What kind of religious believer are you?

Recently an reporter on Religion and American Culture-- Mr. Kevin Eckstrom-- did an insightful piece on how he deals with his own religious affiliation when he is asked by those who he is interviewing. The essay delves into what we are asking when we ask a person's religion. His interpretation-- which I agree with-- is that our REAL question is not "WHAT religion are you?" but "WHAT KIND of religious person are you?"

He makes the point bluntly when he talks about the question of Muslim Identity:

[The question is] not, “Are you a Muslim?” but rather “What kind of Muslim are you?” Are you the kind of Muslim that subjugates women? Are you the kind of Muslim that endorses terrorism? Are you the kind of Muslim that hates America?”

The first comment on the comment board was one of the predictable type, from a fervent anti-theist named Earold, who basically stated that the religious question was moot, because all religion is bad and all religious people are implicitly or explicitly bad people. Here is an excerpt of Earold's secular fundamentalism:

"Although I feel that religion is a bad thing, I only do so because of the effect it has on humanity... [Religious people] usually try to force others through various actions that range from non-violent acts like putting religious icons in public locations in America, to the subtly violent, like teaching uneducated third world peoples that condom use is bad, even though the country is being ravaged by disease spread through sexual contact, to outright obviously violent, like beheading non-believers of their faith, as is being done in Iraq."

Earold's bland brand of angry devangelism is pretty prevalent on any comment board dealing with religion in public life. Thus, this question "What kind of religious believer are you?" will be necessary so long as folks like Earold are beaten up by bad 5th grade theology, spewed by under-educated religious leaders, until they actually believe that this is what religious adherents actually believe. I understand Earold's misunderstanding. There are lots of loud ignorant religious leaders who gladly contribute to his misunderstanding. But that's what it is: A misunderstanding.

For instance, if one gauged what "average American life" is like by looking at daytime talk shows and newscasts, you would come up with a horribly skewed view that in no way reflects the average daily experience of 95% of Americans. Why? Because such media sources choose the loudest, most outrageous examples of American life in order to sell ad time. Religious news often functions the same way, although RNS does a particularly good job of NOT falling into this stereotype. But if you listen to religious news coverage on most outlets, and you add to it the jaded eye of someone like Earold who obviously has been hurt by ignorant religion, it would be easy to make statements that all religion is toxic, and all religious adherents want to either convert people or oppress the unconverted.

Truth is that most religious believers aren't like that. And a great many religious leaders claim their metaphysical religious beliefs as the foundation for advocating a radically pluralist, egalitarian, democratic society. For instance, Earold demands that religious adherents "keep [their] belief to themselves and take no actions to force either the belief, or the tenets of the belief upon others". But where would our Democratic society be if religiously motivated 19th century abolitionists or suffragettes did this? Or Gandhi, or MLK, or Malcolm X, or even Stephen Colbert? Or religiously motivated modern advocates of LGBTQ rights, or the dignity of immigrants?

The fact is that there is a way of being religious that see pluralism and equality under the law as the direct result of being made in God's image, inherent in dignity, worthy of protection and freedom of conscience and freedom from coercion. Such moral assumptions derive from metaphysical beliefs about the nature of Reality. They cannot be gained by mere empirical observation and description of "the way things are" in the natural world. Such moral assumptions must be embraced-- by  well reasoned faith-- as prescriptions about "the way things should be".

So, when we say that society should be democratic, people should be equal under the law, no one should be coerced against their conscience, we are all making non-empirical metaphysical moral statements. In this we are all in the same boat: Religious or Secular or Secularly Religious. We are all hoping for something better for society as embraced by well reasoned faith. And ALL of us who hold such pluralist, egalitarian moral assumptions need to band together, no matter where we got our moral assumptions from, no matter if we hold them on religious or secular grounds. Because there are loud and proud folks across the world who want to turn society back 500 years, and if those of us who hold democratic faith don't stand up, they could well be successful.

So religion or lack thereof is not the determinative factor in making the world a better place. The determinative factor is how one conceives of coercive political power in relation to the personal liberty of one's conscience. Should power be used to coerce everyone to be "like me" or else? Or should power be used to protect persons from being coerced and oppressed into things they do not agree with? Both religious AND secular ways of organizing public life can be used to validate either totalitarianism or pluralism. I think Earold's (and Hitchens' and Dawkins' and Pat Robertson's and Bill O'Reilly's) binary assumption of "Religious vs. Secular" blinds us to the complexity of the issues. The line cannot be drawn between Religious and Secular people, but is drawn right through the middle of us all.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.