This morning, I drove the SigO to work — a departure from our usual routine. Normally, she drives herself, and when driving to and from work each day she has about thirty-five minutes during which she listens to the radio. Like me, she is highly skeptical of the biases, propaganda, and sensationalism of both mainstream and “public” news sources, but also like me she realizes that despite all that, one needs to stay in touch with mainstream and “public” news sources from time to time to keep abreast of a particular category of news: the slanted, inaccurate, and obfuscated concerns that most people tend to think of as “news”.
Unlike me, she listens to NPR on a semi-regular basis on those trips to and from work. Her news input has a somewhat higher percentage of mainstream slant than mine as a result, though I often get to benefit from her exposure when she tells me about the latest bit of ludicrous off-target reporting. Often enough, the most interesting thing she shares with me when she gets home from work is the news items she has particularly noted were not covered by NPR.
Today, however, I listened to NPR with her on the way to work, and some more after I dropped her off. There was a fair bit of the usual bias, propaganda, and sensationalism, of course. One thing that caught my attention, however, was a brief discussion with Krista Tippett, who hosts an American Public Media program called Speaking of Faith. I had never heard of the woman before, but she identifies the program as not so much proselytizing and opining and doing much of the rest of what one might expect from a program with a title redolent of religious subject matter. Rather, she talks about how her aim is to bring many of the important topics of the day, over which people on both sides of many divides in religious opinion tear at each other, into the light so they may be honestly addressed and discussed. She talks about seeking understanding and common ground.
I have met people who believe that Christianity is the only solid foundation upon which a libertarian worldview may be built, and others who believe that the tenets of any religion must inevitably undermine any otherwise solid foundation for liberty. In a world where militant fundamentalism has been proven to be the basis for almost everything that can lead to harm and hatred, including both left- and right-wing politics, militant fundamentalist atheism and monotheism are occasoinally found to be at each others’ throats in arguments over what libertarianism really means.
The truth is that both sides of that particular argument have some good points behind them. There is a kernel of truth behind each fallacy.
On one hand, as Krista Tippett pointed out in that brief discussion on NPR today when talking about the contentious issue of same-sex marriages and the rancorous disagreement over how the law should treat such matters, the Bible is suspiciously lacking in explicit guidance on how secular law should deal with the problem. Every argument for legal prohibition against same-sex marriage is based in large part on inference and interpretation, which leads to a vast divide between those Christians who oppose any and all recognition of same-sex marriage under any circumstances and press for legal prohibitions against it in no uncertain terms, and those who support secular tolerance and religious compassion for those who want legal recognition for their relationships even while aiming to not only understand their struggle, but help them achieve a state of grace through kindness rather than censure and insult. As she put it, Krista Tippett seeks to bring not only the valid disagreement within Christian communities over the subject of same-sex marriage to light, but to shine that light on the fact that what it means to be Christian can itself be subject to differing valid interpretations.
Compounding the problem of a lack of explicit guidance on the matter of how the law should handle such controversial subjects as same-sex marriage is the fact that the New Testament in particular is rife with explicit guidance on the matter of learning to love one’s neighbor, to love one’s enemy as oneself, to love the sinner but hate the sin. This is really the foundation of a Christian understanding of liberty, where the Word of God is clear that some things are sinful and, perhaps, inspired by Evil — but we must still find within ourselves love for the individual who has been seduced by that Evil, because that way lies not only our personal paths to grace, but those of our erstwhile enemies, the people who consciously pursue a life of sin that they simply may not recognize as sinful. It is, in large part, upon such a foundation of tolerance and love for one’s fellow man that the people whose influence upon the birth of the United States is still felt today chose to explicitly mandate freedom of religion as one of the nation’s founding tenets. Tolerance, and even mutual understanding, of disagreement over answers to the deepest questions of our lives is a necessary component of a nation founded in liberty, and the words of Jesus Christ as related to us by the apostles in the New Testament exhort us toward such tolerance.
On the other hand, the strong monotheistic religions of the world speak of salvation and damnation at great length. While the path to salvation as navigated through the examples of holy scriptures seems long and arduous, the paths to damnation are many and often very short and direct. Despite instruction to tolerate and even love our brothers and sisters despite their sinful ways, we know that if one accepts the word of the Bible (and similar works such as the Koran and the Tanakh — let us not leave out other monotheistic religions) there are many specific acts and motivations that are anathema, which damn those who avail themselves of such acts and motives. There may be paths to redemption, depending on the act or motive, the official doctrine of one’s denomination, and the personal interpretation, but the threat of damnation is ever-present and of greater peril than any other danger in our lives, for there is nothing more terrible than damnation. For the most religiously fervent, there can be little, if anything, more desirable than to protect one’s loved ones from damnation.
To those who allow themselves to consciously recognize this fact, and do not shrink from such knowledge or waver in their faith in the truth of its basis in divine revelation, personal damnation may even be preferable to allowing loved ones to be damned through seduction of their wills by a corrupt, perverse, sinful world. While we are exhorted to love our neighbors and tolerate their differences that we may save both our own souls and — God willing — theirs, we are similarly reminded of the great peril the influence of those already damned represents for our closest loved ones. It is difficult to love one’s neighbor when one’s own son or daughter is daily subject to a mainstream tolerance for the sinful ways of our neighbors. That tolerance may too easily be mistaken for acceptance, and understanding might too easily be mistaken for agreement. Perhaps worse, given time, tolerance and understanding might become acceptance and agreement for many people. With such examples all around us, any who believe in the perils of damnation for sinful acts with an unassailable faith may find the insidious influence of such tolerance and understanding abhorrent. Combining the most literal faith with the most altruistic devotion to one’s closest loved ones, it is difficult for me to imagine one failing to choose to reduce such influences on one’s loved ones by any means possible, including hurtful propaganda, twisting the laws of a nation founded in liberty to serve theocratic oppression, bombing abortion clinics and shooting the doctors who perform abortions, and even launching terrorist attacks against centers of sin and iniquity that kill thousands and plunge entire nations into mourning.
It is not, in fact, about punishing the wicked. Rather, the key to understanding many of these acts of intolerance and fear is to realize that, by some literalist perspectives on religious faith, they are necessary acts of defense for the people one loves most dearly. Note that, for the moment, I am ignoring the case of people who are simply ignorant of the true implications of the tolerance and love we are instructed to show our neighbors.
Each of these two understandings of the Christian faith is equally valid. In fact, in many respects, they are the same perspective. The difference is between personal obedience to the kinder, gentler teachings of the divine Word, and sacrifice of one’s own salvation to defend that of others. Many may choose to avoid thinking about the fact they may be damning themselves, of course, but they surely seek the salvation of those they love and are clearly willing to at least risk danger of damnation to their own souls.
Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith focuses on the logical necessity for killing unbelievers until there is no longer any substantial danger of their corrupting influence damning those one loves, and suggests that for this reason any faith that sets forth guidelines for salvation and damnation the way the major monotheistic faiths of our world do so must eventually vanish from the Earth before there will cease to be danger of religious, terroristic violence in the world. In his book, he suggests that religious moderates are, perforce, the least faithful of their fellow congregants.
I do not agree with this assessment that religious moderation is necessarily a product of weak faith. In fact, in at least some cases I believe that the strongest guidance a given divine revelation offers is to love one’s neighbors as oneself, to pursue tolerance and understanding that the sinner may be guided to a state of grace by compassion and by the example of the faithful. I believe the willingness to take the approach of tolerance and understanding to faith is to place great trust in God that one’s loved ones will not be damned due to the influences of the wicked, that damning oneself is not a necessary step toward protecting those one loves.
At the same time, I can see that for many the lure of logical necessity to treat the chronic, conscious sinner as an enemy who must be vanquished by any means at hand, by fire and blood even, is not likely to evaporate any time soon. Perhaps Harris is right about that other assessment of the influence of religious faith on our world, in that freedom from terrorism and violence inspired by religious beliefs is impossible so long as such religious beliefs exist in the world. Even if that is the case, however, we simply must not allow ourselves to be seduced by the countrary evil. To turn the danger that some of the faithful present to the rest of us into motivation for an attack on all the faithful is to adopt the intolerance, willful ignorance, and unconscionable, self-contradictory methods of violence we deplore, and in fighting the monster to become the monster ourselves.
The “moderate” stand, where one dedicates oneself to principles of liberty, where individuals are judged on their merits rather than membership in overly broad categories of stereotype, is the one faith to which we should all subscribe; that becoming wicked in pursuit of the wicked only perpetuates the mechanisms of evil in the world. Accept alike both Monotheist and Atheist lover of liberty, with open arms. It is the determination to respect one anothers’ rights, and to live together in peaceful acceptance and understanding of our differences, that most tightly binds us together as brothers and sisters. Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Jew, Asatru, Buddhist, Agnostic, Nonspecific Secular Humanist, or even confused Taoist like me — the common ground we should all be able to find is that of understanding for each other as individuals, and an idealistic desire to live together in peace and liberty. Let our differences be damned, not ourselves.