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An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

Do people have the right to believe anything they want?
Does religious freedom include the right to hurt others?

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Do people have the right to believe anything they want to believe?

Susan Gilmore wrote an essay for this web site where she said:

"It is hard for me to accept that someone who believes in hate and killing has the right to their belief, and even has the right to hate and hurt me."

As she and we well know, many claim that as a right under the banner of religious freedom and act upon that right.

For those that are like me, WEAF’s (white, educated, American, females) it is a shock to our system to discover that we are hated for what we are: our ethnicity, our educational attainment, the country of our birth, our gender. We were brought up to be nice and polite and expect that from others, as our due, and usually we get it. When we get a taste of what it is like to not be a WEAF we don’t like it any more than others that are persecuted or hated for what they are!

Many forget that having the "right" to do something or to believe something doesn’t mean that it is the "right" thing to do or to believe.

The first Article of the Bill of Rights which is the First Amendment to our Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;……"

Our founding fathers were well aware of the problems created in England as well as other European countries between the Catholic and Protestant rulers of different periods and the resulting wars and pogroms when one or the other gained power and tried to force everyone in their country to adhere or accept their religious beliefs. If they didn’t convert they were massacred or expelled from the country and their property in either case was confiscated and became the property of the ruler. Our founding fathers didn’t want to see that happen in this new country they envisaged and felt the best way to avoid the problem was to simply keep the government out of the religion business.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt made what has become known as his Four Freedoms Speech on 1941-JAN-06. 1 As he defined it:

"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world… .... " 1

These freedoms were eventually incorporated into the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads"

"Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed the highest aspiration of the common people. ..." 2

Many have decided this means they have the right to believe anything they want as long as it is under the banner of religious freedom and no one has the right to tell them their beliefs are wrong although they insist they have the right to tell others that their beliefs are wrong.

Some take it further and believe they have the right to denigrate, demean and belittle "the other", the person that doesn’t believe what they believe. Freedom to practice the religion of their choice has now become the freedom to denigrate, demean and persecute others, in some people’s minds.

There are limits on people’s freedom. Generally our laws and the general public agree that no one has the right to harm another person, to incite others to cause harm to another person, to ruin a person’s business or reputation by spreading lies or misinformation.

The ninth commandment of those Ten Commandments that many want displayed in public places says:

"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."

That means it is forbidden to create and spread lies and misinformation. Many of us would accept that it applies not just to other people but to other religions, to science, and to all other areas of our lives.

There are defamation laws. They cover issues of libel (for written, broadcast, or published words) and slander (transitory or spoken words).

There are also laws against causing physical or mental (emotional) harm to others. And now we have added "hate crimes" to our list of laws restricting what people can and can not do. A hate crime by the way, is generally a crime where a person is harmed because they are a woman or a member of some minority group, not because of something particular they have done to the person that is harming them.

People do have the right to believe what they want they don’t have the right to act on those beliefs when doing so causes harm to another. You may be uncomfortable when someone (like me) voices an opinion that you disagree with. It isn’t considered harmful(you aren’t being forced to read what I write, and my words apply and are aimed at many not just one person)!

There is a difference between beliefs and truth. Just because you believe something with all your heart doesn’t mean that it is true.

Beliefs can be based upon religious/philosophical/scientific/historical ideology (doctrine/dogma), fear/ superstition/ ignorance/ prejudice/ intentional deception/ outright lies or experience.

Kathy LaPan wrote an essay for this web site where she tries to distinguish between the concept of faith and belief. She states:

"The Bible is the inerrant Word of God. It represents the Truth, as presented to us by the Lord. You’ll note that I did not say, ‘Christians believe….’ This is because it is not what is believed by Christians, but what we know to be true. We may accept these statements on faith but it is not on the level of belief, in the way I may say, ‘I believe it will rain tomorrow’…."

Faith according to my old Thorndike/Barnhart High School Dictionary is "believing without proof".

Knowledge has proof of truth. Beliefs are what we hope are true where there is no proof of truth. Faith needs no proof, for the one who has it. But that doesn’t mean the one without faith or one with a different faith, can do without proof. IF, that is, they are to be convinced that they are to abandon their own Truth and accept yours.

Doctrine, Dogma, Creeds are statements about beliefs that are to be accepted as Truth, on faith, IF you want to be a member of that group. Political parties have doctrines, Environmental groups have doctrines as do Religious groups. Doctrines are to be accepted as Truths even though they are statements about beliefs.

Problems arise when some folks insist that their religious truths are the one and only TRUTH, (implying all others are lies). They insist that their Truth is universal and must be binding upon all people, even upon those that don’t believe what they believe.

Public policies that effect ALL people should not be based upon beliefs alone. Beliefs aren’t always universal but more commonly individual or tribal. You can force people to abide by laws based upon beliefs, or face punishment if they fail to abide by the law, BUT you can’t force people to believe what they find is unbelievable.

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Some folks fail to realize -- or maybe they just need to be reminded -- that having the right to believe something or to say something doesn’t mean that it is the right thing to believe or the right thing to say in a public forum.

Their intentions may have unforeseen consequences or adverse affects. Their words may do the opposite of what they think they are doing. Instead of inspiring people to come to "the light" they may drive people to find a "brighter light", one that isn’t dimmed by prejudice, bigotry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or self-righteousness.

Kathy LaPan in the first essay she submitted to this site states:

"It is commonly considered ‘correct’ to view all religions as having equal value. I would like to explain why this is impossible for a believing Christian. ..."

"If the Bible is the inerrant Word of God revealed to us, and the Bible tells us that the only way to the Lord is through belief in Jesus, then it follows that no other religion—no other path to the Lord—can be legitimate. Therefore, it is not possible for a believing Christian to give equal credence to all religions, although our popular culture demands that we do so or else risk being considered ‘judgmental’ or ‘intolerant’."

She shows the limits and pitfalls of her own statement (and perhaps her own doubts) by starting her statement with a very big IF. She seems to have failed to consider what IF the Bible isn’t what she claims it is. Others that reject her beliefs have done just that.

A little later she states,

"It is not ‘intolerant to believe something is true, and other things are not true. It is a firmness and unwavering belief."

It is obstinance or foolishness to continue to believe something is true when facts prove it isn’t.

She continues:

"We cannot give equal credence to other religions because to do so would be to deny the supremacy and sole authority of God. We cannot say, for instance, veganism is the only right way, but so is eating meat. They are mutually exclusive. Christianity is an exclusive religion. It does not allow room for other beliefs."

I think she is denying the "supremacy and sole authority of God" by claiming that he can’t possibly understand or have respect for the beliefs of all people. IF there is a God that is all knowing, seeing, wise, loving, compassionate, PERFECT and POWERFUL as she believes, I’d think such a God would be BIG enough to understand the truth of all the world’s religions, as well as to know the truth in the hearts of all people, not just Christians. I think that to deny the validity of other religions is to deny the greatness of God, (IF, that is, there is a God). Ms. LaPan is endowing God with her own human imperfections and prejudices. That is the subject of another essay I wrote.

She is right. You can’t claim that your TRUTH is the one and only while admitting or allowing others to hold different truths. What she fails to understand is that it is possible to say that veganism is not right for me although it may be right for another. That gives credit to the other to believe what they want to believe and certainly doesn’t negate my own position. It is possible to say that one size does not fit all when it comes to religion. We are all different and are at different stages of our life and spiritual journeys. Admitting that Hinduism works for some and helps them become better people and helps them find their way in no way diminishes my own beliefs. BUT that is because I really try to avoid the pitfalls of hubris and self-righteousness that claim that only I know the whole TRUTH. There is room for many truths in this world, although there is no room for only ONE. At least, that is how I see it.

Corey Harvard submitted an essay for this web site in which he gives a good response to this issue. He writes:

"Finally, the most tragic quality of fundamentalists is their unwillingness to be wrong. As C. S. Lewis states in one of his allegorical works, "They pretend that their researches lead to that doctrine: but in fact they assume that doctrine first and interpret their researches by it."….."

I hope you will read his full essay for yourself.

Ms. La Pan also states:

"Christianity also does not allow mutation. You cannot, as many people have tried, transmute Christianity into what you wish for it to be. It may sound nice to say Christianity is an all-inclusive religion, but this (is) not true……And they must choose Jesus as He is, not as they wish for Him to be."

When I hear someone make the above statements it makes me wonder why she thinks that her version of Christianity is the "right", the "true" version? What proof does she have? Mr. Harvard in his essay has a good response:

"G. K. Chesterton summarizes it well, ‘It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.’ This attitude is easily the most poisonous in any pursuit of truth."

In her first essay Ms. La Pan states:

"Tolerance does not mean giving equal credence to a variety of options, but rather allowing other options to exist unmolested."

She is right. Tolerance doesn’t mean that you have to believe what the other person believes although in another essay she contradicts this statement when she states:

"As a Christian, to accept other faiths as being truth is to negate my own. It also diminishes the other faith."

In her first essay she states:

"To accept all religions as having equal validity is to deny the basic tenets of Christianity."

To be fair to Ms. LaPan she is voicing opinions common to many Christian fundamentalists and she deserves credit for being willing and able to speak up. I however think she diminishes herself and her own faith with these statements. I know many people that call themselves Christians that practice Yoga and meditation. They have had no trouble learning about and accepting practices from other religions that they find beneficial to them. They also have no trouble understanding the similarities and underlying "truths" between their religion and the religions of others and have the ability to overlook the differences. Something that I think broadens them, makes them shine more brightly as human beings and in no way diminishes them or their religion.

Tolerance means to me a bit more than just "allowing other options to exist unmolested." I think that is being patronizing (treating in a condescending way). I think there needs to be an element of respect involved. That means an admission that the "other options" may be just as good as yours, or good for the other person even if they don’t work for you!

I think Ms. LaPan also sets the stage for the religious wars that have torn this world apart as many have done before her and as many, I am afraid will continue to do. Though to be honest and give her the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think this is her intent. If you can’t accept other religions as being valid, as having their own truths, equal to yours, many will decide (as they have for centuries) that there isn’t any reason to even tolerate those others. It is one thing to tolerate simple differences of opinion, but being asked or expected to tolerate lies is another. It becomes us versus them. Our TRUTH and our good people against their lies and their evil people.

A little later in her essay Ms. La Pan adds:

"We as believing Christians are to offer the light of the Word as a beacon in the darkness of nonbelievers, touching our light to the wick of their souls until it finally bursts into the flame of Christ. We are not to be bulldozers destroying the faiths of others with words or actions. We are to allow them to come to Christ through our personal sparks."

I don’t think she realizes just how offensive her statement is. The use of the terms light and dark have been substitutes for good and evil since the dawn of time. Using the phrase "the darkness of nonbelievers" is akin to calling them evil. It belittles, demeans and demonizes the other by refusing to recognize and acknowledge the basic goodness or wholeness of the other. I used "shine more brightly" and "brighter light" in two previous passages to raise a few hackles. When it is others that are said to "shine more brightly" than yourself, you know what it feels like when the shoe is on the other foot, as the saying goes.

I admit that to recognize that another person who maybe a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or an Atheist or a follower of some other faith is a good, wholesome, responsible citizen is to admit that there is something "good and wholesome" about their beliefs, about the way they were brought up -- that though different from your own beliefs or how you were brought up has produced a "good" result. IF there is a God that is all knowing, wise, loving, compassionate, PERFECT and POWERFUL in every way as Ms. La Pan believes, such a God would recognize and honor this basic goodness and wholeness where ever it is found and grant salvation to all people not just a limited few. A God that would have favorites isn’t a PERFECT God. That is discussed in another essay.

Which is why I keep saying that it isn’t what religion you follow or whether you follow any, all that matters are our day to day actions, how we treat other people, other living things and our planet.

Our words though we may have the right to say them, our beliefs though we may have the right to believe them, may not be the right words to say or the right beliefs to hold.

IF we want people to respect ourselves and our beliefs, we have no choice but to respect others and their beliefs. Insisting that our beliefs are the one and ONLY TRUTH and their beliefs are lies is not respectful.

IF we want to live in a peaceful World some people will have to find a way to accept that others beliefs are just as valid, just as truthful for the other person, as their own are for them.

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References used:

  1. "Four Freedom", Wikipedia, as on 2013-MAR-11, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

  2. "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Wikipedia, as on 2013-MAR-19, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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Originally posted: 2013-APR-01
Latest update: 2013-APR-01
Author: Susan Humphreys

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