Call for tolerance

2010-10-07 00:00

I HAVE been taken aback by the passion expressed on these pages on matters of religion. Let me rephrase: I have thoroughly enjoyed the debate even though I thought that tempers could have been cooled down a bit.

Such debates in a newspaper are a perfect example of Arthur Miller’s often repeated quote that “a newspaper, I suppose, is a nation­ talking to itself”. They are proof that newspapers are the original social medium and still have a role in getting a nation talking to itself. I hope that those who are involved do not stop and that they stretch their arguments to other interesting but disputed issues­.

I have simplified the raging debate as being between those who choose to spell their deity with a capital “G” and those who go for the lower case “g”. I realise too that at times the tenor of the debate reveals the worst in us. It shows how there is room for ideologues on both sides of the debate who, if not discouraged, could send us back to the Dark Ages, and that includes when Afghanistan was under the Taliban.

But the intolerance for those who believe is not any better. Secular­ fundamentalism is as dangerous as religious fundamentalism. As with all forms of fundamentalist theories, both forms have at their heart the belief that theirs are the only truths. Proponents then expend energy in trying to convert detractors, and if they fail, to destroy them.

While many secularists and humanists­ base their thoughts on carefully thought out principles, it does not follow that they are inherently based on logic. Some people are irreligious because the issue has simply never come up in their lives, just as some believe because they happen to have been born of families who followed such rituals.

I am with those who choose to believe. As a lapsed atheist I believe that the reduction of us who choose to believe to unthinking is a cheap shot. The chasm between faith and logic is artificial even if in the estimate of some, it is the defining feature of the religious.

Contrary to what secular fundamentalists would like to believe, not all of us who choose to believe do so out of reaction to a primitive instinct in us. Christians, for example, would know that it was Jesus­ himself who warned that “you shall know the truth and it shall set you free”.

While there is no denying that there are many zealots out there, the likes of Thomas Aquinas taught, as early as the 12th century­, that “reason is the handmaid of faith”. Aquinas was not unique. Islam produced the likes of Ibn Rushd, who fused philosophy, theology and rhetoric as ways to the truth, and influenced even Christian theologians.

Divine intervention in the life of a person is, like love, one of those things that you cannot prove empirically. We are left with no option but to take the word of those who claim the feeling even if they act silly in the process.

I have the deepest respect for those who choose not to believe in the concept of a god. It is their reality. I also think that it is an affront for adults to be told that they can buy alcohol every day of the week, but not on a Sunday. I hope that this blatantly unconstitutional and deeply disrespectful practice will be confined to the dustbin of history soon.

But to assume that those who choose to observe such days as holy­ are stupid, is no different to those youngsters who believe that if something cannot be Googled then it probably does not exist. Something must be said for the spiritual hard-wiring that human beings have regardless of where on our planet they are found.

Secularists would do well not to fall into the same trap as the zealots­ who burnt people at stakes, not least because they claim to be moved by reason instead of instincts. The religious should similarly accept that adults who are free to smoke cigarettes­ or watch pornography may want to take their chances about the possibility of ending up in hell even after hearing “the good news”.

I fully appreciate that some might be physical and intellectual beings who have never had a spiritual side to them. But they should not hold it against those who of us who have and who recognise all three.

As the debates on our pages show, we are not bad at debating issues even if the only way of proving­ who among us is right is by actually dying. We can therefore teach a few so-called developed countries about accommodating plural opinions on matters of faith or the lack thereof.

I cannot imagine our lawmakers passing a law that says women must not wear veils in public like the French have, or that infant boys born of Swedish Jews and Muslims should not be ritually circumcised­ because such an act infringes on the child’s rights to bodily integrity.

The 21st century has the potential of being the century of enlightenment. Being tolerant of the views of others, especially when such views do not affect us in any way, is a sign of how much we have evolved, or if we wish, are creatures of an intelligent being.

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