One of the systems that has arisen among humans for controlling the behaviour of the group is what we now call religion. Originally it was undoubtedly simply the social norm in the small groups of nomadic ape like creatures from which we developed and only grew into religions as social changes and group dispersal increased over millennia until different social structures arose and led to conflict for resources among different groups. Today, what constitutes a religion is sometimes in dispute, but it is usually understood to mean a system of behaviour oriented towards honouring or pleasing a deity, a personality which has some influence or control over what happens to individuals or the group. In modern society it may also indicate an organisation, perhaps legally incorporated, perhaps not, which has taken authority to control that behaviour by establishing rules governing aspects of its members’ lives. In one case, this central organisation is actually a sovereign state, i.e. The Vatican, governing the Roman Catholic Church, the single largest Christian denomination. Others are much smaller, sometimes a single congregation of a few tens of members.
As well as the disparity in size there is a similar disparity in the level of control exercised, some detailing expected behaviour in every minute aspect of life, while others may just give broad outlines of expectations.
Religions are not necessarily a detriment or disadvantage to people. There are many individuals who sincerely believe in the tenets of their faith and whose lives are beneficial to society as a consequence, while at the same time receiving a basis for their own spiritual wellbeing both in the religious and the non-religious senses. Obviously, we must acknowledge that religion is capable of being a force for good in society.
Anything which enables a person to live their life to their satisfaction and to be content at life’s end must be accepted as a positive force. It does not matter what the specific details of the faith and its beliefs are, as long as the effect on those believing is a positive one in their lives, as judged by them. It is not one person’s place to presuppose what constitutes a fulfilling life for someone else. That must be determined by them.
All those who want to believe, then, should live their lives as they want. That is their right. I certainly have no right to contradict them, or ridicule them, or humiliate them, or discriminate against them, or do anything which may negatively affect their right to do what they want and believe what they want. This applies as much to unpopular religions, such as Scientology or Wicca, as it does to mainstream beliefs, such as Islam, Catholicism or Buddhism. It applies just as well to individuals who have unique beliefs of their own. If the individual believer is satisfied and benefits from their belief then what business is it of mine?
Unfortunately, there are some groups who want to impose their group’s rules on those who are not members. This is common among religions who believe that their religion’s rules are the only ones which reflects a god’s wishes and want to impose those rules on society in general instead of just on their members. Often they want to use the power of the state to do so. It should be noted that religious groups are not the only ones who do this, although they have been the most common, by far. Still, atheist and totalitarian nations have been guilty of this as well.
The rules that some seek to have the state impose on its population include areas such as reproduction, sexuality, commerce, diet, clothing, justice, residence, worship, and many others. In fact, almost every facet of human behaviour has been targeted at one time or another in one jurisdiction or another.
These groups are undoubtedly well intentioned, believing that their view of the universe is the only proper view, but they are, nevertheless, imposing rules of life onto others who may not agree with them and who want to live by a different set of rules.
If we accept that it is a fundamental right for each individual to live their life in accord with their own wishes rather than to be compelled to do what other people dictate, then we must also accept that our individual right to do so must be tempered by the equally important right of other individuals to do the same. Sometimes the rights of one person conflict with the rights of another person, so there has to be some means of resolving conflicts which may arise as a consequence.
Within the field of religious beliefs and practices, of course, the beliefs of the group involved forms the basis for such resolutions. Religious groups almost always have rules covering most areas of human activity and publish them widely among their members. Within those religious communities there tends to be a degree of conformity and problems that do arise are often solved by reference to some external authority that both sides to the conflict accept, whether that authority be a set of written rules, unwritten rules and practices that are generally accepted (traditions), or a person knowledgeable in the group’s fundamental principles.
This does not always result in resolution, however, and there are numerous instances of division among those with opposing views. The great schism between the Eastern Christian church and the Western Christian church was one such, as was the division between the Western and Protestant churches. Shia and Sunni Islam have a similar division as, I am sure, do many religious movements.
These disagreements between different factions within a religious group are not the business of those who are not members of the groups involved, although following the disagreement and evaluating the often specious and self serving arguments can be interesting. However, when such disagreements spill over into other religious communities, or into the non-religious community, or impinge on the rights of the state and its citizens, including the religious group’s own members, then it does become the state’s business and must be addressed by the state through the laws they have enacted. Even if the disagreement remains confined to the one community but results in acts which have been forbidden by the state, then it also becomes the state’s business.
Be that as it may, internal discord is, by and large, not our concern since it does not affect us particularly. What does affect us, and consequently is very much our concern, is when a religiously motivated group, or a faction of one, attempts to have laws enacted which affect the rights of other citizens.
In the modern context this has arisen even in societies where government and religion are supposed to be completely separated by law. It becomes very obvious that this separation is not complete and we see religious organisations and their members frequently inserting their religious viewpoints into political debates. The most common today are regarding therapeutic, and sometimes medical, abortions and in debates concerning the rights of homosexual, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals.
Certainly, all individuals, religious or not, have the right to opinions on any subject, religious or not. That is not in dispute. However, they do not have the right to impose standards of behaviour based on those opinions onto others in society who do not agree with them. As an example, it would be improper for the state to refuse to allow two homosexual people to exercise their right to be married because a church and its priests were opposed to them having the right to be married. The overriding principle, once again, is that individuals have the right to live their lives the way they want without diminishing the rights of others to do the same. For the same reason it would be just as improper for the state to compel a priest of that church to conduct a marriage ceremony between the same two consenting homosexual adults. They retain the right to marry but must be married elsewhere by someone else.
Religion is not always a force for good. It has often been a force for bad. For millennia there have been examples of the state and legislation it has enacted being intimately interwoven with religion, so that it became almost impossible to distinguish between them. There have, in fact, been cases where the religious component was more powerful than the secular component and dictated national or international policy, even going as far as to decide who the ruler of a state should be. The history of many European states during the last thousand years documents much of this and it is clear that, at times, the state and the religion could not be separated. Neither was it just in Europe. History abounds with examples from the most ancient times until the present. Even today there are examples of the intermingling of religious and secular matters in some countries.
Although religion can be that powerful in some places even today, it is not always clear whether the compulsion to control is fundamentally for religious reasons, or is an example of the religion being hijacked and used to promote a group’s or an individual’s desire for power. At the highest levels of authority in a hierarchy it is more likely that it is based on religious dogma, but it is not uncommon for the same attempts at control to take place at local levels between individuals in a single community, whether both people are religious or religious and secular.
What makes up a religion? That may appear to be a strange question, but it is surprising how often religiously committed people will say that a particular belief system is not a “real” religion, Scientology being an example. Others may claim that a religion is not really Christian when adherents of that religion describe themselves as such, and many Christian Ministerial Associations do not even allow those religious groups to be members because of it. Quite often, this is also said about Wicca and other New Age groups of various kinds. It also happens in Islam. These statements are just an attempt to discredit religions by members of other religious groups who believe differently and ultimately it simply emphasises their own demeaning attitude towards others, since these attitudes usually emanate from their own religious hierarchy. The interesting point about these dogmatic designations for an atheist is that the religions and their beliefs are described as not being “real”. What on earth does that word mean in the context of unproven spiritual beliefs and worship of non-existing ethereal beings?
I have always found it incomprehensible when some “expert” on someone else’s religion says that something someone believes is a religious observance, such as wearing a niquab for instance, is not part of that person’s religion so they should not do it. Often, these experts have no real comprehension of the other person’s religion and have merely read the claim somewhere, sometime, and are repeating it with no actual knowledge of whether it is the case, or they heard it in the pub after a few drinks with their buddies, or are imposing the beliefs of their own religion onto someone else who has a totally different set of beliefs. In fact, the claim could well be the sum total of information about the other religion they have, and since religious beliefs and commitments vary so much, even among members of the same faith, their statement is essentially claptrap.
A religion is surely any system of beliefs in which a person genuinely believes. Whether it has any objective reality is beside the point. The fact that it is an established system of beliefs and there are people who believe and adhere to it, qualifies it as being a real religion. It is plainly improper for members of one religion to determine whether the adherents of a different spiritual belief system are practicing a religion or not. There is a degree of self serving hypocrisy in this as well since not believing in a god at all and being an atheist is apparently following a religion, or so many religious people say, but those following a belief system that these same people do not like are said not to be practising a religion. I finds this a distinctly nonsensical attitude. It is far simpler to just accept that a religion is what its practitioners say it is.
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