February 22, 2018

Practicing One's Religion Without Imposing it on Others

Religion is rubbish
By Jsjsjs1111 [CC BY-SA 3.0]
If a Christian were to tell me that he or she did not eat shellfish, wear clothing containing mixed fibers, get tattoos, or decorate his or her home with a Christmas tree because these things are clearly prohibited by a book he or she regards as "holy," I'd respect the Christian's decision to refrain from doing these things. This does not mean I'd respect the beliefs underlying the decision. I would, however, acknowledge that the Christian was perfectly free to refrain from doing any of these things. I think I might even have a certain appreciation for why the Christian was doing them. It seems like someone who truly regards the book as "holy" would do what it says.

Where things break down for me is when the same Christian decides that I should not be permitted to do any of these things because they are forbidden by his or her "holy" book. If I agreed with the Christian about the holiness of the book, I might adopt these prohibitions for myself. To do so would be an exercise of my religious freedom. But since I do not regard this or any other book as "holy," it makes no sense for me to allow the Christian to prohibit me from doing these things. And it makes no sense for the Christian to attempt to prohibit me from doing any of them. In fact, prohibiting me from doing them would be a clear violation of my freedom.

This brings us to what is probably the central issue in secularism and the separation of church and state. The religious believer should be free to practice his or her religion. At the same time, the religious believer should not be free to impose his or her religious beliefs on others. A Muslim has every right to skip the pork or refrain from drawing Muhammed; he or she has no right to prohibit me from doing so. A Mormon has every right to refuse caffeinated drinks; he or she has no right to force me to do the same.

If religious believers were content to practice their religions without attempting to impose them on the rest of us, the world would be a very different place. I suspect religion would be far more appealing and much less divisive. I could even imagine admiring a religious believer who was doing his or her best to adhere to various religious prohibitions without trying to compel others to do the same. Religious believers need to learn how to practice their religions without imposing them on the rest of us.