Saturday, September 27, 2014

Two Senses of "Religion" and the Danger of Denying Them


There are two senses to the word "religion." The first sense comes from the belief that it is true. The second comes from the belief it is not true. The importance of being aware of both senses is important to avoid the loss of religious freedom.

The first sense of the word is the sense of the believer. A religion makes claims about the nature of reality that impacts everybody whether they believe it or not. For example, if God exists, then the atheist worldview (which denies the existence of any type of divinity) must be false. If Jesus Christ is God in the sense that Christianity believes Him to be, then logically the religions that claim He is not must be false. That's the law of non-contradiction at work. It lets us know that truth exists about the accuracy of religious claims—which means we can find out truth about religion if we choose to seek it. And once we find it, we live in accordance with it. That's a binding requirement of everyone, whether they believe in a religion or not.

The second sense is the sense of how one who does not accept a religion as true can approach it.  One can know about a  religion even if he or she does not accept it as true. In this sense we can know about religion as an organized understanding of how people believe the universe works and how they believe people should live in it. Whether or not you believe a particular religion to be true, one can understand what the beliefs are and not be jerks about not believing the claims. For example, if I invite Rabbi Cohen to dinner, I don't prepare a meal of ham. If I know it's Ramadan, I don't invite a Muslim coworker to meet over breakfast. I don't believe the Jewish dietary law and the Muslim fasting are binding on me, but it is respectful not to put the believer of a religion in a situation where he has to choose between his beliefs and his friends or business etc.

So in the first sense, Religion teaches us to conform to the reality it reveals. In the second sense, we are respectful of a religion we don't agree with because we recognize it has behaviors which members voluntarily take upon themselves because they feel obligated. Even when we believe their behavior is wrong (as opposed to a difference of opinion), we behave like civilized people in doing so.

The Failure to Respect Either Sense Leads to Persecution

Unfortunately, in modern society there is a growing tendency to reject both aspects of religion. Basically, there is no interest in seeking out the truth and no interest in respecting the conscience of believers. This has the result of doubly violating the freedom of religion.

In denying freedom of religion in the first sense, it is believed that there is no binding truth, therefore no person can claim that there is an obligation to behave rightly when doing so goes against the edicts of the state. There is a right way to act, because truth exists (for example, if the fetus is a person then it can never be right to kill the fetus by abortion). But if one denies the obligation to live according to truth, then moral obligation is seen as nothing more than personal preference. Opposing the legality of abortion is seen as no more reasonable than not eating pork. So the person who believes abortion is wrong is accused of "forcing your views on people." Even if a majority of Americans should happen to believe Christian morality is true, trying to pass laws that reflect that belief

In denying religious freedom in the second sense, our nation has de-evolved to the bigotry we claim to have moved beyond. Who gives a damn if the Catholic believes he can't support paying for contraception? Who gives a damn about a Muslim or Jew believing he cannot eat pork? If your religious beliefs interfere with my whims, then your religious beliefs must be opposed!

Logical Errors that Lead to Ignoring the Consideration of Truth

Whenever the appeal to religious freedom is made, one common response is to deny that the obligation to live according to what is true has any binding force, and deny that practitioners of religious practices can believe themselves bound to such a practice. These denials root themselves in a belief that "Well I don't believe in what you think, so why should laws exist that tell me I can't do what I want?"

Another response is an appeal to fear. The Sharia is mentioned (for example the behavior of ISIS/ISIL). Or perhaps the Satanists want a monument to counteract the Ten Commandments in front of a courthouse. The argument is, "You wouldn't want to give these things  authority over you. So don't try to put your own beliefs into law."

The problem is, both of these objections overlook the obligation of seeking the truth and living in accordance with it. Two hundred years ago in America, many people simply refused to consider the question of whether enslaving people was moral, even though 400 years before that, religious teaching had condemned it. In America, we know now that slavery is wrong—very few people think otherwise. But the fact is, if we go by the (lack of) logic that rejects a moral claim because of its religious origin (that's the Genetic Fallacy by the way), then we have to reject the opposition to slavery on the grounds that it is imposing a "religious view" on others.

Just because a person personally disagrees with a law because of they see a religious motivation, does not make that law merely a "religious law" that is unjustly imposed on others. The murderer, the rapist and the thief may think laws against murder, rape or stealing should not be imposed on them. Regardless of whether one believes that murder is wrong because of the Ten Commandments or for some other reason, it is reasonable for a law to exist that forbids and punishes murder . . . it doesn't matter whether you're a Christian, a Buddhist or an atheist. So when Christians believe abortion should not be legalized, the response is to ask whether their claim about the human person is true.

As for an appeal to fear like the imposition of the Sharia or the erection of a Satanic statue on the Steps of an Oklahoma Courthouse, what we have is the fallacy known as the Category Mistake. One thinks these are the same thing as the religious freedom and moral obligation Christianity calls for. But they are not the same thing.

The general objection to the Sharia is not the fact that it teaches that a thing is wrong, but the fact that it mandates punishments we consider unjust. There's a difference between saying "we must stone an adulteress to death" and saying "abortion kills a human person." Likewise, the reason we can reject the erecting of a Satanic statue is because the purpose of it is not the same as the erection of the Ten Commandments. The erection of the Ten Commandments in front of a courthouse basically makes the statement that there is objective good and evil. It does not show preferential treatment for Christianity. But the Satanic statue, on the other hand, is erected to be confrontational—basically it's the same bad behavior as the cretins from the Westboro Baptist Church who show up at the funerals of people who died from AIDS or while serving in the Persian Gulf. In both cases, the presence is intended to distress people whose behavior or beliefs they disagree with.

Understanding the Implications

When we recognize religion in the first sense, it makes sense that people who share a sense of right and wrong will want to see the government reflect that sense. Provided they do so in a civil way, in compliance with the law and do not use coercion on others, they have this right under the First Amendment (Freedom of Religion and the rights "of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.")

Recognizing religion in the second sense means that when members of a religious minority believes they are obligated to avoid doing certain things that they believe to be evil, the elites in power do not force them to do these things.

Recognizing and respecting these senses of religion are the difference between a truly free country and one that is not free. Unfortunately, today, America is falling into that second category. I don't say that as an exaggeration. We behave differently than the cases of totalitarian nations, yes. But it is a difference of degree, not of Free vs. Not Free when it comes to religion.

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