Sunday, November 4, 2007

Religious Freedom Means Tolerance

I know, I know… I promised a blog entry on religions. I said some pretty rotten things in my last post, mostly to try to get people who read that post to read this one. Mostly, I was blowing smoke and standing up mirrors. A day later, those mean, rotten, nasty comments aren't real. I'm very respectful, actually, of others' beliefs. I couldn't bring myself to tear down someone else's beliefs, even if I did lob a few choice bombs to rile people up a little.

So here it is: if you want to be free to have your religious preference protected in the United States under the Bill of Rights, then you are going to have to tolerate the religious preferences of others. Whether you're Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist, Animist, Wiccan… or any of the other hundreds of thousands of other religious preferences out there, you have to protect the beliefs you don't agree with so that you can maintain the ones you do agree with. Notice I didn't say "religions" because Atheism isn't a religion; it's a religious preference. Atheists might still balk a little, but lack of religion is, fundamentally, a religious choice.

Those who are familiar with your religious works (or good philosophically-supporting ones, if you don't have religious works), please get a copy. If that means a new browser window, fine. Just keep this one open.

Now, in your philosophical or religious works, I'd like to point out the similarities in all of them. All of them have the benefit of the individual in mind, but also bear heavily on the good of the whole (regardless of the different methods used to accomplish this aim). They all believe that there is a better way than stumbling blindly around, believing things that aren't true (and again, they disagree about what is or isn't true in a lot of cases). They all teach things that are valuable and which empower people. And all of them are convincing to one person or another.

Now, switch books. If you're Buddhist or Hindu, grab something from one of the non-Eastern philosophies; if you're Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, grab one of the pagan holy books. As long as it's something you're not familiar with, it'll work for this exercise. And it won't be comfortable.

When you read this other work (and read it you must, or the exercise won't work), give it an empirical run-down. List the points you personally agree with, and the ones you don't. If you're Christian, for example, and reading the Tao te Ching, you can list things like "doesn't mention God" as things you disagree with, and "help other people selflessly" as something you do agree with. There is likely to be a good-sized list. But if you're not honest about it, you're likely going to harm only yourself (since I'm not coming around and checking your work).

Then read your own holy works again. See how many of the things you agree and disagree with can be settled by that work. Chances are, almost all of them will settle in nice and neat. It's not about which religion or religious belief is right and wrong; it's about finding principles that are universally true. These universal principles mean that no religion can have a corner on the "Whole Truth" because at their foundations, we humans are the ones who must interpret what we believe to be true from the best information we have available. The point of this exercise is about looking for things that are different from what you believe, and yet still good and desirable.

Tolerance of what others believe means working together to understand the differences. Understanding, for example, the difference between schools of thought in Islam means studying the Koran. Knowing why the Chassid believe what they do and why that differs from other sects of Judaism means you have to understand the Torah and its history. Know why Kali worship isn't well-received means reading up on both the Upanishads and the Baghavad-Gita. Understanding that Buddhists aren't supposed to embrace Buddhism too closely, means studying the hundreds of texts of that religion. And all of this together means that a life-long study of religions is needed, in addition to other things.

There is one result that's been of value: I've grown stronger in my own beliefs by learning about the differences in belief of others. I've also freed myself of the intolerance that many people have. My only intolerance now is intolerance. That's right: intolerance will not be tolerated.

So it pisses me off when people try to say one religion is "better" than another, or that theirs is the "only true way" that things can happen. While I believe that there is a well-defined path through the forest, being on the path is not necessarily the best course of action at all times. There are many ways through a forest to get to the same destination. The path just means you're not likely to get lost on the way if you're in unfamiliar territory.

Likewise, if you rely on God, Goddess, Brahma, Krishna, Allah, Jehoweh, the Buddha, the Jade Emperor, your Higher Self, or whomever else you might believe in, for guidance, then you are going to use their path. And there are many paths through the forest, and many ways to avoid becoming the victim of pitfalls and perils. There is good to be found in all religious preferences: even in Atheism, the power of rationality, logic, and self-worth that are promoted to empower individuals to act in the absence of an all-seeing or all-knowing metaphysical entity have quite a high value and worth. And I will say that Atheists were something I tended to shy away from until one taught me how to be logical. But it backfired: instead of diminishing my beliefs, it strengthened them significantly. And it bolstered my understanding of personal experiences, and extended my tolerance to include the benefit of secular logic.

But that's just me, right?

No. I have made a study the past few years of democracy, which is why I've elected to write this blog in the first place. And I've discovered that democracy is more important to human progress than any other force in history. There cannot be any force of religion that can claim a corner on democracy, because the principles of democracy are universally-true. The differences, whether compatible or incompatible, are what make humanity resilient and able to bounce back. Mere tolerance of those differences means that the human race as a whole increases its survivability. Embracing those differences would mean even better survivability, because we would not only understand that these differences exist and accept them, we would really listen to one another's ideas instead of dismissing the ideas because of whom they came from.

Democracy isn't about borders, or politics, or religions. But it makes all of those things possible, desirable, and even beneficial to us. It allows us to embrace the differences that are most certainly the product of progress, and it allows us to use those differences to progress even more. But religious freedom is only one part of the equation.

There is a larger set of freedoms that are ultimately at the heart of democracy. This larger set is lumped together under the heading "belief" (as in: "freedom of belief"). The right to believe differently is one of those basic, fundamental things that is required in order for democracy to truly exist. It depends upon the right to privacy (the right to be free from governmental intrusion on daily life: q.v., my last post). It depends on free speech. And most of all, it depends upon the tolerance of others. Without the right to believe something differently, democracy is simply not possible. You see, this is because if we have groups who believe differently, we are going to arrive at something either universally true, or we are going to arrive at a peaceful compromise. The alternative is to fail to have democracy, and to fail utterly at maintaining freedom.

So, moving away from religion, let me take three things that I don't personally hold in my own belief system: neo-Nazism, homosexuality, and Satanism. These three are offensive to one group or another. I am personally offended by hate speech. The thought of homosexuality actually disgusts me. I find that most (but far from all) Satinists are puerile sissies with a severe lack of self-discipline and an inability to accept anything that might benefit more than one person at a time. I'm entitled to these opinions under a democracy.

But they are entitled to have their opinions, too. I will uphold the right to be a Nazi, even though I strongly disagree with the Nazis. I will uphold the right to be homosexual, in spite of the fact that I don't have much in the way of leanings that direction. Satanism is little more than a rebellious version of Christianity, but I uphold the right of the adherents to that belief to believe it. How can I do this?

Well, the reason I'm able to do this is because I'm a religious minority with my own minority sexual proclivities, and I don't believe in the concept of "race", which by itself puts me into a fairly large minority. I'm not going to go into much more detail about that, but suffice it to say that by protecting these others' rights to believe what they believe, I'm allowed to expand my own understanding of human nature. Likewise, permitting these people to explore their own personalities and beliefs helps us to get to the truth of things, instead of blindly adhering to things that are untrue.

We're discovering, for example, that sexual proclivities are largely based in genetic predisposition, and that some people may actually not have a choice as to their sexual preferences. But even while these may not be choices, we still have a choice about how to handle those proclivities. Denial of sexual urges, we're finding, is harmful to us. Again, the way we handle these urges is the issue, rather than having the urges themselves. Radically zealous Christians, for example, tend to use one minute passage of the Bible to show that homosexuality is a sin. But on closer inspection, we see that it's not the law of God that's the issue, but the law of Moses. People think they're the same thing; they're not.

Moses sought to try to give people an understanding of how God's laws worked, and to interpret them. However, he had his own biases and prejudices to work in there and (being human), I'm sure that in more than one case he was injecting his own stuff in there instead of keeping it purely God's laws (the 10 commandments). God didn't say "thou shalt be married under the laws of mankind" in order to be able to have children. What God did say was that you shouldn't be jealous. Marriage actually helps prevent jealousy by drawing a mental barrier of ownership. And that ownership goes two ways.

But people are now realizing that we can't own one another and still be happy. We have to permit happiness; we cannot force it. We have to decide for ourselves what is right, and we don't like being owned. For a lot of us, it's against our essential programming. Human nature demands self-direction, even if that self-direction is against our own best interests. If we don't have that self-direction, then we rebel. Therefore, a parent's duty is to teach how to conduct that self-direction. Many parents believe that this self-direction is taught by forcing a child to conform to the will of others, but this only leads to a rebellious nature later on. Self direction is taught by finding these universal principles (like those of democracy) and applying them in a personal way to personal situations. It is only in this way that we are able to deal effectively with societies and learn to integrate in a healthy way, even while at the same time not accepting everything that others tell us as the absolute truth. This simply is not rational.

The pro-democracy folks in Asia, for example, must understand that the government will not simply release its absolute authority over the people and relinquish that power at a whim. They have to have proof. They have to have time to mull it over. And they must learn to accept that those truths are true by illustration in the long term, rather than being forced to change. The alternative is Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. China still hides the ugliness of that night, but I think this is a mistake. And expressing this opinion is my right as a member of a democracy.

Suppressing information like this hurts China, and because I believe in the beauty of Chinese culture and the high level of dignity that Chinese history has typically held, I find this suppression harmful because it reduces the chance that anyone will be able to learn from that lesson. And because the lesson here is suppression, I fear that China may be doomed to repeat it at some point in the future when the current generation's memory no longer brings the ugliness of the lesson to the surface. Like Kung Fu, history can sometimes only teach by a limited amount of pain and suffering.

Likewise, in Burma there are only so many bullets they can fire before they finally run out. And the fact that there are no weapons on the side of the pro-democracy population there is a testament to the power of democracy. It frightens the military regime in Burma to believe that their way is not the most correct way. And like China, outside interference may do more harm than good. I find the UN's handling of the sovereignty of Burma acceptable and correctly-principled. I support democracy in Burma, but if such democracy is forced on them, then it will certainly never be lasting. China, probably better than anyone, recognizes this, but I suspect they have their own agenda where this is concerned. I would rather assist the junta in a peaceful resolution of the conflict than risk an all-out war. If they simply kill all of the people who oppose them, they will eventually run out of subjects.

The days of Myanmar are numbered at this point. The will of the people to rid itself of the military dictatorship that now rules the country with an iron hand has been heard. A government can only last for as long as the people permit it. Many would rather die than accept the military's rule. Having a military in a country such as Burma is important; but it shouldn't be all-encompassing. The peoples' inalienable right to believe has trumped every bullet in Myanmar's arsenal. Some rights are inalienable by definition. When people learn there is a better way, they will want it. Power cannot exist if there is no one to have power over. It's now only a matter of time before Myanmar becomes Burma once more. It may be tomorrow, or decades away, but I'm not too worried: it will happen, and the price will be higher than either side can really afford. But, in the words of one of our founding fathers in the United States: "The tree of liberty must occasionally be fed by the blood of patriots and of tyrants: it is [the tree's] natural manure."

We must uphold the right to believe differently. This means tolerating China's suppression of information. It means allowing Burmese people to accept and reject their own government. It means helping those who believe differently to not become victims, but instead creating martyrs for the religion of tolerance that is democracy. Every drop of blood spilled by those in power is added to the scale against them by the tide of the will of the people at large. When they've had enough, they'll speak. And it'll be bloody, and a hard fight. But if even one government realizes that the power of democracy cannot be held by any central authority, then that's the place where democracy is real. That's the place where I want to be.

So far, America really does have a corner on the market, where democracy goes. We have far to go, but we're the closest so far. We can't change China or Burma. We can't force the world to accept our ways. What we can do is to support and encourage. If we interfere, we subvert the entire reason behind democracy. It has to be the free choice of others, because it's the greatest choice anyone can make. Until we can let go of the differences that divide us and embrace the differences that allow us to be separate and yet unified—many individuals supporting the cause of being individuals together—then we cannot have, and probably don't deserve to have, democracy. We need to learn that our strength is not in a unified front, but in a consensus agreement to pursue a goal. Presentation of a unified front means failure to adhere to the principles of democracy that allow differences of opinion and belief to make us stronger. It might take a slightly longer time to arrive at a decision, but if we listen to all objections, and actually invite these objections in, then "duke it out" with logic and reason, then what we will have in the end is something as close to perfection as possible.

In a democracy that is operated on entirely correct principles, disagreement is the rule, but the power flows from the bottom up. This creates a foundation that is unshakeable. This creates something stronger than what we now have. This creates a perfect democracy.

My next post will be about freedom of association and how it ties in with freedom of speech, privacy, freedom of belief, and I'll include a brief run-down of how consensus should work in a democracy.