Wednesday Miscellany: The Freedom, Scope, and Abuses of Religion
A bit of a mixed bag this morning, but here are a few things that have caught my eye over the last few days and have me thinking (and avoiding sermon-writing!) on this crisp September morning. These are mostly unrelated themes, but if pressed for a connection, I suppose I would say that they deal in turn with the nature of religion, the purpose of religion, and the practice of religion.
First, I was very interested to read this article about Canada’s soon-to-be-opened Office of Religious Freedom. In particular, the following quote from McGill University professor Arvind Sharma stood out:
Everybody has the right to change their religion, but somebody else’s right to ask me to change my religion is a different thing.
Not surprisingly, Christianity, with its proselytizing impulse, was singled out as a potentially awkward fit within this new initiative. If we’re going to promote and safeguard religious freedom, we have to make sure that we keep a lid on those seeking to convert others. The project only works if we all agree to leave each other alone—or, at the very least, to keep our beliefs about the nature and purpose of life safely sequestered in their own carefully guarded containers where they can’t be damaged or criticized or insulted, where they can’t do any harm (or good, for that matter) to others.
I am all for religious freedom. Truly, I am. But is that really what this is? If the quote above is any indication of this institution’s modus operandi, it seems like what we are saying as a nation is, “we have developed an organization to ensure that you are able to hold any private beliefs you like so long as you promise not to talk about them with others or make any attempt to persuade them that your view might have something to offer or be open to being persuaded by the views of others.” It seems like the powers that be are saying, “we, as a government, are committed to giving you all a safe place to harmlessly play as long as you promise not to touch each other’s toys and to leave each other alone. And as long as we are allowed to hold this project up as a shining example of our tolerance and diversity as a nation.”
Maybe they should consider a name change for this institution: Office for the Advancement of Official Canadian Political Ideology.
Second, I enjoyed this exchange in The Guardian between Lawrence Krauss (a physicist) and Julian Baggini (a philosopher) on the scope and limitations of scientific and philosophical inquiry. With the ever-expanding reach of science—the questions it can answer and the problems it can solve—it can be easy for philosophers to get what Baggini calls “lab coat envy.”
I was particularly intrigued by the language of philosophical issues “growing up” and “leaving home.” Philosophy, on this view, is a kind of pre-science or a “holding room” where issues can be abstractly (and fruitlessly) speculated upon by philosophers, metaphysicians (and maybe even theologians!) until science gets around to solving them for us. The two thinkers dance around this one for a while and gesture toward agreement, but at the end of the day, Krauss seems unwilling to admit that there is a domain of human knowledge and aspiration that science is unfit to pronounce upon. Baggini argues that there are some questions that simply are not “solvable” by science, chief among them being moral ones.
The example used is an interesting one. Krauss cites science’s discovery that homosexuality is “completely natural” and therefore “not innately wrong” as evidence that science can and does solve moral problems. While agreeing with Krauss’s conclusion, Baggini replies that this represents a confusion of scientific and ethical forms of justification. All kinds of human behaviours are “completely natural,” after all, but this doesn’t automatically make them right. When Krauss moves from “homosexuality is natural” to “homosexuality is not immoral” he has wandered from the domain of science into the realm of ethics and metaphysics. Baggini argues that science can certainly inform ethical reasoning, but it cannot determine it.
Not surprisingly, I side squarely with Baggini here. This isn’t about trying to safeguard some safe space for metaphysics that the greedy scientists cannot touch, or attempting to justify/preserve philosophy or theology or anything like that. There are simply some questions that are not scientific in nature. This is not in any way a denigration of science nor is it an unwarranted elevation of metaphysics. It is simply an acknowledgment that human beings are wonderfully complex creatures who have interests and questions that go far beyond those that can be settled by appeal to “the facts.”
Speaking of homosexuality, Fred Clark over at Slacktivist has recently written a series of interesting posts (here, here, and here) about what he calls the “anti-gay clobber verses” of the Bible. He raises a number of important issues such as what Christians’ usage of these verses say about our view of the nature of Scripture, about how and why and when we use these verses, and about which verses we select to “clobber” with and which we do not. Fred writes very provocatively (and often very entertainingly!), but whatever side of the homosexuality debate you come down on, the questions he asks are important ones to consider.
Chief among these questions is why we don’t use passages in Scripture that deal with wealth and poverty in the same way that we use those that talk about homosexuality. This passage, in particular, caught my attention:
When I run afoul of the authority of the half-dozen anti-gay clobber verses I get hate-mail informing me that I’m not “really” a Christian at all, just some anti-Bible, anti-God wolf in sheep’s clothing. And yet I have almost never been criticized or challenged for my lifelong, egregious pattern of brazenly flouting hundreds of those non-clobber verses regarding wealth and poverty.
I have life insurance and interest-bearing bank accounts and investments. I am, perpetually, lending with the expectation of repayment. I have more clothes than there are days in a week, more stuff than I need. Every little bit I clean out the fridge and toss away food that’s gone bad. I am thus—absolutely, undeniably and unbiblically—stealing from the needy, the hungry, the naked and the poor. I am now, and for years have been, in flagrant and indefensible violation of scores of explicit biblical commands—all of which are far clearer, less culturally conditional, and less ambiguous than anything in those six anti-gay clobber verses.
And yet none of the Christians so scrupulously concerned with those six verses are the slightest bit concerned with my behavior in this regard. Most of them can’t be, because they’re violating all of those clear commands too. When the subject is “homosexuality,” and I say “the Bible is not a rulebook,” they are horrified and appalled. When the subject is money, they say “Hey, relax, the Bible is not a rulebook.”
As is so often (i.e., almost always) the case, behind every hot-button issue in the Christian world lies the question of how and why we read Scripture. Issues around sexual ethics are important. But at least as important are questions of how we read and use the Bible, of whether or not we apply our views consistently, and, perhaps most importantly, of our willingness to evaluate our own attitudes and behaviours by the same criteria we apply to others.