PREJUDICE AND THE EROSION OF FREEDOM

By Paul M. Lewis

As we enter into another springtime, we are reminded of the reawakening and renewal of life. Easter is just days away, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and all of us remember that creation regenerates itself after a period of dormancy.

At such a time and in such an atmosphere, why then write an essay entitled, “Prejudice and the Erosion of Freedom?” Because, seemingly in opposition to the promise of warmer weather to come and the blossoming of crocuses and daffodils, there has been so much in the news of late about the diminution of liberty and self-determination. Or, perhaps more to the point, about the unending tug of war between points of view related to civil—and religious—rights, and how things ought to play out when the rights of one run headlong into those of others.

It was only three or four years ago, for example, that we were euphorically talking about “The Arab Spring,” a time when people rejoiced at the resurgence of democracy in Islamic countries, from the Maghreb region of North Africa to the Middle East. Today, with Egypt in the clutches of dictatorship once again, Syria in a protracted civil war, ISIS on the rise, and the ascendance of politico-religious extremists in Algeria, Tunisia, and of course Libya, we are all very much less sanguine about those prospects.

Recently, I was also reading in the Atlantic magazine an article entitled “Is It Time For The Jews To Leave Europe?” by Jeffrey Goldberg, which outlines in depressing detail terrible acts of anti-Semitism in France, Denmark, England, and of all places, Sweden, a real surprise to me, I have to admit. People are beginning to forget the horrors of the Holocaust, resulting in acts of prejudice and hatred both small and large directed toward those who can easily be identified as Jewish. In France, crudely lettered signs of “Nique les Juifs,” Fuck the Jews,” and “Juif, la France n’est pas pour toi” – “Jew, France is not for you,” have begun appearing with alarming frequency in the gritty Parisian suburbs of Montreil and Créteil. And in the Swedish city of Malmö, Jews have been beaten for the simple act of daring to wear a Star of David, or a kippah (i.e., a yarmulke). In years past, the Jews of Algeria often spoke of having to choose between le cercueil ou la valise, the coffin or the suitcase, in other words, death or departure. Nowadays, more and more European Jews are feeling the same pressure.

Here in the United States, gay people have seesawed up and down between the elation of victory and the sting of defeat. On the plus side, same-sex marriage is now legal in thirty-six states and the District of Columbia. But on the other side, the Christian Right has fought back hard. Witness the passage last week of the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” by the Indiana legislature, signed by Governor Mike Pence. And even though there are current, frantic efforts at “damage control,” as it’s written, this new law gives carte blanche to anyone who wants to refuse services to LGBT people. Don’t care to bake a cake for a gay wedding because this flies in the face of your “sincerely held religious beliefs?” No problem! What about a dry cleaner who wonders about who might be wearing those two tuxedos somebody just brought in? It seems as though she could say, “Sorry, take these to the guy down the street. I don’t think he’s a Christian,” and the customer would have no legal recourse but to do so. And God forbid (literally,) if two women ask for a room with only one bed in an Indiana motel. If the answer is, “No, we don’t do business with people like you,” the only recourse would be for the women to hope that the next motel down the road is run by someone less prejudiced. Or, of course, one of the women could always go register, while the other hides in the car. Heading back into the closet, we might well be told, is always another option.

Why do religions have to condemn anyone who doesn’t espouse their beliefs? The question is not an easy one to answer. And the First Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t always clear things up all that well. Let me remind you of its exact wording:“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Where exactly is that sweet spot, endlessly and precariously balanced between the rights of people to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs, and that of all of us to speak and assemble as we wish, or not to ‘deny any person within its (i.e. the States) jurisdiction the equal protection of the law,” to quote another of the Amendments, the fourteenth? Most of us can, and do, agree that beating a person up, to say nothing of killing them, because of their religion, or their sexual orientation, is beyond any such legal protection. But what of the deranged point of view that feels free to write “Fuck the Jews,” or to say people are not obliged to serve gays, because they are an abomination in the sight of God, and serving them would somehow taint those who do so?

This may merely be the price we pay for living in democratic and pluralistic societies. How often do we hear of such problems in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where only the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam can be practiced, one of the religion’s most conservative and puritanical branches, and where religious police actually patrol the streets to enforce the strictness of its code? Indeed, one of the problems in Europe these days, and which no one can deny contributes to the increase in anti-Semitism, is the mounting influence of Islam, specifically radical Islam. France alone, a country of 66 million people, has almost 5 million Muslims, many of whom are themselves poor, dispossessed, marginalized, and openly discriminated against by the likes of Marie Le Pen’s National Front Party, which polls say may well win in the elections coming up in 2017. Mme Le Pen says she and her followers believe passionately in laïcisme, the time-honored French doctrine that religion should not impose itself in public affairs and government institutions. And yet, the National Front is known to be virulently anti-Muslim, possibly anti-Semitic (although more recently they deny this), and they were at the forefront of the massive demonstrations against gay marriage seen in France in 2014.

Yes, spring comes round each year, with its promises of renewal, resurgence, and regeneration. And that is a good thing. In my mind, in fact, this is the real message of Easter, the promise of resurrecting new life from tattered and desiccated forms, or even of the lifting of one’s awareness from old, worn out ways of understanding our being, to a higher level of consciousness. But ramshackle and decaying ways of seeing the world are hard to rid ourselves of. Just ask the Jews of Monteuil, or the Muslims of Créteil (yes, not coincidentally, that’s where many of them live), or the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people of Indiana.

Can we learn to live together in peace and harmony, tolerating—if not honoring—each other’s differences, or are we doomed to fight it out to the bitter end? Is it possible to strike the right balance between not establishing a religion, and permitting the free exercise thereof? And what of equal protection for all under the law? Personally, I like the image of new life emerging from the mud and the muck. So, let’s hope that this spring, this Easter, this Passover will be a new day for all discriminated-against people, and will bring with it a renewed resolution to allow everyone to live as they see fit, as long as there’s no harm to anyone else in so doing. If not, I’m sorry to say, I fear we’re facing yet another long, hot summer, burning with prejudice, and with the slow, but steady, erosion of our cherished personal freedoms.

WHAT HOLD DOES RELIGION HAVE OVER SO MANY?

By Paul

I have many times in my life questioned what it is about organized religion that can take such a hold on people.  Why is it that so many in the world, Americans in particular perhaps but many others as well, particularly in the Middle East, adhere to faiths that, though in their essence may be benign, yet in their practice are so often unkind, uncompassionate, and even predatory?  And although I may not have the academic authority to ask, I can at least inquire into such questions with a sense of history all my own.  When I was a young man, I was a devout Catholic, and even spent seven years in a Catholic monastery.  That was some fifty years ago now, and I have changed, I dare to say evolved, in my thinking about such things.  And yet, just as one of many examples that could be given, when I read about a young person struggling with too often quoted Biblical passages, or with preaching from the pulpit that condemns him or her for being gay, I wonder yet again what hold religion can have on the human heart.

Of course, not all religions are necessarily heinous and reprobate.  Some clearly fit into these descriptors, but others come off as more benign, or at least less condemnatory of those who do not hold to their putative truths.  I will leave it to the reader to identify which religion might fall into these varying categories, and move on instead to the brief exploration I mention above as to why I believe it is that people so often cling to religion, good or bad.

One further clarification first, however, if I may.  In discussing religion, I want to emphasize that I am speaking about the organization thereof, that is, the need to codify, to hierarchize, to set out dogma, teachings if you will, about what is considered good and bad, right and wrong, proper and improper in thought and behavior, as well as the apparent need to arrange, assemble, and marshal human communities that believe in and promulgate these tenets.  This, after all, is what most religions deal with, is it not?  What I am not doing is discussing (at this point anyway) whatever we might call the inner impulse to seek to understand the immutable and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions of the universe, such as life, death, meaning, love, cruelty, sickness and suffering, or who if anyone made the universe and for what purpose, and whether or not there exists a Supreme Being, who in some way, either directly or indirectly, interacts with fallible human beings.  For better or for worse, all this lies these days more often within the domain of science, philosophy, or mysticism, than in that of organized religion.

So, back then to my original query: what is it about the organization of religion that exerts such a gravitational pull on so many human beings?

Perhaps surprisingly, the first and the most common reason is simple indolence.  By that I mean that an individual is brought up in a particular religion that she or he has learned from the very beginning.  Most everyone that person knows belongs to that same religion, and so what else ought he or she to do?  Such people stay in the religion of their birth not so much out of strong conviction, but because it is what they know, the whole thing seems to have been given to them in some sort of set and preordained way, and why not just stick with what you know?  After all, it’s just a matter of going to the church or the temple or the mosque on the appointed day, or whatever the house of worship may be called (for simplicity’s sake, I will use the term “church” throughout, although we understand it can be applied more widely), sitting passively and listening, or allowing one’s mind to wander freely, and then going home afterward, feeling a vague sense that one has done one’s duty.  Even so, it’s somehow thought to be an important duty, and others in the community would think less of them if the rituals were not properly performed.

The second reason is, simply, fear.  Some individuals are convinced that, if certain ceremonies are not performed in the prescribed way, and if specific dogmas and beliefs are not adhered to closely, then something terrible will befall them in this life; or worse, that just and awful punishment will be meted out to them in the next life.  And so, they go to church in order to hedge their bets, and in an attempt to ward off what is sometimes called their “just deserts,” if they were not to do so.

A third, and ancillary, reason added to one and two above is the need for reinforcement of belief.  This pertains to people who in the secret enclave of their hearts are either not sure of their own beliefs, or who are themselves fearful of not being capable of toeing the line on their own.  As a result, they need the company of a congregation of watchful co-religionists in order to sustain and reinforce belief in the received dogma.  Without that societal fortification and bolstering, they understand they might lose interest and fall entirely away.

But with number four, we come closest to seeing why it is that organized religion so often appears rigid, overbearing, and condemnatory.   Here we meet those who can be called “the true believers,” that is, those who are convinced to the marrow of their bones concerning the rectitude of the preachings of their religion, and of the common interpretation of those preachings by prominent practitioners and leaders of the faith.  This, too, goes hand in hand with a belief in the unerring and literal veracity of every word found in the “holy book” of the religion, or the infallibility of the exalted leaders of the faith.  These are the people who rail against sinners and apostates, who condemn to hell anyone who does not follow their particular take on religion, who attempt to get their narrow dogma imposed as the law of the land, and who in so doing cause no end of unnecessary suffering to so many.  Just as one example, think of the various roles the Roman Catholic Church, and any number of Protestant Evangelical Churches, to say nothing of Sharia Law, have played, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, in condemning and blocking same sex marriage, and gay rights generally, over the last several years.

Again, I will say that not every religion is oppressive and denunciatory.  Neither is every religious adherent filled with censure, vilification, and disapproval.  There are some who are willing to allow others who don’t hold to the tenets of their faith to live according to their own lights, and who do not wish to impose their view of the world on everyone in the world.  There are even a few who seem capable of using the symbols and teachings of their particular religious traditions in ways that stimulate and advance personal piety, as well as love and acceptance of other human beings.  But, in my experience, these are the few, rather than the many.

So, what to do, if you are among those who eschew organized religion?  Not to worry.  Either ignore dogmatic faiths entirely, and lead your life in as naturally moral and loving a way as possible, forgetting for now things supernatural, but living the best and most honorable life you can.  Or, if you are like myself and find that you are still drawn to an understanding and even a hoped-for connection with what can only be called the Supreme Unknowable, then find your own way!  Do not wait for priests, or preachers, or mullahs to lead you; do not rely on teachings and dogma.  Go within and discover for yourself.  After all, even for those who follow more traditional paths, the seeker must ultimately learn to transcend all stories and images, leave behind all saints and depictions of the divine, indeed, all qualities and thought, and find for him or herself what cannot be found, but what – after long search and hard work — in the end can only be called the great Gift of Enlightenment.