As someone who believes in the importance of standing up for the rights of religions to observe and practise their different faiths I often get asked when I am planning to convert to a religion different to my own. It rather amuses me how many people (my oldest friend included) secretly expect me to convert to one of the Abrahamic faiths one day.
Amusement aside though this misunderstanding of my motives is very frustrating because it undermines the very essence of what I am trying to achieve. People confuse my agenda of promoting the equality of religious freedom with an attempt to promote the actual religions themselves. Instead of hearing a voice that calls for equal rights people mistakenly hear a sales pitch for whichever faith I happen to be discussing at the time. The point they miss is that I am not defending other religions because I agree with them but because I believe that other people have a right to hold beliefs that differ to my own.
If truth be told none of the three Abrahamic faiths would work for me. I have a good deal of respect for them all but I consider them too reliant on scripture and intercession to be suited to my own spiritual needs. I am certain that the vast majority of Priests, Imams and Rabbis are decent and holy people with complete integrity but I trust no man or woman to intercede with the Gods on my behalf. And although I have read large sections of both the Bible and the Quran and found them positive sources of moral guidance it is important in my own faith that morality is borne from instinct and personal intuition rather than through an interpretation of scripture. In short I have no interest whatsoever in becoming a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew and it is not any personal affiliation with any of the Abrahamic faiths that spurs me on to defend the rights of the people who practise them.
I chose my words very carefully in the last paragraph “None of the three Abrahamic faiths would work for me…” I wonder how many of the world’s heated theological discussions could have been made less acrimonious by the use of those two words “for me”. The discussions I see relating to religion, both on and off social media, are very concerned with taking an objective approach to the viability of other faiths. I hear: “Judaism fails because…” “Islam is wrong because…” “Christianity doesn’t work because…” This kind of language leads to division and discrimination. Any of those statements could be neutralised and phrased in a way to open up constructive discussion if people were simply able to add those two subjective words “for me.”
There is nothing wrong with discussing elements of any religion that are a poor fit for any individual’s belief system but it is important to do so in a way that recognises it as being a subjective preference as opposed to a flaw in the faith. I stated clearly that religious scripture does not work for me. I did not say I think the Bible and Quran have no value for others. It should be and it is possible to make a meaningful statement about our own relationship to other faiths without falling into the trap of denigrating them. There is nothing wrong in saying any religion doesn’t work for you, there is a lot wrong in writing off an entire belief system and all the people who practise it.
Interestingly the most vitriolic condemnation of religions usually comes not from atheists but from followers of different faiths. Eager to stand up for one set of rights these people often fall into the trap of putting down the rights of others. Some of the most vicious attacks on religions I have seen have been from people claiming the moral high ground of their own faith. It is deeply disturbing to watch the strong moral teachings of the three Abrahamic faiths ignored as a small number of fanatical adherents twist and pervert their own scripture as a means to attack and abuse others.
Fundamental to the integrity of the anti-hate group I co manage is the strong belief that you cannot fight hate against any single community without being prepared to fight all hate. I am not interested in Jews who want to promote Judaism by criticising Islam. I am not interested in Muslims who seek to defend their faith by slandering Christians. I am not interested in Christians who justify their faith by pointing not to what is good about their religion but what is bad about everybody else’s religion. The small minority who adopt these tactics do nothing to promote what is good about their beliefs and do everything to give their own faith a diminished profile and a bad name.
The established faiths, religions and belief systems may not work for everyone but they do work for the people who follow them and that needs to be respected. It is hypocrisy to expect people to respect your views and beliefs if you are unwilling to extend that courtesy to others.
The key concept to grasp is that defending religious freedom is not about adopting the beliefs and values of different faiths but about respecting the rights of others to hold those beliefs and values. It is perfectly possible to disagree with something yourself but to defend the rights of other people to agree with/believe in it. If I genuinely did believe Christianity, Islam or Judaism had the answers that would work for me I would convert. They don’t. But just because those religions do not work for me and just because I don’t believe the same things the adherents of those religions do does not mean I cannot uphold their right to hold and express those beliefs. I am defending not what they believe but their right to believe it.
Defending the right to a faith is not the same as defending a faith itself.