Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What does faith have to do with morality?

“La foi n’a rien à voir avec la morale.”  Faith has nothing to do with morality.

graffiti scrawled on the back of a sign 

We came upon this piece of graffiti three years ago while in Tournon in southern France.  It could have been written yesterday in response to the Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and wounded scores of others.

When crimes like this one occur, it is tempting to demonize religion and believers. The Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam – come under particular scrutiny. Some argue that the Hebrew Bible, the foundational text of these religions, encourages violence and immoral acts.  They point to passages of scripture that command the stoning of adulteresses or the smiting of one’s enemies to the practice of slavery and to misogyny. 

These passages are clearly problematic from today's moral perspective, and I have no intention of defending them.  It would be dishonest to pretend that over the millennia religion has not played a part in man’s inhumanity to man. However, it is quite a leap to claim that religion has nothing to do with morality. Faith can be a strong influence on morality and can govern behavior, for better or for worse. Terrorist attacks committed in the name of religion illustrate the worst of that behaviour. 

No rational person, especially a deeply religious one, accepts violence as moral. Rational people (and most religious people fall into this category) share a universal understanding of morality. Boiled down to a basic principle, morality might be summed up as “do no harm” to others or yourself.   Violence as an exercise of faith is especially odious since love and compassion are inherent qualities of the world’s great religions.

We do not need to think very hard to find inspiring examples of faith filled moral individuals. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jean Vanier and Jimmy Carter spring to mind.  I can think of examples from my own small town. Whether they are handing out food at local food banks or spearheading actions to reduce poverty or holding the hands of the dying, religious individuals are positively impacting my community. 

The Judeo-Christian tradition has shaped my understanding of morality as it has shaped that of much of the western world.  Its moral tradition, with which we struggle, precedes and goes beyond the “do no harm” principle.  For the prophets, three things were necessary: to love mercy, to act justly, and to walk humbly with God.  For Jesus of Nazareth, the great commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself. To love, to be merciful, to be concerned about others, to be humble are some of the ways that a person of faith honors the goodness of God and behaves in a moral way.

Islamic terrorists are not the only group of religious people who commit violence. One need only think of the Crusades, the burning of Protestant “heretics’ at the stake, or the bombing of abortion clinics to find other examples of religious zeal gone wrong.  In an unequivocal condemnation of the Paris attacks, Grand Mufti Shawki Allam of Egypt wrote, “We must remember that as recent attacks in many parts of the world indicate, violent extremism knows no particular faith. It is rather a perversion of the human condition, and must be dealt with as such.”

We cannot let this latest attack on humanity warp our collective moral sense and harden our hearts towards others.  Since the Paris attacks, there has been a backlash against Syrian refugees.  When I wrote this, 35,000 Canadians had signed a petition to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees into Canada.  This is clearly irrational; many of the Syrian refugees are not even Muslim, and the terrorists carried French or Belgium passports. It is also wrong. Fear of those who are different can prevent us from doing the right thing, as much as it can motivate someone (like a terrorist) to do the wrong thing.

No one has a monopoly on morality. A person does not have to be religious to be good. And while one would hope or expect a religious person to be moral, we know this is not always the case.

Faith and morality are like two streams flowing into one river, shaping the river’s ability to sustain or destroy the life along its banks. For better or for worse, religion can shape behavior and influence moral decision-making.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"New tolerance" is intolerance in disguise

“I am intolerant of intolerance” has become something of a mantra for suppressing unpopular opinions.  Today’s “new tolerance”, as it is called in academic circles, is redefining our understanding of tolerance and shaping our behavior in public spaces, but it is no friend to the exercise of conscience or the freedom of speech.

In the past, we used to “agree to disagree”.  It was a respectful way to end debates before they degenerated into personal and hateful attacks.  We disagreed without rejecting each other.  

We used to define tolerance in the phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  We allowed others their opinions and the right to express them.

It is no longer acceptable to agree to disagree

New tolerance requires something different. It demands that we accept either the most popular view or the view of the most vocal group.  If we believe differently, those who hold the dominant view or shout the loudest accuse us of bigotry. They cannot countenance our intolerance; we must be muzzled. This is especially evident when it comes to issues around sexuality and gender.

The no-platform movement that is taking hold of western universities is the poster child of new tolerance.  The movement, which denies speakers a platform, fosters intolerant behavior in its misguided attempt to protect democracy and equality. 

Notable feminist Germaine Greer is the latest fatality of the no-platform movement. Greer was to lecture on “Women and Power: Lessons of the 20th Century” at Cardiff University in Wales.   Twenty seven hundred students signed a petition that accused her of misogyny and inciting hate and violence against transgender people. In an obvious twist of irony that students seemed to have missed, the no-platform campaign triggered its own form of violence against Greer.  Her opponents attacked her on social media sites, verbally crucifying her. Even though the university rejected the student petition, Greer declined to speak, citing concerns for her safety. 

Greer’s unspeakable crime was to say that she does not think “a post-operative transgendered man is a woman”.   But, others required Greer (and anyone who might hold the same opinion) to think differently.  Payton Quinn, a Huffington Post columnist writing in support of the petition, asserted, “If you believe that trans women are women, as you should because they are, then what Germaine Greer is espousing in her campaign against them is misogyny.”   

Greer, incidentally, was not campaigning against anyone. She has not written about transgender issues for years, nor was her lecture about transgender issues. In her words, “Its not my issue. I don’t even talk about them.”

New tolerance is not limited to the no-platform movement on university campuses. In Canada, some political parties require all candidates to be pro-choice.  A person who questions abortion must want to limit a woman’s right to choose; that person has no place in government. Trinity Western University requires students and staff to sign a covenant agreement with a clause that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The institution must be discriminating against LGBTQ people; it must not be allowed a law school. 

It is no longer enough for a tolerant individual to treat people with the respect and dignity that all individuals – gay, trans or straight – deserve. We must now accept the most popular views and believe what the most vocal group tells us to believe.  To do otherwise, is anathema.

Tolerance takes practice
Tolerance does not come easily or naturally to us.  It requires practice.  From time to time, we need to check our attitudes.  We need to make sure that our concern for one group does not express itself as intolerance for someone else; that we do not become violent, hateful or self-righteous in the name of tolerance. 

Social media has done little to promote tolerance. Social media sites that invite us “to join the conversation” frequently become platforms for intolerance. Outrage, insult and hatred characterize many social media exchanges.  These exchanges do little to foster understanding of difference or to improve society.

It is easier to spew contempt than to allow different voices the latitude to speak. If we are serious about the freedoms of conscience and speech, we cannot bully or exclude others when their opinion goes against the grain.  Rejecting an opinion is not the same thing as rejecting a person or discriminating against a group.

New tolerance is a form of intolerance in disguise.