Saturday, November 12, 2005

Faith or Freedom?

I find it interesting listening to politicians advocating a greater role for faith in the running of our country, from faith-based charity groups, to prayer in schools and the government, and simultaneously claiming to protect individual freedoms. Are these goals of spreading faith and increasing freedom compatible or do they clash? Plenty of groups advocate their faiths as the solution to our problems. But the strength of secularism and the separation of church and state in this country has kept this in check. It is not, however, too hard to find societies where faith is central to the running of the country. There are many countries that openly proclaim this. But has their pillar of faith been a solution to their problems? Surely is opposite is true; when faith-based groups gain power they invariably use their faith as a means of repression and elimination of individual freedoms. Naturally they ask why they should permit people to do things that are contrary to their principles? So the rules and regulations they create, governing what one can read, watch, say and believe, are for the moral good of the individual and country. Consider how many countries still ban speaking out against the official concept of God (i.e.. blasphemy) and reward this speech with a death penalty.

Christian groups are likely to reply that the problem is not that faith is supreme, but that the wrong faith is supreme. That is, if the Christian faith were in charge all would be better. But is it true that if the Christian religion were enshrined in our constitution and governing our every action, we be a better and freer nation? We might be better in the same way as the mullahs perceive their countries are better because of their state faith. They point to lower divorce, lower crime etc. in their countries to show how their faith improves their countries, but if so surely at an enormous cost of individual freedom. I propose that with Christianity in charge we would also have a similar loss of freedom. The key reason is that religious faiths (at least the monotheistic ones) have a pessimistic view of human beings: we're lost, we're evil, we're unable to do anything really good on our own, etc. Giving lost, sinful creatures freedom would lead to evil triumphing, and so true freedom would be a terrible state of affairs.

Instead the ideal Christian state is an authoritarian one in which God is in control and we all submit to him and obey his commands. That is how heaven will be in any case. On this earth realizing that goal is difficult as God doesn't seem to take actions on his own. Nevertheless the ideals of authority, submission and worship of that authority pervades Christianity. So as a result numerous people from the pope down on to individual pastors are eager to claim God's authority and decry any behavior that is displeasing to God. If they had political power they would surely use it to restrict any actions displeasing to God. Consider all the recent vitriol directed against gay marriage based on it being displeasing to God. Great efforts are being exerted by born again Christians to create a political ban of it. They reason: why should someone have freedom to do what God disapproves (even when it harms no one else)? I dread to imagine the growth of social control and the loss of freedoms if political power becomes subject to God's authority as determined by voting Christians.

Perhaps a classic argument formulated by Saint Paul claims that people in their natural state are slaves to sin and the Christian faith offers them freedom from that. The idea is that sin is an addiction, and faith in God releases one from that and so enables one to live in freedom. There are big flaws in this claim however. It is true that addictions or compulsive behaviors effectively limit our freedom, but unfortunately these aren't solved by faith in God. I think what Paul is talking about is an ideal of a sinless life that he has, and that he is unable to achieve it as a non-Christian. But it is pretty big leap to say that not being able to achieve an ideal, or that one makes mistakes, is equivalent to being enslaved. (Especially when the ideal is somewhat suspect.) In addition, how is the Christian free if he is still unable to achieve this ideal, and actually is no better at achieving it than the rest of mankind? But the main problem with Paul's argument is his concept of freedom. Consider this illustration. One lives in a totalitarian state. One is free to do whatever one likes so long as one submits to the ruler and obeys all his commands. Is that freedom or the opposite? That is the kind of freedom Christians advocate: so long as you submit to God, worship him and obey all his commands you are free to do whatever you like. If you reject this offer of "freedom" then the fury of hell awaits you. So you are not even free to say no.

If religion-inspired pessimism about the human state is the enemy of freedom, what is its promoter? Surely it is the optimism of humanism. Humanism believes we can conquer our downtrodden state of affairs and build a better world. We each should be set free to pursue and realize our individual and corporate potential. This may be tempered with a condition that we not harm others in our pursuit, but surely the greatest gain for everyone to be free to do as he wishes. It is this trust and optimism in human nature that is the basis for the freedoms given to us by our constitution.

Not surprisingly many religions show great distain for humanism. But hand in hand with this they show distain for freedom. So I think the choice for our country is pretty clear: faith or freedom.