Religious Freedom


Gandhi (Photo credit: inky)

Coming from a weird, eclectic background, I’ve been awarded the privilege of seeing both sides of the religious debate – at least under the worldview lens of this post-modern milieu. Just a few months ago I was one of those overly aggressive atheists who would attack anyone comfortable enough to share a belief I thought was stupid. Like most atheists, these ‘beliefs’ I attacked were largely religious   (although the absconding syncretic would occasionally feel the warmth of my fiery defense). And like most atheists, I would defend such behavior by pointing out the dogmatic nature of religion, and the bigots who run this world, beleiving they have the divine power to choose fate for others (others less fortunate, or equally so). Never did I truly grasp the true irony my behavior embodied.

I grew up in a Christian home. My father is one of those very evangelical Christians who believes he can communicate with God and fancies himself a prophet. My mother was slightly more conservative, but not much. They sent us to private Christian schools. We went to church every Sunday and bible camp during our summers. Needless to say, the Christian philosophy was fairly familiar to me growing up. I was also brought up (both in school with my friends and other families, and at home with my own family) in an environment that showed little restrain in voicing its disdain and disgust with the secular world – the fore-bearer being the ‘evolutionists’. I mean, I grew up really believing that those who adhered to the ‘evolutionist’ worldview believed that people can have sex with monkeys… hopefully you don’t think too poorly of me for that, for I was but 12.

It was almost as if Christians were scared of atheists. There was this general fear that we would be corrupted and lose our faith if there was mention of things not strictly biblical.

The irony I want to speak about, and of which I’m sure you’ve all grasped by now, was never more present than when I made the veritable ‘switch’ between ‘worldview classes’. That is, when I became an atheist. The transformation was gradual, and it was very much a learning process – although by learning I don’t necessarily mean ‘intended learning’; that is, it was more of a conditioning and low-effort learning process than it was a conscious decision (unequal parts). Eventually I hated all things religious. And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really know why. There was just this hatred. I saw a few contraindications in logic and so professed: here here, since a cannot possibly equal b, in 1,2 and 3, the whole thing is a mess. I was very quick to jump the gun and toss the existential baby out with the ontological bathwater (cheesy enough?).

Lets re-cap briefly before we move on: I grew up in an environment were public rejection and scorn of secularism was encouraged, and religious tolerance was out-group behavior. Eventually I wormed my way away from religion and became an atheist. Once I had established my convictions firmly enough to stand on my own, I began publicly rejecting anything remotely religious sounding (and lets remember, things are only said by people). I came full-circle, as it were.

What had I accomplished? Well, I had a new perspective, some different insights, a new lens from which to interpret the physical world. I wasn’t necessarily any happier (although there was no great difference there). And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t really know much more. I hadn’t drastically changed; there was no re-birth – not even a re-pair. I was  basically the same person, only now I believed something my peers and parents generally didn’t. I have grown a lot since then, in my journey towards (for) truth. I’ve found certain figures for whom I seek advice – Richard Dawkins, Rudyard Kipling, Lawrence Krauss, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Nietzsche (loved him… still do) and Bertrand Russel to name a few. Whenever I had a question I started to look for answers. But even then, I still new little compared to how much I knew my peers were wrong. There was just a lot missing; I knew the religious were wrong, but I didn’t necessarily have a good reason for why they were wrong. This is a common theme in our world today. A world where it’s not only okay to disagree, and it’s not only a right, but it’s something of an intrinsic truth; questioning has become the new answer to questions – its really gotten us somewhere, too…

We live in a world that can be described basically by its two foremost conditions: 1) anyone can do anything, no matter what. And, 2) anyone can say anything, no matter what. Condition 1 is accepted as unequivocally true, whereas condition 2 is only true in special circumstances; that is, circumstances in which what’s being said in the second condition, doesn’t interfere with what’s being done in the first. On paper, it might seem to be slightly enticing to some of you. It certainly is a positive upswing for the downtrodden and forgotten, who just have a century ago were abused and neglected on a national scale. So in that sense its good. But as a general and particular principle, it just doesn’t hold its weight. For example: a mentally handicapped man wants to become a world-renowned astrophysicist. He wants to overturn people like Einstein (out of the grand body of works, the most understood is simply that he’s ‘a famous guy’) because people like hawking exist – that is, disabled people doing great things. Most would applaud his dedication and drive. We all know that there will be some who will just raise their hands and say ‘this is bull; there’s no way this guy can do that. And to lead him on like that is unethical’. So we can see condition two interferes with condition one and… all hell breaks lose. Lady ga-ga might even write a song about it.

There is a third way, isn’t there? The only place true dichotomy exists is in the hearts and minds of people who share differing opinions on heavily important topics; religion, science, ethics etc… The atheist and the religious don’t have to fight with one another. Neither is right; they’re both wrong! One fights because the other fought, and vice versa. Either everyone can do everything or were saying some can’t do anything. What about love, compassion, tolerance, freedom, respect, humility, charity, perspective and perseverance?

I’m not going out on a limb and saying ‘our society totally does this, or totally does that’. But our society is made up of people. I’m not particularly interested in things on that ‘second-order-macro-level’. I’m interested on what happens between individuals. If we just showed a little more love, things would be so much easier. There would be no need for these rules. We wouldn’t feel compelled to attack one another proactively for fear of what the other may do. I truly believe that we should change the way we interact with one another. I don’t care why it happens, let someone else figure that out. I just know that we can change, and moreover, I know that it would benefit us all – and more over that, I think that most will come to that conclusion eventually; why not sooner rather than later?

There’s this Huffington Post blogger called Cara Santa Maria who writes about and advocates for all things science. She’s decidedly atheistic and sort of fits the ‘old-me’ mold. Anything religious is tossed out as useless and anyone religious is stupid and wrong; Christians the foremost intellectual wrongdoers. Lately, with the epiphanies I’ve had, I’ve started thinking a lot in terms of how I want to be remembered, and what I want to do while I’m here. I wan’t to be like Gandhi and mother Theresa. I have understanding where I was once lost; I get why doctors and business men work 80 hours a week and want nothing more than to build an empire – they want a legacy, to be remembered. I’ve tossed away hedonism and in replace something much more productive, and just better has taken its place. I wan’t to do good. I want to make others feel good. I’ve learned that things take time; patience is such an important virtue, and a skill to be learned. I’ve learned that things are hard, but the hardness of an act is not an indication that its impossible. When someone says something rude to me, I know in theory I should take the ‘high road’, but in practice  nothing would make me more immediately satisfied than to get down in the mud with them and fight it out; taking the high road is ALWAYS hard. The hardness no longer deters me, but rather it’s a new transmitter, informing me when to act, and when not to. When all I want to do is to punch someone in the face, and its nearly impossibly hard not to, that hardness immediately brings me to a different place – it reminds me of people who walk away from confrontation, who behave like the ‘bigger man’, and that makes it easier. Then I’m reminded of my mortality and how I want to leave this life; what my legacy is to be. So again, why do we have to say ‘since I think you’re wrong, you’re not allowed to share your belief’. And I get it; those over-enthusiastically religious people who shove their opinions down your throat, and think that since they believe gays shouldn’t marry, no gay should marry, are downright wrong; likewise though, so are the over-zealous atheists that think ‘since religion could not probably be right, we must make it our life’s mission to attack religion, and those who are religious’. But I’m not advocating for a one-sided ethic of ‘bigger-man-ness’. You know that cliche ‘be the change you wish the see in this world’, well it has some truth. Why not just show that person love and compassion. It WILL be hard; it will be uncomfortable for a long while. You probably won’t be very good at it, especially if you’re not the type of person that sort of behavior comes naturally to. But we can all change for the better. Yes we should civilly debate and argue. But saying ‘because your belief limits my belief, I’m going to advocate for you to no longer have the ability to have your belief’ is just stupid! And that’s essentially what were doing. Some times its right; often times it’s not. But even some justified reactions are ultimately unjust; I’d be ‘justified’ for punching someone in the face who says ‘kill yourself; you’re worthless’. And it would be hard as heck not to. But it would be wrong. The only thing it would accomplish would be temporarily making me feel slightly better. Its like putting air in a tire with a small hole in it. Unless you patch the hole, every day you’ll have to keep filling it up with air. There are tolerant, liberal religious people who are open minded. And it’s not in-spite of their views. For many, it’s because of their views. Instead of trying to make sure no one is religious, why not advocate for more people to be tolerant and open minded? Why not have a religious person who says ‘yeah, that’s okay you don’t believe what I do; there’s something to what you’re saying, and you have the right to believe it. There’s no way I know I’m totally right, and you’re totally wrong, and anyway, treating you with love and respect is more important’. Religious Freedom shouldn’t mean freedom from religion. Who would want to forget thousands of years of searching for the great ontological, metaphysical, and just philosophical truths? Religious freedom should mean freedom for EVERYONE to believe whatever they want, so long as each respects the others’ choice.  Let’s patch the hole people!

We claim to attack the beliefs people hold; often for ‘the good of the people’. But when we aim our cross-hairs at a person’s belief, the person gets hit too. If we substitute attack with ‘tolerance and discussion’, we would communicate better, there would be less arguing, fighting, anger and hatred, and more understanding and love. In short, the world would be better. Even the atheist would say Gandhi was a great guy… guess what, Gandhi was religious…. gasp!


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