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Religion, Freedom of

Proposed Resolution: I will respect the liberty of other people to express their opinions.

A typical wish

In my ideal world people will be free to collect and evaluate evidence, and to state their hypotheses, theories, and beliefs without fear of being persecuted for doing so.

This has been called "Freedom of Religion," because the most common violation of this principle has been to persecute people of religions that differ from the most common local one. However, it can also be called "liberty of thought and expression" because it applies not just to religions but also to beliefs that are not associated with religions. For example, it allows scientists to publish theories and evidence without being persecuted for what they discover.

This supports the knowledge and truth ideal.

If you agree that liberty of thought and expression is a good thing, perhaps there is not much else that needs to be said. But to find out more about the rationale for that, particularly as it applies to religious belief, further explanation is included here, covering:

Religion and Ethics

Religion might be defined in a belief in the existence of god(s). Organized religions typically claim to have knowledge of the god(s) and to provide advice to people, which advice is often claimed to have originated from god(s).

A god is defined as an immortal being who was involved in the design and creation of the world and of the life thereon. Depending on the religion, there may have been a collection of gods or a single god. For the purpose of this article, "god" refers to one or more such immortal creators.

It is typical of a religion to also believe in one or more devils, who are also immortal but who thwart god's goals by doing evil things or convincing people to do evil.

An alternative theory of creation is that it was a natural process, beginning with the simplest possible life forms on earth, and then evolving over millions of years into a wide variety of protozoa, plant, and animal species. This theory is not typically one that a religion would adopt, however, because it lacks intelligent being(s) as the mastermind behind the creation.

Religion is more than just a creation theory. A person could read an "origin story" of how the world was created, put it on the shelf as an interesting theory, with it having no effect on his behavior. But religion does more than speculate about the possible existence of god; it also offers advice claimed to have originated from god.

In theory, god could communicate with any person, though typically people don't expect that to happen to them (even if they believe in a religion). However, because it is hypothetically possible, this gives rise to an interesting question:

If god told you to do something evil, would you do it?

One answer is that that god can destroy as well as create, so if he tells you to do something you better do it, or else. It becomes good just because god says so. However, there is a serious flaw in that reasoning...

Here's my favorite answer to the question:

"It is not possible for god to tell someone to do something evil, because god is by definition good. So if he tells you to do something evil, you would know that he's not god."

To be called "god" it isn't sufficient that a being has immortality and power. The devil, according to most religions, also has immortality and powers beyond normal human capability.

If we supposed that actually that the devil had created the world, intending every animal to suffer, and advising humans to hurt each other so that he could delight in their suffering too, we would not wish to be disciples of such a creator!

Instead, religions typically encourage people to follow god's advice while asserting that god has their best interests at heart, and therefore following the advice leads to happiness. If god gives good advice, it isn't "good" merely because god says it. It is good because we presume that god is knowledgeable and wise and therefore he would be capable and willing to give the very best advice to benefit us.

So now we reach the end of this hypothetical example, and face the reality that god apparently doesn't have an answering service that any person can phone to get clear, unambiguous answers to any question. Rather, we have a world where there are many religions, with differing descriptions of god, different and sometimes contradictory behavioral recommendations, different prescriptions of ceremonies to please god, etc. These descriptions are based on the claims of the founders of the religions. As the saying goes, "out of the mouths of men come the words of god."

The point of this is that a person cannot adopt any religion and be sure of receiving good advice, unless they already have a concept of good and evil before they start. The true understanding of good vs evil is independent of a choice of religion; it is not a result of adopting a religion. A person cannot escape the need to determine it for himself (or herself).

Limits on Religious Freedom

When people put too much trust in individuals who claim to have knowledge and communication from god, bad things can happen. A prime example of that is the Jonestown Massacre.

In the Jonestown massacre, a religious leader convinced the people in his remote colony that god wanted them all to kill themselves. The adults began by murdering all their children, followed by most of them committing suicide and forcing the reticent ones among them to kill themselves too.

This was clearly immoral. This is why the "freedom of religion" advocated here is only freedom of thought and expression, but not an unrestricted license for a group to do whatever their religious leader dictates. In permitting liberty, the society must still set boundaries of morality and enforce them. The Jamestown massacre should not have been permitted, and it wouldn't have happened if the law enforcement officers had known it was coming.

One might wonder why people would be willing to kill themselves, and to kill others who refused to die with them. Reports from the survivors seem to indicate that mostly they were motivated by an unreasoning fear of an imagined impending doom, based on assertions from their leader. Possibly they hoped for a better afterlife.

This is why faith is not a virtue. Sometimes it is necessary to trust someone, because nobody can research absolutely everything by himself (or herself), but it is a wiser course to establish facts objectively as much as possible.

Societies do place limits on spreading false information, and those standards are enforced by laws prohibiting libel and slander. Typically the law prohibits spread of information that is provably false and that causes harm to someone. Care is taken so that these laws are not so restrictive as to prevent scientific investigation, or of preventing opinions such as what political party might do a better job of governing.

Religions often have beliefs that are not provably false, but which are not provably true either. Such beliefs are not subject to control under libel and slander principles. Examples are belief in god himself, because nobody knows where to find him (ancient Greeks thought it was on Mount Olympus but modern religions place him further out, in endless space). Simiarly, claims of resurrection, reincarnation, or a spirit world are usually designed so that the afterlife location is far from the original person, where nobody can check.

It is a very risky proposition to give up your life on an unverifiable claim! It is worse yet to kill other people based on that same claim!

The Jamestown residents should have been able to detect that their leader's order was immoral, but they made a double error: first to trust that their leader was a prophet giving instructions from god, and second to accept that a real god would tell them to do something evil. The moment the leader gave that order, that should have been sufficient by itself to unmask him.

The problem they may have had, is that they weren't sure how to determine for themselves the difference between good and evil. But there are ways to determine it, and much of this web site is devoted to explaining that.

Then they would also understand that there is a difference between a well-established religion where people retain their own discretion to evaluate what is good or evil, and a cult, where people are required to put extreme devoted faith into the organization and its leaders. One part of "freedom of religion" is that a person must always have the liberty to get out.

Historical Religion

Religion has been a very important part of society for most of human history. If you go back in time 100 years or more, you will find most people living in small farming communities. Often, the only form of social interaction is offered by the local church. People would come off the farms once each week, clean and in nice clothes, to meet their friends in the church, hear a speech, and sing some songs. If they had a choice of two or more churches, they were lucky to have such an option!

If their town had any education, it was probably sponsored by the local congregation. If they had any sort of hospital, likewise. If someone suffered from a disaster, the only source of charitable assistance would likely be the church, delivered by volunteers. If someone was old, or sick, or in distress, their local priest was the one who would be available to console them or to help them. There were also typical celebrations and ceremonies that each religion would have, some of which may have been boring, but also some that were enjoyable, that people looked forward to.

In order to participate in the religion, it was also necessary for the people to accept the origin story (theory of god). In many cases, people wouldn't really know, and perhaps not really care, because they were happy with their congregation and felt that it was doing good things.

As for the religious leaders, they had a duty too. In most of history, most of the population couldn't read or write, but the clergy could. They would be looked up to as the wisest people in the community because of that. Moreover, the local church probably housed the only book in town. For the churches springing from Judaism, including Christianity and Islam, that book would be a history book known as the old testament of the bible.

The reason that the local church would have the only copy in town is because it was hand-written, a very time consuming process to write, and on paper that was expensive in ancient times. Even when the Gutenberg printing press was invented to reduce that cost, one copy of the Gutenberg bible printed at the time cost triple the annual salary of an average clerk in those days.

That book is a history by a collection of writers, and if you flip through the pages you will see some of their names. Some people like to claim it is the "word of god" but actually direct quotes from god that apply to everyone are few and far between. One example of a direct quote is the "ten commandments" of god, common to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, three of the contemporary world's largest religions. One of the commandments says not to kill. But not kill what? Pigs, ants, microbes? A priest can resolve that by saying it means humans. But what about killing in self-defence, execution of a convicted murderer, killing in war when hired as a soldier, euthanasia, or abortion? Answering those things is left to the opinions of the historians or the recommendation of the local priest, rather than having direct, specific instructions from god about what to do in every circumstance.

So, not surprisingly, there are varying beliefs and practices not only across religions, but within the same religion, and those change over time. At times, slavery was permitted, without much apparent objection from religious leaders. There were continual wars throughout history, sometimes endorsed by religious leaders, and polygamy at times. But leaders of those same religions today are usually opposed to slavery, polygamy, and war.

So religion throughout history has been a varied mix, of encouraging cooperation and kindness in some instances, but also of endorsing bigotry and extreme cruelty at other times.

Causes of Prejudice

One of the biggest causes of persecution between people of different religions has been the assumption that that if someone believes something different from one's own religion, he must have been influenced by the devil. Religions treat faith as a virtue, whereby the righteous person will know instinctively that his own beliefs are true, because the spirit of god will make it known to him subconsciously, through an intuition or perhaps a dream. People tend to think of themselves as righteous, and hence they assume their beliefs are correct. By that theory it means that anyone who disagrees must be evil.

People can indeed have correct intuitions at times, and there is evidence that people tend to have a natural compassion for others around them, that might guide them instinctively to do good things. But there is a difference between an instinctive detection that your neighbor feels good or bad from his facial expression, and an instinctive knowledge that the world is flat. No doubt it would originally have seemed counterintuitive, but the world is a sphere! And no matter how important people wish they were, the earth is not the centre of the solar system nor yet of the galaxy nor yet of the universe!

When people disagree on a matter, the most typical reason is that they have different information available to them on which to make their conclusion. In many cases they have no information at all, and are simply basing their belief on what people around them believe. That situation is not unique only to religious believers, but to the population at large. For example, if you were to take a poll of how many people believe that all matter is made up of atoms, in nature as elements and as compounds, most would say yes. But if you asked how many could describe an experiment to prove it, only a few hands would remain up. And if you asked how many had personally conducted the experiment, you might be left with few or none.

The point isn't whether their belief is correct or not, but that most of them don't actually know. Any belief that is hard to verify can persist in a population if a lot of people believe it, because it is not practical for each person to verify it personally. This is especially true if it is something that people want to believe. People by their nature are pleasure seeking creatures more than knowledge seeking creatures.

If disagreeing people have a sincere desire to discover the true facts, they should be able to reach agreement between them by researching the matter together. However, in practice people often don't reach a common understanding even when evidence is available to settle the matter. Some causes of this include these:

Religions often appeal to the "wishful thinking" bias. The religion make promises to believers that god will reward them in ways that are not necessarily reliable or provable, but which give hope to the true believer. Ancient religions offered hope of cure from diseases or drought by influencing god using priestly ceremonies. That is not so common in modern religion, but there are still promises of various kinds of life-after-death, such as reincarnation, resurrection, or living on as a spirit. Again these are hard to verify, but it can give a person hope. If a person feels insecurity in their belief, they are told it would make them ineligible for the reward. Therefore, if someone offers an opposing opinion that would be distressing to them.

When people are in stressful circumstances, sometimes reason fails and they resort to more primitive behaviors. For primitive animals in conflict, the only thing they know to do about it is fight. But that is quite irrational, and counterproductive to discovering the truth. It doesn't turn a spherical earth flat, and nor does it move the earth to the centre of the solar system!

If an unscrupulous person wants to set others to fighting for his own personal benefit, they can latch on to the causes of prejudice in those people and exploit them. This is what kings of ancient times did regularly. They wanted to expand their kingdoms, and they needed to get people to fight who wouldn't normally want to do that.

However, if the people in the population have a firm belief in freedom of religion, they cannot be exploited in that manner!

With understanding, people will realize that it is not evil to have a different belief than another person. Differences in belief are normal and expected within any learning beings, because there will always be variations in the knowledge across the population. An intelligent person, with an inquiring mind and a true desire to know, will seek to overcome his natural biases. He will seek to resolve differences of opinion by gathering information. But even in such cases there will be some knowlege beyond his reach; always there will be more to learn. That leaves some ideas still as opinions or guesses rather than facts.

Modern Religion

There is an evolution in religions that tends to result in improvement in their ethics over time. Some religions or cults go wrong, like the Jamestown cult, and erase themselves off of the earth. This leaves other religions that produce more positive results, or at least not so self-destructive. Over generations, this can make a difference.

We tend to think of the well-established religions as being the same as they always were, but that is not so. Religions change so slowly that we don't notice. For example, we suppose that marriages were always religious events, but in fact the original Christian (Catholic) church didn't officially introduce the marriage ceremony until 1184 AD. And celebrations like Christmas and Easter were non-existent in the original Christian church, yet they are very popular today (even among non-believers).

Churches respond to the public opinion around them. Priests don't have the same kind of authority they used to have, because the public can read the ancient documents too, plus many other books besides those. So it's not only the priest who can make inferences and state opinions. Church members reinterpret the ancient writings according to their current beliefs too.

One of the ways this happens is to redefine some parts of the ancient history as "figurative truth". That's a euphemistic way of saying "fable." An example is the idea that the world was created in 6 days and on the 7th day god rested, from the origin story underlying Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This story was used in ancient times in order to get a weekly day off for everyone in the populations, including slaves. If any slave owner objected, the local priest could respond by saying something like this: "So, you think your slave is better than god?" Of course the answer couldn't be yes, so the slave got the day off.

Of course, the real reason for the day off is that it's cruel and impractical to make people work all the time. Probably the priests figured that the population was too ignorant to accept that kind of argument. In order for this story to have the desired effect, people had to believe it was literally true. Today, after finding dinosaur fossils and other fossils going back many thousands of years before humans existed, we find the 7 day story to be more of a "white lie" than a literal truth.

Another religious belief that might be a "white lie" is a belief in ultimate justice. The law is not always able to catch every criminal, but potential criminals might be deterred if they believe in an afterlife where good people go to heaven and evil people go to hell. However, the religious leaders recognize that good people might be tempted to commit suicide to get to heaven, so they add an additional "white lie" that committing suicide is a direct path to hell. This has an additional problem, though, that if someone is already dying and in misery, they dare not shorten their life for fear of going to hell.

So, as you see, there can be big problems of treating "figurative truths" as if they were literal truths. If the person making the claim truly believes himself that it is literally true based on evidence, or at least that it seems probable, that is one thing. But otherwise, it is much better to explain the real reason to the person.

Religions rarely acknowledge that any part of their beliefs are legend rather than fact, because it's a slippery slope that might leave them eventually with no mystical beliefs at all. However, if you poll church members on questions such as, "did Moses really part the Red Sea?" or "is the earth really in the centre of the universe," you will find that the members opinions often differ from the official church assertions.

Another example of changing opinion occurred for slavery. When slavery existed in North America, many religious leaders endorsed it, and even after the end of slavery, segregation between blacks and whites was common. One major North American church organization refused to ordain black men to the priesthood not only during the U.S. civil war, but right up to 1978--a distinct lag behind the prevailing opinion of the times that racial discrimination was immoral. But it did change. The leaders didn't want to be thought of as bigots.

This is where freedom of religion comes in again! Freedom of religion doesn't just prevent conflicts. It changes religions. People expect the ethics of religion to be as close to what god would endorse as possible, and when they see that isn't the case they stop attending. The religions either correct their ways or disappear.

Modern religion has a lot of competition. There are plenty of alternatives including social clubs and charities. Formerly societies relied on religion to sponsor education and health care, but that is now mostly handled by governments.

A person might believe in a religion, but if the organized religion isn't doing good things, they can just as easily stay home and still believe if they want to. To get people to put their time and money into it, the religion has to offer something that people find worthwhile.

Religion and Happiness

When the general public is polled on how happy they are, and this is correlated with other aspects of their lives, typically we see that people who participate in religion are happier than the average population. So, if we accept the motto "spread happiness" we might assume that it's a good idea to find a religion and join it.

However, there is a part of the story missing here, which is how come there are people outside the religion if the religion made them happy? The answer is often that people have become disillusioned with the religion.

The more strongly that a person believes that a religion is led by people who are "close to god," the more heavily he believes that legends are literal truth rather than figurative truth, the more disappointed he may be when he finds the church carrying out "less than ideal" practices such as racial discrimination or sexual discrimination.

Church members in such situations realize that they can't change the religion, so they leave it. Often their belief is also shattered, not just in the religious leader, but in basic assertions of the religion including its ethics.

That latter problem can be particularly disastrous. Often religions do encourage good ethics, but for the wrong reason. The "wrong reason" is "god said so." The right reason is that being good is desirable for its own sake, as explained in this web site and in many other places too. But the problem is that when a person becomes disillusioned with religion, they assume that it is all false and therefore there is no difference between good and evil. They may therefore undertake a number of behaviors that the church recommended against, causing a lot of pain and misery to themselves beyond the disillusionment itself.

When people have a strong belief in miracles, that gives them hope, but it also gives them disappointment when the miracles don't come true. They become unhappier than if they hadn't believed in the miracles in the first place. It's like offering a child a candy, and then when they reach for it, it is taken away with a "whoops, just kidding".

So, my advice is to put accuracy as a higher priority than wishful thinking, because it is more satisfactory in the long term. Sometimes this is called "seeking for the truth." If a person really wants to know, they will seek in more than one place, and not merely accept the first explanation that is given to them. If a person does this, they will likely find these results:

  1. They will indeed have a more accurate understanding, and
  2. they will likely come to understand how little they can learn compared to all that is available to learn, thus giving them some humility, and an appreciation of why not everyone is going to have exactly the same beliefs, and
  3. they are more likely to have tolerance of people who have beliefs that differ from their own.

Respecting People's beliefs

I explained above why it is irrational to persecute or kill people because they have different ideas of the "origin story" or because they participate in different holidays and ceremonies. But accepting that others can reasonably believe different things should go beyond that; it is also important to respect that others may wish to express their beliefs without having someone jump in to spoil the occasion.

An example of that is a Christmas party, in which children are lined up to get their photo taken with Santa Claus and to receive a gift, such as a candy. This is not the time for someone to raid the party and remove Santa's fake beard, to show that he is just an actor! Probably most of the people in the room know that already, but the little children may not, and in general this isn't the way that anyone wants it revealed.

A more appropriate way to handle it is to reveal the fact privately when a child wants to know. If a child asks their parent about it at home, it is best for the parent to tell the truth to the best of his knowledge. To not do so would break the bond of trust between the child and parent.

Similarly, one should be cautious about pushing one's own beliefs on adults who don't want to have their cherished beliefs challenged. Sometimes people have difficult situations in their lives, and they may find that their religion helps them get through such times. Believing in the possibility of a miracle or an afterlife may give them courage, with the consoling support of their religious community. This is not the best time to convince them to choose a different religion instead, or to simply abandon their beliefs.

Perhaps you do indeed have correct information that the other person lacks. But in order for that information to be conveyed and accepted, the person needs to be receptive. That won't happen if they don't really want to know at that time, or if they think the other person is trying to "push his beliefs" onto them. As my grandfather used to say:

"A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still."

The other person might not be able to match you in a debate, but that doesn't mean he accepts that you are correct. It is more likely to just raise animosity.

Sometimes there may be a need to hold a debate to reveal the facts, such as lawyers cross-examining witnesses at a trial, or in parliament when debating the impact of a proposed policy or legislation. In such cases, the facts matter. But debating with someone over who has the correct understanding of the "origin story" or whose church conducts god's ceremonies properly, is not something that actually matters in day-to-day decisions. If someone "wastes time" with ceremonies and holidays that god doesn't actually prescribe--is that much different from wasting time watching TV, or playing golf?

What really matters is peoples' actual behavior. In each choice that a person makes, does the action serve as a vote for a better world, or alternately is it a step toward a world that the person doesn't want? When people need hope, perhaps the best and most realistic hope is to think of the things they have already done to make a better world around them, and to know that they and others who appreciate those efforts will continue to carry that forward to the future.


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