I am continually surprised at how otherwise intelligent, socially aware people have such a limited knowledge of religious discourse and its impact throughout history and upon contemporary society. When probed, most people fall back upon relativist clichés, muttering ‘people can believe what they want’ and ‘I don’t judge people, and they shouldn’t judge other people, and we all should treat each other with respect’. While these are of course ‘nice’ opinions (what the callous might call cowardly), would either of these responses be an acceptable retort when involved in political discourse, or discussing the role of violence within social activism or the inequalities plaguing war-torn Africa? They would fall short of convincing anyone that power, manipulation and suffering are removed from ideology. Without referring to specific over-arching political ideology, it must be understood that it is imperative for us to care about peoples’ beliefs, as they shape how we see the world, and are the basis of all our actions.
The deplorable missive that religion and politics should never be discussed at the dinner table has been hijacked by the religious right, and indeed by mainstream religion, culminating in a culture where even slight criticism of religion is regarded as outright aggression. The likely cause of this taboo against criticising religious beliefs has to do with the need for us to back up our strong opinions in today’s world. Thus questioning someone’s faith is viewed as a personal affront due to the embarrassing situation that occurs in our society, quite rightly, when one cannot lend credence to their beliefs. Imagine you confronted your boss resolutely demanding not only a promotion, but that it would be an unbelievable slight against your character to ask for evidence to support this demand. While it is easy to dismiss this analogy, although perhaps not until after envisioning the quick dismissal you would receive, it is only on reflection that we realise we have come to think that unlike all our other discourse it is in bad taste to talk critically of religion. I do not propose unfair slandering of religion, no more than any other subject receives when in passionate debate. However, when religion starts impeding upon the public sphere and politicians speak openly of faith, Hell and war, a radical change of consciousness must be evoked within us all.
In the Herald Sun on December 18th, 2009, Tony Abbot professed his wish for mandatory Bible studies in Australian public schools, arguing that ‘I think it would be impossible to have a good general education without at least some serious familiarity with the Bible and with the teachings of Christianity’. Whatever political freedoms this sort of ‘education’ would impede upon, his words offer a much more serious threat than is perhaps initially clear to the casual reader. His argument rests upon two flawed assumptions that, unfortunately, are not immediately clear to one raised in a country such as Australia. Both assumptions are concerned with the foundation of an ethical standard, the first assuming that those without Christian beliefs are ill-disposed towards ‘goodness’, and the other that Christianity is inherently ‘good’.
The first of these assumptions is not only discriminatory to those without faith, but also those of different faiths, and with such a multicultural and diverse population that Australia consists of, for a government to not only endorse but to also oblige children be subjected to religious indoctrination is almost an unfathomable concept, an abuse of power and an unwelcome intervention into spheres of personal life that governments should never have a say in. He has used his generalisation to create a false dichotomy on which he bases his argument, and by espousing views laced with assumptions that religiosity is the only path to morality, Tony Abbot not only advertises his ignorance and offends a great many rational-minded people, but also adds fuel to a dangerous undercurrent in society. We have so far been able to defend ourselves against the religious fanaticism that has afflicted the United States, not only threats from outside its borders such as the attacks of 9/11, incited by promises of martyrdom and Holy authority, but also domestic issues, such as violence perpetrated against doctors who administer abortions.
An incident that demonstrates not only how the first assumption dominates firmly in the minds of many in the Western world but will also segue into the second assumption is that of the murder of two employees of a medical clinic in Massachusetts in 1994. Rev. Paul Jennings Hill murdered Dr. John Britton and James Barrett for their part in administering abortions, motivated by his faith. This event is an indictment of the supposed lack of morals evident in the community of non-believers and non-Christians by those who consider the Bible to be the infallible word of God, while revealing the insidious flaw prevalent in the ‘Christianity is inherently good’ argument. In the name of religion much evil is done, which many religious people agree upon (often conceding only the Crusades).
They sidestep the most important part of the issue. In most cases, and indeed especially in the case of Rev. Paul Jennings Hill, his actions were done not in the name of religion but explicitly due to his religion. In his defense, he quotes the passage Genesis 9:6 ‘whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man’ (King James version). As the Bible also condemns abortion, it is merely a rational step that the murder of ‘murderers’ is, in fact, Holy mandate. It is on these occasions that the ‘holy’ portend that good is in fact evil, and to combat this they must do evil in the name of good. While there are arguments that these parts of the Bible are not meant for literal ascription and are merely analogous stories, that acts of violence perpetrated by the religiously inspired are abhorrent to moderate Christians.
What this argument actually establishes is that the act of choosing which parts of the Bible represent a serious moral code and disregarding others as symbolic stories shows we already posses an ethical foundation that we can use to discern what seems acceptable and what deplorable. Our base value systems are formed independently of Holy Scriptures, and allow us to live in a society where life, liberty and equality are highly valued. It is only after indoctrination that millennia old stories spur humanity into wicked acts based upon supposed absolutes of murder, genocide and martyrdom, justified in ways that very few clear thinking, logical and rationally motivated people would accept.