Monday, October 13, 2008

Religion and Politics: A Match Made in ?

by Denise Beck-Clark

The great thing about Blog writing and reading is that they stimulate thought. The Blog written by Jim Aiken relates to something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years: the relationship between religion and politics, and, specifically, how it impacts on personal relationships.

My late mother, who identified herself as “a Democrat,” was married to a man who believed that Ronald Reagan was too liberal. I would always ask her on the phone, for this was when I was an adult, and didn’t see her much in person, how could she even be in the same house with someone with such views, no less be married to him, my belief being that a person’s character and his/her politics are inseparable. Her answer: We don’t talk about politics. Now I realize that there was another reason that explained the feasibility of their relationship: they weren’t religious. I never realized that before, but I do now. If either one of them had been into God, they couldn’t have stayed together. But just their political beliefs were avoidable.

It often happens that people with certain religious beliefs also have certain political beliefs. But this is not always true: there are many Democrats who have a strong belief in God. What separates them is the desire to impose their beliefs on others. That’s also where religion becomes pernicious. What would it matter if most of the world had strong religious beliefs if they didn’t condemn me for not having them. Religion, when it is done sincerely, can have very positive effects, viz., a Mother Teresa. Unfortunately, so many people get more caught up in imposing their religious beliefs on others than in the beliefs themselves, to the fanatical extreme of incarcerating or killing people who don’t agree with them.

But I digress. Recently, something interesting happened with a colleague at my job. Though she is a strong believer in God, she and I were becoming quite friendly, being aware of and tolerating each other’s differences. Until one day recently the talk turned to politics and she started to rant and rave about “those Democrats.” I said to her, “Betty, I am one of those Democrats.” Since that day our friendship has cooled. It was as if we could tolerate the one major difference, but add to that the political thing and it became too much. Oh, we are still friendly, we still talk and like each other superficially, but we know this friendship can only go so far; ultimately, there’s too much about each of us that the other doesn’t like or approve of.

Is there a conclusion here? Yes, and I think it’s the same one that Jim was given as advice by people who responded to his Blog. Above all, most of the time we do what is practical. It’s practical for Jim to smile at his mother’s neighbors so they will look after her. It’s practical for me to be friendly with my colleague at work. It was practical for my mother to be married to her husband. It’s when people’s actions go beyond the practical and focus more on principle that the stakes get higher. So the real problem is when people act on principle; that’s when relationships, be they of a personal or a societal nature, become strained and people get hurt, individually or en masse.

On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made for acting on principle, but that’s another essay.


Makarios said...

"Mother Teresa. Unfortunately, so many people get more caught up in imposing their religious beliefs on others than in the beliefs themselves, to the fanatical extreme of incarcerating or killing people who don’t agree with them."

May I suggest that "imposing one’s beliefs" and "imposing one’s beliefs in a fanatical nature" are two very different issues.

Mother Teresa was in fact imposing her beliefs on those who lived in the slums of Calcutta. Jesus said, “You will find my followers because they will be where I am.”

Where was Jesus? He was consistently with the losers, the outcasts, those on the fringes of society regardless of whether they were rich (tax collectors) or poor (beggars) with the spiritually full (Pharisees) or the spiritually empty (prostitutes). Mother Teresa was living out her Christian beliefs and those people couldn't escape her even if they wanted to.

The Hindus in Calcutta were also forcing their beliefs on the very same people with whom M. Teresa was working. For in Hinduism you do not at any cost interfere with another person's karma by helping those who are on their own journey. To do so will mean that your own karma gets bent out of shape and your next life may be even worse than this one.

We cannot help but live out our beliefs. Our beliefs, be they atheist or Christian affect all of those around us.

Now, should we be fanatical and extreme like the following?

Richard Dawkins preaches, “Faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the small-pox virus but harder to eradicate.”

“Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.”

[The Christian God is] “Arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Atheist author Chris Hitchens said, “All religions and all churches are equally demented in their belief in the existence of the divine.”

Sam Harris said, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

Hitchens writes, “How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith?” The atheist answer? Inculcate all children with atheist beliefs.

So what's this got to do with forcing one's beliefs onto others? Here's the implications of atheist beliefs and the only thing to keep them from being implemented is a present lack of power.

Richard Dawkins, “How much do we regard children as being the property of their parents? Should [Christian parents] be free to impose their beliefs on their children?”

The atheist answer of course is to impose atheist beliefs upon not just their children but upon everyone’s children.

Daniel Dennett suggests that atheists become the defenders of the world’s children, “Parents don’t literally own their children . . . [Christian parents] ought to be held accountable by outsiders (read atheists, perhaps Dennett himself) for their guardianship, which does imply that outsiders have a right to interfere.”

Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, “ [Christian] Parents, have no god-given license to enculturate their children in whatever way they choose . . . to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma . . . or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.”

All the while claiming that no two atheists think alike, I’ve personally experienced this developing atheist dogma from an atheist blogger. His stated hope is that our children will be taken from us to keep them from being taught about Christianity. This of course implies the hope that someone else will raise our children and teach them the tenets of his faith.

I agree that fanatical beliefs are dangerous. Let’s just make sure that we remember that people of all belief systems are prone to exhibiting this flaw.

QrazyQat said...

I had a similar thing re Democrats from aguy we'd met on a trip and were fairly friendly with. We were emailing and he came up with the statement "I think all Democrats are assholes". I replied that when we saw him next he couldn't expect me to pick up the check at lunch because an asshole wouldn't do that, and I added a smiley. He replied "I didn't mean you".

Really, I'd have had more respect for the guy if he'd stuck to his guns and argued his dumb claim. Or he could've said, sorry, I didn't mean that, I just flew off the handle. Instead he tried to weasel. Gutless.

Jim Aikin said...

Makarios is right, I think, to suggest that atheists are as human as anybody else, and therefore as likely to abuse power (in the unlikely event that we had any power in a theistic world). But I think we need to make clear a distinction that the following sentence obscures:

"The atheist answer of course is to impose atheist beliefs upon not just their children but upon everyone’s children."

The phrase "atheist beliefs" is an oxymoron. It is meaningless -- and this is something that religious believers (among whom I have the impression Makarios would number himself) seem not to be capable of understanding. Theists have beliefs. Atheists understand that what we know about the world, we discover through scientific investigation and the evidence of our senses.

The result of having investigated the theory of evolution, for instance, is not a belief about, or a belief in, evolution. It is an understanding that evolution is a fact.

I can't speak for Dawkins or Hitchens, and perhaps I'm giving them too much credit, but I would hope that what they are saying is that children should be taught the facts as facts. As a matter of public policy, children should not be indoctrinated with fantasies under the guise of facts.