Friday, September 21, 2007

Intolerable Religion

Yesterday, in "Morality and Religious Culture", I wrote about a distinction between ‘morality’ (prescriptions that which may be imposed on others regardless of what religion they belong to), and ‘religious culture’ (prescriptions that are inherent to a particular religion and which may not be imposed on others). I also wrote about how people’s safety and well-being is dependent on recognizing this distinction and opposing the common practice of elevating ‘religious culture’ into ‘morality’. Those who do so inevitably come to the conclusion that they may (or must) impose their ‘religious culture’ upon others.

This distinction leads to the concept of ‘intolerable religion’.

Religious tolerance is, itself, considered an important component of a peaceful society. Yet, clearly, there are limits to how far religious tolerance can go. It is not at all difficult to imagine religions that cross the line – that become religions that we do not, in fact, have any reason to tolerate.

Let us assume, for example, that there is a community in the mountains of Colorado that believes that their God commands them to go out into the community of non-believers (meaning, in this case, those who do not believe in their God), find a 10 year old boy, and offer him up as a human sacrifice. In doing this the faithful show their devotion to God, and God is then supposed to reward them with protection from terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

IF we were to discover such a community, they may try to defend their claim on the basis that “Congress shall pass no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” We would instead say, “Your religion does not count,” and we would not need a Constitutional Amendment to do so. This counts as an intolerable religion.

Or, let us assume that, in the mountains of Montana, there is a community that holds that Ghod gave the whole of the Earth to the Aryans to rule, and where Ghod populated the earth with other peoples, He made them so that they may serve as slaves to the Aryans, and to cultivate the lands and work the factories in their service. Let us assume that this community has captured and enslaved a number of Native Americans, the descendents of the original inhabitants of that land, as their religion tells them they may do.

Again, any First Amendment appeal that the government may not prohibit them from practicing this religion would (and should) go nowhere. This, too, counts as an intolerable religion.

This argument is actually meant for anybody who might think, superficially, that just because something is a religion, that is good enough reason to hold that it is something that we must tolerate. Such a person, if he thinks below the surface of this idea, should be forced to conclude, “As much as I do not like the idea, the fact is, there are some religions that qualify as ‘intolerable’.”

Once we recognize that some religions are intolerable, the next question is, “How do we distinguish those religions that can be tolerated, from those that cannot be tolerated?”

Intolerable Religions and Trans-Religion Morality

The distinction between tolerable and intolerable religions follows precisely the distinction between trans-religion morality (morality that can be forced on all people regardless of their religion or lack of religion) and religious culture. Where religious culture violates morality, we have an intolerable religion. Where religious culture remains on the near side of morality, we have a tolerable religion.

Yesterday, I defined ‘morality’ as rules that can be justifiably enforced on others regardless of their religion, such as prohibitions on murder, rape, theft, slavery, assault, and negligence. I defined ‘religious culture’ as rules that are unique to a religion and need not be enforced on everybody, such as what to eat, when to eat, where to worship, how to worship, where to live (‘homeland’ issues), and what to wear. An intolerable religion on this standard is one that declares that its members may violate these moral prescriptions, or who try to impose its religious culture as if they were moral prescriptions.

The First Amendment

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Before I go further, I want to remind the reader that this is not a legal blog. I am not here to interpret the law. However, I do hold that there are certain moral principles underlying the Bill of Rights. It is within the scope of this blog to examine those underlying moral principles. Whether those moral principles are captured within the law is a separate question.

When the First Amendment says that congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, this clearly does not prohibit the government from passing laws respecting the establishment of certain moral principles. Indeed, one of the most fundamental (if not the most fundamental) role of government is to impose ‘morality’ on its people – to prohibit murder and other forms of violence, theft, deception, recklessness, and the like, and to punish those who transgress these moral principles.

Morality, understood as ‘principles that may be forced on others regardless their religion,’ are the basis of the vast majority of our criminal laws. We even have the capacity to measure criminal laws as being ‘just’ or ‘unjust’ in accordance with whether those criminal laws are consistent with, or violate, morality itself.

The best way to understand the government’s moral prohibition on the establishment of a religion is in terms of a prohibition against the establishment of a particular ‘religious culture’. Religious cultures are those rules that cannot be legitimately enforced on others; not morality. At the same time, a government prohibition on the free practice of religion can best be understood as a government prohibition on the elements of any particular ‘religious culture’ except when those elements transcend morality. Elements of a ‘religious culture’ that involves the murder of children or enslavement of Native Americans can be banned because they transgress moral boundaries. However, individuals should be left free to follow whatever ‘religious culture’ they like that stays on this side of morality.

Again, the only sensible interpretation of the moral prohibition on Congress against the establishment of a religion and protecting the free exercise of religion depends on a recognition of the distinction between morality (that which governments may legitimately impose on its citizens), and ‘religious culture’ (that which governments can neither establish nor prohibit)..

Unlinking Morality and Religion

In what I have written so far, I have spoken about a trans-religious morality; a morality that crosses religious boundaries and even the boundary between the religious and non-religious. Is it possible to make sense of such a morality? Doesn’t such a morality require the existence of a God? Can a person sensibly assert that such a morality exists (independent of any scientific evidence for its existence), but dispute the legitimacy of having faith in a God?

Much of this blog, and that book mentioned in the top right side of this page called, A Better Place . . ., contain some detailed arguments against the idea that there is anything supernatural or mysterious about a morality that transcends all religion. All it takes is a recognition that some desires are malleable, and that people reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

A theist and an atheist may argue about how a particular tree came to be standing in a particular place, whether the tree came about through evolution or natural selection. However, neither should doubt the existence of the tree. Nor should the two have any difficulty coming to an agreement about its height, age, shape, or other features.

Similarly, a theist and an atheist may argue about how malleable desires that tend to fulfill or thwart other desires came into existence, whether they are a part of God’s design or they arose through evolutionary processes. However, these relationships between malleable desires and other desires certainly do exist, and it is a matter of fact that people have reason to promote some malleable desires and inhibit others.

That is to say, people generally have many and good reasons to inhibit desires that may lead to murder, rape, theft, assault, deception, neglect, and the like. These are aversions that people generally have reason to impose upon others and, for their own safety and the safety of those they care about, they may impose these on others through use of government law. They may impose these on others without regard to the religion that those others might adopt. Nobody has the right to claim that, in virtue of their religion, they may ignore these moral boundaries. Where their religion comes into conflict with morality, morality plays the trump card.

Yet, let’s not pretend that we cannot tell the difference between prescriptions that actually count as morality, and those that count as ‘religious culture’. The fact that morality consists of rules that can be imposed on others gives no religion the right to call its ‘religious culture’ a ‘morality’, and thereby impose it on others. The religion that cannot recognize this distinction and that violates its mandates makes itself an intolerable religion. It is a religion of people whose faith makes them a threat to others, and a religion that those threatened have a right to respond to accordingly.

I will, of course, leave this discussion with my standard disclaimer. The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions, and the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society is a counter-campaign. In such a society, private violence is never appropriate – not unless one wants to create a society the likes of Baghdad or Lebanon, where a culture of private violence has become dominant.

No comments: