s false claim to ‘special status’ that is the problem. It stifles debate and prevents the discussion of its validity and purpose. Religion is, after all, nothing more than an idea, like those that support politics, philosophy and other belief systems. But religion has built itself a protective cage, largely based on fear, to make the proper discussion of its merits and faults almost impossible, It is that cage I want to demolish, not religion itself, which is clearly a basic human need for many.

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    • Mick Canning

      Sorry, Stuart, your reply didn’t come through in my email notifications. hence the late reply. Yes, everything you say there is absolutely true. That cage, though, is not of religion’s making, but of its followers. Any religion worth its salt is capable of dealing with robust criticism, but there are always some followers who will squeal with fury if anything about their religion is questioned. They are not really the problem, though, the ones that are are those that respond with violence. It is because of them that more and more people are afraid to question religion today. If we go back some 70 or 80 years, then it was much easier to do so. It is just that threat of violence, now, that seems to jerk us back towards the middle ages. Yes, let’s defy that and question whatever we feel should be challenged, but I still say we must respect each other’s feelings and do it politely (not a barb at you Stuart, because I can’t imagine you not doing that), partly because throwing insults invites retaliation, and partly because we are all deserving of respect.

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      • glenavailable

        Problem is that when people lack the basic human trait of a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at themselves everything becomes an insult in their eyes. Hence the need to tread on eggshells and ‘show respect’ (fear dressed up as respect) like these followers all belong to some kind of Mafia or Yakuza outfit that deems if you look sideways at them they’ll whack you. What’s worse is they honestly believe their invisible friend will approve of the whacking. Can we agree It truly is hard not to be condescending when explaining science to a religious person?

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        • Mick Canning

          Even if someone is determined to take everything as an insult, I would still want to speak respectfully to them if I was engaging in a discussion. Perhaps that’s just me.

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          • glenavailable

            I certainly find a lot to like in the intent and maturity of that position Mick.
            Sometimes however, when faced with murderous fanatics and brainwashed zealots, the normal rules of engagement cannot logistically apply. The principle of what you are putting forward is of the most honorable nature but not everyone, I fear, would be able to carry it through. I guess that’s why the world has diplomats.

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          • Mick Canning

            Naturally, I would differentiate between (for example) a Mormon, a Buddhist or a follower of Daesh/Isil. The first I would be inclined to ridicule, the second I would engage in conversation, the third I would avoid like the plague. But I would be happy to engage in respectful discussion with followers of ‘mainstream’ Christianity or ‘mainstream’ Islam, although all of that may simply say more about me and my own personal prejudices than the subject under discussion here!

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      • stuartaken

        I think many would say that religion IS its followers, Mick. We treat politics with humour, satire, ridicule and thereby keep political leaders in their place. I think we need to do the same with religious leaders. They exert far too much power over an increasingly secular population, and that power is sectarian and divisive.
        I’d say that attitudes to questioning religion actually didn’t change radically in UK until the laws on discrimination were enacted. I can remember a good deal of mockery and ridicule of certain religious ideas when I was a youngster, and that was 50 odd years ago, rather than 70 or 80. And I recall that brilliant comedian, Dave Allen, mocking the church with impunity only a few decades ago. Can we imagine a current comedian, apart from the very brave Omid Djalili, taking on that role today?
        I think it’s time we treated religion with the same respect we use for politics: both, after all, are control systems.

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        • Mick Canning

          Religion is its followers, yes, but in their entirety, and not just a select few of whatever persuasion. My 70 or 80 year figure was rather plucked out of the air. Yes, I remember the wonderful Dave Allen, and I’m sure that he would still get away with pretty well all of his barbs aimed at the church nowadays. I don’t really think that that would be the problem in UK, anyway. Can we take it that the elephant in the room here is Islam? I agree that he would never get away with a similar approach to Islam, because we are too worried about the radical backlash. But the genie is out of the bottle with that one, and I cannot imagine that the Charlie Hebdoe approach would attract anything other than the violent backlash from that particular radical minority that we have already seen. The answer? As I said, I don’t know. But I am sure that alienating the more moderate members of that religion can do no more than make matters worse.

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  6. jmpayer

    I don’t normally reply to posts involving religion because it’s such a minefield of a topic, but felt like I needed to chime in here.

    Frankly, I feel like religion gets a bad rap these days. And I don’t mean a particular religion, it’s all of them. In the news, internet, media, etc. Evangelical Christians are to blame for X, Muslims are to blame for Y.

    Let’s face it, religion has nothing to do with the problems in our world, people do. There are ten times as many amazing Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, and all the other religions as there are bad people in those religions. But it’s the bad people, as well as their “faith”, that make all the headlines.

    People do bad things. Occasionally people do bad things in the name of their faith… even when most often those actions are in direct conflict. That’s a choice they’ve made, not their religion. In those cases, religion just becomes an excuse for a terrible act they’ve already decided to do. Just like you mentioned, religious texts can be read in a thousand different ways. Good, bad, ugly, people find in them what they’re looking for.

    Getting rid of religion (if that were possible) wouldn’t change things, it would just change the excuses afterwards.

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  7. glenavailable

    As the bumper sticker reads – “TOO STUPID TO UNDERSTAND SCIENCE? TRY RELIGION!”
    Agree with everything you said Stuart.

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  8. Mick Canning

    Well, I know you’ve read my thoughts on this before, Stuart, but lets put this up and see what people think. I agree that we should be absolutely free to debate the meanings and consequences of all religions, but I do not agree that we should be free to insult them. Whether ridicule counts as insulting, would, I suppose, depend on how it is put. One reason that insulting any particular religion is foolish, is that you trample on people’s sensibilities and beliefs, and no amount of legislation can prevent them from feeling aggrieved and insulted. This is one reason why some would then seek to take revenge for these perceived insults (e.g. the Charlie Hebdo attacks). Equally, you are treating them with a lack of respect. Many people believe these things without wishing to force them on others.
    Obviously, we can have no real influence on the laws in most countries foreign to us, so those ones that do make it a crime to challenge a state religion will continue to do that regardless of what we think. But, more importantly, there are no laws that I am aware of that prevent us questioning these things in, for example, England. If we do it in a sensible and sober way, we are not going to risk invoking any ‘incitement to hatred’ laws. I am free to point out what I may perceive as discrepancies or impossibilities, for example, in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca or anything else that I care to challenge, just as long as I keep my language moderate. And I think that, on balance, this is about right. Or at least as right as is practical.

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    • stuartaken

      Thanks for the comment, Mick.
      I think it’s important that we do not treat religion in any way differently from any other subject. It has attained a status that it clearly doesn’t deserve. We are ‘allowed’ to say what we like about politics and politicians, science and scientists, philosophy and philosophers. But as soon as religion becomes the subject of discussion we are obliged, by tradition if not by law, to step on eggshells, in case we cause offence or upset the sensibilities of the religious. This is clearly not a sensible way to treat any abstract subject. In fact there is a long tradition of dealing with sensitive issues by turning them into jokes and this is healthy for society. We should feel free to publicly denounce spurious beliefs in the same way as we publicly denounce political beliefs. My point here is that religion has a false protection from real debate and, as long as that remains the case, it prevents the proper discussion of those issues that lead to extremism. It neither deserves nor earns the respect it is generally given. A respect that stems from tradition and the general brainwashing of the public over centuries in an attempt to control populations.
      We must not only be ‘allowed’ to treat religion in the same way as other topics, but be seen to be ‘allowed’. Our current discrimination laws, whilst very carefully worded to exclude freedoms of speech, nevertheless give the impression that religious matters are not up for free debate and it it is this perception that troubles and prevents open discussion, I think.

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      • Mick Canning

        I certainly cannot claim to know the wording of the discrimination laws, so I suppose I cannot debate that in too much detail. I think you are right about the impression that many people have about them, in the same way that many people have impressions about many laws that are actually not correct – many of the ones that certain Right Wing newspapers, for example, claim prevent children from playing conkers.
        It is at any rate true that we can openly discuss the merits or otherwise of religion without being burnt at the stake or risking losing our heads, nowadays.
        Indeed, it seems to me that the greatest risk we run in attempting to debate religion, is to inflame the tempers of other people who feel strongly on the subject. I very much fear that if there was some sort of pronouncement from the powers that rule us to the effect of ‘Don’t worry about having to hold your tongue about anything you want to say about any religion’ that the terminally stupid amongst us who already like marching along in the streets and setting fire to mosques would take it as license to do whatever they wanted. And damn the consequences.
        I don’t know the answer, really, Stuart. I’ve always felt that we should uphold the principles of free speech above almost anything else, but at the same time it should always be illegal to incite hatred, and that it is certainly wrong to belittle others. I suspect that there are a huge number of people out there who are, sadly, incapable of living life within those strictures.

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