Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Religious Tolerance

Since when did it become fashionable to flaunt one's personal dislike of organised religion as a fashion statement? It seems to be to be a rising tide among many of the people I know and talk with, both on and off the internet, and it frankly irritates me.

For many of these people, religion is the font of all ills in the world, be they murder, war, famine, plague and so on. Their Dawkinsian dismissal of it as little more than an ancient collection of muddled superstition betrays, however, not only a poor understanding of religion, but a poor understanding of the world.

All organised religions are based around a series of rules and structures which make them 'organised' as opposed to ... casual? Personal? Incidental? Whatever the antonym of organised is in this context. In any case, this system of rules and structures is often interpreted by these anti-religious zealots as a constraint on all society, a force against science and creativity, a reactionary force to be opposed at every turn and a fossilised remnant of an autocracy long dead.

Yet organised religions of all stripes have long been forces for societal change, scientific and creative engines, progressive leaders of change widely regarded as for the better and political agitators for democracy and freedom. Immediately, men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr come to mind. Without the support and the social structures provided by the Southern churches, would the civil rights movement been so well organised, or so blessed with such inspirational leadership?

What of Oscar Romeo, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who agitated for democracy in El Salvador and was ultimately gunned down whilst he celebrated mass in his own cathedral? Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer's work with the German Resistance during World War II? What of Desmond Tutu's opposition to Apartheid, and continuing campaign for social justice for all South Africans? What about the role of the Catholic Church in working towards democracy in Poland, or the pressure from Non-Conformist Churches in the UK for social reform in the 19th Century? According to the atheist evangelists, these events were either negligible, or go against the grain.

If they were negligible, then what of human history is truly important? And if against the grain, what is there to stop me holding up men like David Lloyd George or Margaret Thatcher or Clement Attlee or Roy Jenkins as people who went against the grain and claim they achieved nothing? These are just the Christians that first come to my mind, with nothing yet said for those of other religions who have worked for justice and freedom for their people. Of course, this brings to mind first and foremost the Buddhist monks of Burma, but there are countless others who have been motivated by their religion to work for a better future.

History, though, is more than just great people. There must have been billions of people who did small acts of kindness, simply because their religion instructed them to do so. In Christianity, for example, Christ commands his followers (Matthew 25:31-46) that whoever helps even the "least of these brothers of mine, you did for me". Such commandments are often overlooked by those eager to get the first blow in in the name of their own intolerance. These little selfless acts cannot excuse the actions of those who have caused pain in the name of religion. But nor can the striving of socialists for social freedoms excuse the deaths of those under communist leadership. Every ideological construct suffers from elements and episodes that are less than palatable, yet we should remember that the world exists in shades of grey.

Religion has done much good. It has raised beautiful buildings in our cities, towns and villages. It has driven people to peacemaking and keeping. It has paid for hospitals and schools to nurture and care for the poor and needy. It has commissioned great paintings and pieces of music that even now echo down the ages. So to forget this because we do not share the beliefs of this faith or that faith and pillory all religion is as intolerant as we accuse religion of being. We must respect people of faith for their faith, as they should respect others for their own beliefs.

We must, as Dr King said, "learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools."

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