Religion--Choice or Destiny? Should Religion be Treated on Par with Immutable Factors such as Gender and Race?
Religion plays a central role in the lives of many people around the globe, with the precise impact varying based largely upon the depth of one’s faith, governmental policies and restrictions, and cultural/societal norms. In the United States, the free exercise of religion is a constitutional right granted to all citizens. The Constitution further prohibits the American government from privileging any religion over another, and from using religiously-inspired tests in order to vet someone for public office. Laws have been enacted prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, placing religion on par with immutable factors such as gender or race (which is in-and-of-itself a human construct, but that’s a topic for another time and another Hub).
To be clear, I am not in favor of discrimination, particularly as it applies to employment and housing. I belief that commercial and other public service oriented entities have a duty to provide the same level of services to everyone, regardless of the personal prejudices and inclinations of either the owner or the workers. That said, I am conscious of the fact that everyone harbors prejudices of some kind or another. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either in denial or lying. I see no reason to bemoan this aspect of human nature: categorizing other people based upon appearance, group membership and behavior is an integral part of our psyche, and has evolved over time in order to further our survival. The discussion below should be taken neither as an endorsement nor a condemnation of either prejudice or discrimination, but rather as an exploration of how a religion’s role in the life of its adherents should be viewed by other members of that same society.
Very few religious believers would ever characterize their own personal religious views as a choice. For them, it is truth, a truth that they could no sooner renounce than they could will their hearts to stop beating. But cracks soon begin to emerge in this vision—people, after all, convert all the time, abandoning the religious faith of their culture and family. Others find religion after having been raised by parents that themselves are irreligious. In some cases, people go to extraordinary lengths and endure obscene levels of hardship in order to renounce the religion of their birth, such as when a baptized member of the Amish faith decides that (s)he no longer wants to be Amish, or when someone raised in a totalitarian religious regime decides to convert away from the majority religion.
Furthermore, despite the distaste that certain believers may have for categorizing their religious faith as “merely a choice,” for the believer to deny that (s)he has chosen to believe in his/her religion actually undercuts the value of their belief and, by extension, their religion as well. If people’s religious convictions consist merely of impulses that the people themselves can never hope to control, why should any deity care about whether (s)he is worshipped or not? Why should any deity promise that the faithful alone will be admitted into Heaven, or some other alternatively wonderful form of an afterlife, while anyone who does not believe will be punished, if neither group is responsible for their religious convictions? The value of religious faith lies in the volition of a religion’s adherents rather than in the religion’s public rituals and declarations.
Some believers, of course, will respond that we are not so much compelled as called to believe, and that it is a matter of heeding the call. In this view, all people are called to follow the one true faith, and some people either rebel or get the message wrong. This argument cannot withstand any serious form of scrutiny—logically, either the argument of being called to believe applies equally to all beliefs, or one must provide a rational and compelling explanation for why it should apply only to one set of religious beliefs while excluding all others. The most damaging argument against the supremacy of any one particular religion is the observation that, statistically, the contents of an individual’s religious beliefs tend to be derived from their geographical and cultural context. A person born in Pakistan is more likely to a Muslim than a person born in either Alabama or Georgia, and the person born in either Alabama or Georgia is more likely to be a Christian than a person born in Pakistan.
Quite apart from cultural and geographical context, religious belief cannot be characterized solely as a choice. Changing a belief is seldom as simple as changing one’s opinion, or deciding that you would rather have chocolate ice cream than vanilla. Belief involves genuine conviction, and is something that must be felt as well as professed. The closest analogy that I can draw to religious belief is the process of falling in love. People don’t always have control over who they develop feelings for, and sometimes fall in love with completely incompatible partners, while, at other times feel nothing for those with whom they seem to be uniquely suited. People also don’t always act on their romantic inclinations, and occasionally develop feelings for a trusted coworker or friend while in an exclusive relationship with someone else. While it is incorrect to say that a person is wholly in charge of who (s)he becomes attracted to, it is also incorrect to argue that (s)he is wholly at the mercy of these uncontrollable urges; rather, a person’s romantic life consists of both subconscious attraction and his/her decisions about how to respond.
Similarly, a person’s religious life consists of a variety of factors, only some of which are under his/her control. Religion should properly be viewed as a mediated choice. This applies, of course, only in cases where the possibility for choice is preserved. It is possible to raise a child in an environment where only false alternatives, or no alternatives at all, are permitted to exist. It is further possible to raise a child so that (s)he will become an adult who is incapable of either examining or questioning his/her own beliefs. It should be noted here that examining or questioning your beliefs does not inherently mean that you are required to change them. There is nothing inconsistent or unreasonable about deciding to continue adhering to a certain set of beliefs even once you have become aware of the inconsistencies, contradictions and/or unexplainable bases found in almost any belief system, regardless of whether it is religious or secular. Being aware of and comfortable with the flaws in your own belief system requires a far stronger and more self-assured form of faith/belief than is possessed by those who react with hostility to the merest hint that their belief system may not be absolutely perfect in every way.
In terms of how wider society should view people’s religious convictions, it remains a matter of contention whether religious faith should be treated as something immutable or a matter of personal preference and choice. For the moment, the former view appears to have won the day, in no small part because of the percentage of Americans who feel that religion constitutes an important part of their lives. Even if religious faith is viewed solely as a choice, such a categorization should not be seen as opening the door to religious discrimination. Although it is perfectly valid for the individual to create an internal hierarchy in which people who make certain decisions are preferentially privileged over people who make other decisions, everyone is less free in the discharge of their public roles and obligations than in their private lives. As a shopowner, you have the choice not to serve kosher or halal meat, but you don’t have the choice not to serve a Jewish person or a Muslim. As a private citizen you may condemn homosexuality, but as a hotel owner you cannot refuse to rent a room with a double bed to a gay couple. A person’s choices, as well as immutable factors such as race, are protected within the American democratic system.
At the same time, however, if religious people choose to use their religion as justification for their political views, and for forcing everyone else to adhere to standards derived from said religion, they are moving their religious convictions into the political sphere, where they will be subjected to the same form of scrutiny, disparagement and disdain as secularly-derived political views. One cannot claim that religion should be able to play a viable role within public discourse while also claiming that it should be afforded special privileges that secular people and positions are denied.