Sunday Prayers (Photo credit: Steven Leith)
A fellow blogger concluded a post the other day:
“Difficult as it is, we each have to follow our own conscience, and respect others who must do the same.”
I found myself in a loop of doublethink – both agreeing and disagreeing with this statement in equal measure – so in this post I am trying to thrash out my awkward fence-sitting position.
Imagine someone is going to do something I think is morally wrong. (It happens).
First of all, what is “morally wrong”?
This is where I fall out of line with most people. I think things are wrong when God says they are wrong. I think he gets to decide.
How do we figure out what’s right and wrong? Read it in the bible.
But is the bible not full of wee quibbles and sketchy bits? So what if it is? One can figure out the basic thrust of the kind of behaviour that God is looking for quite easily. That’s not the tricky bit.
The “problem”, if there is one, is that that is not how most people live. They may take the ten commandments as a kind of handy benchmark and may have been raised in a culture that kind of concurs with the main ideas – apart from the theism bits – but how do people that don’t rate God figure out what’s right and wrong?
Again, I think it doesn’t take much common sense to figure out the kind of behaviours that make the world go around more smoothly for everyone. A little bit of utilitarianism; an acknowledgement and management of egoism; poaching “the golden rule” …
But, in my hypothetical scenario, someone wants to do something “wrong”. Maybe it is something selfish – they want to take someone else’s husband; they want to break in to someone’s house and take all their gear; they plan to lie under oath; they buy pirate DVDs; they become violent….
These things happen in life and they are wrong. Plainly.
Should they be prevented from doing it? Sure – they should be prevented – or penalized.
But why? Because God doesn’t like these things?
In this country at least they should be penalized because that’s the way we have set it up. That’s our political system; that’s our justice system, that’s the way we have worked out a practical way to live together. We have decided as a society that these basic rules are pretty helpful.
Little fills me with more horror than a theocracy. People wielding bibles, korans or any holy book as the rule of law.
So saying, I think it is fine if anyone wants to select a holy book as a rule of law for their own life – or if they want to base their morals on a philosopher or a lyricist or a poet or their mother…
People figure out how they want to live and on what basis they want to make their decisions.
I happen to choose the bible. (Obviously, I happen to think that’s the best decision anyone can make. That’s why I made it.)
But in that choice, I want to (ironically?) uphold people’s rights/choices/ability to disagree with me.
If this was a theocracy, we perhaps would all have to have a Sabbath. There would be a zillion by laws to prevent trading – as there have been in the past.
Even today, I could think “It’s wrong to buy things on a Sunday” therefore I may decide not to buy things on a Sunday. But in the same breath, if the humanist man wants to open a shop on a Sunday, employ people on a Sunday, provide people with bread and milk and the Sunday Times – why should he not? He thinks there is no God- so where would his motivation be to keep a Sabbath?
I would rather be in a country where a Christian is free to keep a Sabbath if they want and a humanist is free to make a living, than to live in a country where people are coerced into living religious lives, or keeping religions laws about which they have no conviction.
The example under analysis on the other blog is abortion. I could believe abortion is wrong. Were I pregnant, I could decide not to have one, and that would be a way of living out my religious conviction. Should I be likely to die if an abortion was not carried out, I could choose to refuse treatment and to die, therefore in a further way keeping faithful to my belief.
But should we heap this kind of outworking of faith onto a person without faith? Or with a different faith?
At the heart of arguments around abortion, I always come back to the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan goes out of his way to help the man who has been beaten. He does more than he is morally required to do.
If you were to argue that someone has a right to have an abortion, you could acknowledge that the Samaritan had the right to walk by and leave the man dying – it was no real concern of his – surely his example shows that it is better to follow through and see the person to who you may owe nothing, the person who may be your enemy – to see that person set up with a future without you as in the parable. I hope the parallel with abortion is apparent?
But for the humanist, for the atheist – what is the sense in funneling them down religious laws and practices?
With the topic of abortion, comes the sidestep into murder – and if a society condones abortion it condones murder by the back door?
As much as there is selfishness in decisions, or ignorance or infinite other reasons – does society do as much as it can – do believers do as much as they can to fix society to protect the unborn child?
What if unmarried mothers were supported? What if they didn’t feel that their delivering the child would ruin their life? What if there were other options?….,
And I find myself thinking: every case is different. Every case is complex. I have no doubt that God thinks abortion is “wrong” – but humans are riddled with sin – always falling short, cobbling together life as best we can. There are dilemmas and difficulties and cases and situations that don’t fit into any neat policy we have.
We should all be swept away, we are all “wrong”. But we live in a time of grace with a rainbow over us.
So, when deciding whether I, or society should make people adhere to various moral laws, does it depend what the thing is? Does abortion go in a “grey and complex” area? What about child abuse? Murder? Rape?
Should people be made to follow my religions laws that rule against these things? Yes – but not because they are my religious laws.
People should be made to refrain from acts of abuse and violence because that’s what we have decided, as a secular state. Sure, we will have decided to outlaw these acts because of the religious heritage of many voters – but that is not why all people – Christian, Muslim, humanist, all faiths and none – should keep the laws.
Imagine there is a golf club and it is in the constitution that you have to wear long trousers. If you want to be a part of that club – you need to cover your legs. It may be that for some members, they cover their legs for religious reasons in the same club. What if there is a new member who doesn’t want to cover their legs? Do you give them a verse from a holy book and say that it is immodest to have your knees out? No. You show them the minutes of the AGM when the dress code was decided.
In a democracy, people will, in practical life, act according to their conscience. As a society, we all chip in and share laws that help us to work together. To expect some people to keep certain laws because of religious beliefs they do not share makes no sense to me.
I am happy that we are free here to be Christian, Muslim or atheist and to live according to our own codes. I am happy that the mixed bag of wordviews has, over centuries, generated a secular structure for law-making that we can hold each other accountable to, no matter how the individual lives with their conscience.
At the same time, I think we “should” all live to please God.
But without a belief in God, that isn’t going to happen – and living a religious life without love and faith is “only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
The following passage outlines how Christians should live in secular society. The readers are encouraged to live in their secular world as active citizens, but to “live as God’s slaves” within that. Respect for others is also stated, as is proper honour for the emperor (with whom I am sure they would disagree).
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.” From 1 Peter chapter 2
So, do I have to follow my own conscience while respecting others who must do the same?
I suppose so.