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Religious Intolerance

December 28, 2018 (808 words)

Let’s review the facts of the case: Separation of church and state is the best thing that ever happened to us. It allowed early American colonists to leave the religious strife of Reformation Europe behind, all those years ago. And it set the stage for the next two centuries of unprecedented prosperity.

Our special brand of liberal democracy has long since become the gold standard around the world. Only a few backward nations continue to resist this proven model, and as a result still find themselves riven with sectarian violence.

But is it really that simple? Is the path the modern world has taken really so above reproach?

The presumption of intolerance implies only religious differences were ever the source of armed conflict. It takes but a moment’s reflection to realize what an absurd premise that is. War is built in to the human DNA.

European combatants of the 16th and 17th centuries may have favored various denominations, but the parties were at each other’s throats long before the ‘Dividing of Christendom.’ And they continue to be at each other’s throats today, even if such contentiousness rarely rises to the level of military engagement anymore.

Ah, you might say, it is ideological differences that have taken the place of the old, religious differences. The only real threats we face now are from those countries that refuse to embrace Western-style liberal democracy. So what we used to classify as religious intolerance has sort of morphed into a resistance to individual liberty and economic freedom.

And we have been taught to think of any such resistance as representing a form of tyranny. We Americans have made it our business to “export democracy” around the world, either by means of economic gerrymandering, or outright military intervention.

It would seem that we, the champions of liberal democracy, are the intolerant ones at this point in history. We want access to natural resources or to vast untapped markets for our goods and services. And we are relentless in our pursuit of both. We typically unleash all this benevolent pressure in the name of “fighting tyranny.”

… discarded as an impediment to the social order

By adopting a strictly materialistic definition of progress, religious belief and practice has been downgraded and left for dead. We in the West, starting with the nascent United States, have set religion off to the side as no longer necessary to the proper functioning of society. In fact, it has been deemed an outright impediment to such a proper functioning.

As one half of a very popular song-writing duo once sang, we should “imagine there is no religion.” Then “the world can live as one.” But this is merely a simplistic reflection of how we, as emancipated individuals, refuse to have any governing body – either political or clerical in nature – tell us what we can-and-cannot do.

The thorough emancipation from authority, law, and tradition is what defines “classical Liberalism” (as distinct from the more commonly referenced left-leaning political sense of the word “liberal.”) This ideology – which has been wholeheartedly adopted by liberals and conservatives alike – is what kicked off the modern era, and is what has been at odds with traditional morality (a.k.a. Catholicism) for the last 500 years or so.

Liberal democracy is the political expression of this classical liberalism, and pluralism is the heart and soul of a liberal democracy. While political pluralism and religious pluralism are technically two different things, in actual practice one reinforces the other.

Both types of pluralism recognize and affirm diversity of opinion as the highest good. There is no longer a single right answer to any question, since everybody gets to chime in on every subject. The very idea of right-and-wrong cannot exist in absolute terms, since such arbitrary designations can only be arrived at through a broad consensus.

When we all get to decide for ourselves what reality is, to believe in the idea of moral absolutes is hopelessly passé. To think that morality is objective, rather than subjective, and is but practical reason in action, is not just out-of-fashion, but is currently held in outright contempt.

It’s odd how “reason” has been set up in opposition to “faith,” with faith being synonymous with religious intolerance, when it is a peculiar lack of reason at work in the world that denies the existence of an objective reality.

Without necessarily endorsing the political structure of any nation that continues to resist the moral free-for-all of a liberal democracy, I suggest that we in the West, and particularly those of us here in the Unites States, should be more discerning of the generally-held assumption as to what constitutes a good life, and whether we have, in fact, cornered the market on such a life.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
December 28, 2018

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