19 November, 2007

Why is religion different from, say, a political party?

An argument frequently comes up in debates which can be boiled down to "Why should religion be treated differently to a political party?". I think it's easy to make that point, but I think articulating the op argument is much harder to make. I frequently attempt it, I'm not sure how successful I am, but here goes!

1. In politics, people decide what they believe and then find the party which matches their view most closely. The holding of certain fundamental tenets, for example, a belief that equality should generally take precedence over liberty, would probably make someone more likely to vote for Labour. However, holding that fundamental tenet, voting for that party and joining that party does not mean that the party requires its member to hold any more of its views (for example, the person may disagree about tuition fees).

Religion is different. I would argue most people decide what their basic belief is (say, that they believe there is only one God and that the teachings of Jesus make sense too) and then join a church on that basis, in this case, Christianity. On the basis of this basic belief AND their membership/self identification with a church, they are then required, as part of their continuing membership of the church, to hold other beliefs (the Bible being the word of God, a belief in the Trinity etc). Their failure to hold these further beliefs would exclude them from true membership of that church.

Therefore, politics is where a person internally holds feelings and then expresses those beliefs through the party. Religion is where a person holds internal feelings and then that person's church requires them to hold further beliefs on that basis.

2. Whilst accepting that people do change their religious beliefs, I would say that when a person does this it is not a voluntary act. The outwards manifestation of their beliefs is voluntary, but what they believe in their heart is not. I can no more choose to be an atheist than an atheist can choose to be a Christian. Religions are outwards manifestations of internal belief, a belief which cannot be chosen. Religious belief may change (for example, a massive upset in a person's life may lead to them saying 'God would not let this happen, therefore there can be no God') but again, that is not a choice to change, the change is imposed from an altering of the internal beliefs of the person which lie outside the remit of their ability to consciously change.

3. I think that there is a difference between people's external beliefs and the outwards manifestations of those beliefs. The law and society should never be concerned with the former. Instructing a person to genuinely change the former is as pointless as instructing them to spontaneously grow a new kidney- it simply cannot be done.

Requiring a person to change the external manifestations of their faith is something different. Where there is a clear harm (human sacrifice, for instance) then the state should clearly ban that manifestation. The issue is where the line is crossed. Most people would agree that even if FGM is an intringic aspect of some African-Tribal religions, the practice should be banned in the UK. But what about MGM? Surely the same arguments can apply?

4. What does concern me somewhat is the subconscious way in which religions are 'ranked' and treated differently. Regardless of your belief at the moment, it is more than likely that if you were brought up in Britain, there was a broad Christian ethos when religion was discussed. The nature of Christianity is, at the basic level, that faith is generally sufficient and that very few outward manifestations of faith are required. This is highly unusual when compared to other religions. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Sikhism all hold that certain actions are also required. Unlike Christianity (where a person practices their religion by holding their faith), in these other religions, the required actions are often as inherent to the religion as faith is to Christianity. Because we often see other religions from a Christian perspective (regardless of whether a person actually hold Christian beliefs at this time), it can lead to a devaluing of the the actions that are required in other religions.

In other words, it is reasonably easy to 'banish' Christianity from the public sphere. 'Render unto Caesar' means Christianity itself does not explicitly require a position in the public sphere, only one in the private. Where a religion has a less separation between the spheres of public action and private devotion, it is much more difficult for such a banishment to take place.

5. I'm not sure how valid this example will be, I would like someone to explain if they think it is in-valid though. If we accept what I believe to be current scientific theories which are that a person is either born gay or not, whilst conveniently ignoring the idea that it is not a binary choice between gay and straight but more like a spectrum. A person who is born gay cannot become straight though sheer force of will any more than the opposite can occur. If a person is gay, a direct consequence of that 'internal status' will be that he likes to have sex with people of the same gender. It is possible for a person to be gay and never have gay sex, but the person in question probably wouldn't like that situation. Where am I going with this? Well, the analogy in my mind is that just as being gay is an internal state that cannot be chosen but having gay sex is an external choice, the situation of having faith is the same. In both situations, the believer and the gay person, the internal status/belief cannot be deliberately changed by external factors, the behaviour manifesting from the internal status/belief can be changed, stopped or encouraged.

Maybe it is possible to take the parallel further? If we say that gay sex is an intringic aspect of a gay person, so some basic religious practices are also so inherent. However, most people would say that going to gay clubs or being camp is an optional part of being gay. These are minor manifestations whereas the gay sex is a major manifestation. The parallel in Christianity would be that praying (formally or informally) is a major manifestation whereas fasting during Lent is a minor manifestation. Minor manifestations are made more likely by the person's internal status and banning them or restricting would upset the people involved but it wouldn't fundamentally undermine the person's identity. Banning gay sex or banning people from praying would undermine the fundamental identities of people belonging in these groups.

Part of me is concerned that the above example may be offensive. I can't work out how, but if it is do please tell me (unless it's just 'oh, it's offensive because gay people are bad and their being mentioned in the same place as religion' type feedback) as it'll probably explain why the parallel doesn't stand.

I can't help but feel the above is still rather confused. Maybe I'll try and edit it at some point.


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