Recently, a friend was telling me how a certain musical artist had entranced him with her talent—until he found out she was very religious and thanks God for her success. My friend considers himself liberal and advocates for the rights of women, racial minorities, and the LGBT community—yet, for him, religion elicits a “bad taste in [his] mouth.” Unfortunately, this negative visceral reaction towards religion is something that sometimes seems pervasive among people in our age group, and the Princeton community is no exception. I have encountered a handful of people who identify as liberal and espouse the necessity of equal rights and tolerance, but turn up their noses at the mere mention of religion. It is problematic that some people nearly cringe upon finding out that someone goes to church every weekend.
I have had quite a few conversations with people who “hate religion,” or “don’t understand its purpose.” The gist of their arguments lies in the idea that religion is used to justify things that are affronts to human rights, or simply as another factor on which we divide ourselves. I spoke with a peer who is deeply involved with Princeton’s Society of Secular Humanists. The club recently put up provocative advertisements all over campus, which read, “I think, therefore I am atheist.” I asked him if he thinks that religion is generally a positive force for humanity, and he responded that he feels that it isn’t, that “religions teach…[negative] things directly. You know that famous Bible verse where it says that homosexuality is an abomination. Some Christians take that literally and use that to discriminate against gay people.” He went on to assert, “If you look across history, there are way more bad things than good things that come of religion.”
I’m generally not a religious person, but from what I’ve gathered, by talking to friends and family who are, holding faith is a transcendent, personal experience, that should not compel anyone to oppress others. When large religious institutions promote oppressive ideals, it is the fault of power-hungry, hateful individuals—not the fundamentals that are most central to the religion.
When certain religious figures herald ideas that many of us consider small-minded, if we shape our opinions on knee-jerk reactions, it is easy to turn around and label anyone who identifies as part of that same denomination as narrow. If a major religious figure—say, the Pope—condemns contraception or gay marriage with a faith-based argument, if we turn around and assume that all Catholics believe the same, we are operating on harmful stereotypes. It’s important to remember that even though someone might identify as part of a certain religion, it does not mean that he or she has to accept everything that the religion’s figurehead espouses.
I believe that this applies to essentially all of the world’s major religions: even if a religion doesn’t have a single figurehead — such as Sunni Islam — the individual tenets of a minority group shouldn’t lead us to believe that all members of the faith believe the same. The flawed thinking that has wrongly painted Muslims as terrorists is the same that leads some to believe that all Catholics believe members of the LGBT community should remain second-class citizens.
Religion is an extremely personal facet of identity, which everyone understands in his or her own way. To be flippant about someone’s religion—based on the assumption that he or she subscribes to a political belief system that violates your conception of equality—is presumptuous. Even the student from the Princeton Society of Secular Humanists ended our interview by saying how he “recognize[s] that most religious people are average, good people.” Presumptuous thinking reinforces the popular image of all religious people as stupid and bigoted, painting them as extremely radical, like those who stand on The Street flaunting signs that promise all sinners a comfy place in hell.
The inflammatory rhetoric of one person or a small group should never be the basis for painting an entire faith as stupid or narrowminded. People who spread messages of hate are not adhering to principles of compassion, and compassion is one of the central things that make religion valuable. In contrary to the rhetoric of some individuals, you can be a devout Catholic who supports reproductive or gay rights, just like you can be a practicing Muslim who champions women’s rights.
I spoke with a Princeton student who identifies both as a gay man and a devout Catholic, an identity that some might call an oxymoron. I asked him whether he feels like a lesser Catholic because some members of the church’s political body condemn his queer identity. He says that it is occasionally disheartening, but most of the time, it is something that he successfully reconciles. “I would consider myself a very good Catholic, because I’m very critical of its theology, because that’s what they ask for. The Catholic church doesn’t want blind followers.” He underlined how “primacy of conscience” is the most important thing in his faith. If some verse in the Bible or Koran says that women should be perpetually subordinate or that gays should be stoned, and your conscience tells you that these ideas are standards by which we should never abide, you’re not being heretical. You’re being moral.
Our conversation reminded me of a lecture I heard from the Dalai Lama last September. He spoke of the underlying commonalities between different religions, espousing the idea that all religions are fundamentally the same. He believes that most tenets that people distort as justification for oppression are nonessential parts of religion. He talked about his friendship with Pope John Paul II: John Paul would tell the Dalai Lama that he was indeed a good Christian, and the Dalai Lama would respond that he considered John Paul to be a good Buddhist.
The Dalai Lama asserted that morality can exist completely independently of religion, and that there are many secular people who are virtuous human beings, but that religion is an effective medium for promoting universally-positive, humanistic beliefs for those who are particularly receptive to faith.
Being irreligious and antireligious are two completely different things, and I believe that being antireligious—actively disrespecting and trying to invalidate the tenets that many hold dearly—is not at all a feature of liberalism. It is a feature of bigotry. Questioning someone’s religious beliefs is completely valid; only by having our principles challenged do we figure out what we really believe. But questioning someone’s religious tenets is different from being dismissive or flippant about them.
I believe that the liberal mindset, which asserts that we need to strive for equal treatment of marginalized groups, like women, the LGBT community, and certain racial groups, is the key to our society’s social success. Within the liberal mindset, there should always be a level of respect and deference to people’s religious beliefs. If we recognize that people are largely products of the way in which they are raised, and if someone is raised in a faith-based environment, what right do we have to rebuke their religious faith? Social liberalism— which I think tries to strike the ideal balance between individual liberty and social justice— strives to be open-minded and accepting. Simply dismissing someone for his or her faith is in direct conflict with the valuable path to social equality that the socially liberal mindset is trying to forge.