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The Pope and the Patriarch February 15, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Religion.
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Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church finally got together after a thousand years, and they issued a joint declaration of what’s been on their minds lately.

In affirming the foremost value of religious freedom, we give thanks to God for the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia, as well as in many other countries of Eastern Europe, formerly dominated for decades by atheist regimes. Today, the chains of militant atheism have been broken and in many places Christians can now freely confess their faith…

I’m not myself a fan of the Christian faith, or of religious faith in general, but I certainly think people should be free to confess it. I must say, given the history of Christianity, I’m glad to hear the holy duo are such big supporters of religious freedom. I assume they know what it means, right?

At the same time, we are concerned about the situation in many countries in which Christians are increasingly confronted by restrictions to religious freedom, to the right to witness to one’s convictions and to live in conformity with them. In particular, we observe that the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to His truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom. It is a source of concern for us that there is a current curtailment of the rights of Christians, if not their outright discrimination, when certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology, seek to relegate them to the margins of public life.

And… no. Sorry, guys, but the secularization of society, the removal of God from politics, does not restrict or threaten your religious freedom — that’s exactly backwards: secularism is what makes religious freedom possible, because it denies official status and privilege to any particular religion. That means no one gets to force their religion on you — although I’m afraid you don’t get to force yours on anyone, either.

Anyway, back to the declaration: you were concerned about discrimination against Christians and the curtailment of their religious freedom?

The process of European integration, which began after centuries of blood–soaked conflicts, was welcomed by many with hope, as a guarantee of peace and security. Nonetheless, we invite vigilance against an integration that is devoid of respect for religious identities. While remaining open to the contribution of other religions to our civilization, it is our conviction that Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots. We call upon Christians of Eastern and Western Europe to unite in their shared witness to Christ and the Gospel, so that Europe may preserve its soul, shaped by two thousand years of Christian tradition.

If I didn’t know how deeply Francis and Kirill care about religious freedom, I’d almost think they were encouraging some discrimination against non-Christians there…

Any other big problems to be concerned about?

The family is the natural centre of human life and society. We are concerned about the crisis in the family in many countries…

The family is based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between a man and a woman… We regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.

Oops, see what you did there? You’re trying to make the general public conform to your own religious rules. I’m sorry, but you don’t get that power any more. I know you’ve been used to having it for a long time, so losing it feels like persecution, but it’s really not. You still get to practice your religion and preach it; but you don’t get to force it on anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it. Isn’t freedom wonderful?

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill hug each other after signing agreements in Havana

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Propagate a perverted interpretation February 7, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Religion.
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1 comment so far

President Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore this week. Before I critique some of his remarks, let me first emphasize what I agree with: Anti-Muslim bigotry is no more acceptable than any other kind of bigotry. All Muslim individuals deserve to be treated with dignity as human beings, and should not have to face prejudice or discrimination or hate crime. But — and this is where the confusion begins — it does not follow that Islam, as a belief system, must be treated with respect; or that criticism of Islam is tantamount to bigotry. Islam is a set of ideas, and if some of those ideas are wrong or harmful, that’s something we need to talk about, no matter if some people find it offensive.

On with the criticism, then:

For more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam’s message of peace…  And like so many faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity.

I realize politicians often play fast-and-loose with the meanings of words when telling an audience what it wants to hear, but this Orwellian whitewashing is a very cruel joke at the expense of those who actually live under Islamic law. Like in Saudi Arabia, where the poet Ashraf Fayadh just had his death sentence for apostasy downgraded (after an international outcry) to a mere eight years in prison and 800 lashes. Or in Pakistan, where those accused of blasphemy are often lynched before they even make it to trial, and a 15-year-old recently cut off his own hand to atone for inadvertent blasphemy. Or in Iran, where it’s legal to have sex with a girl — or execute her — at the age of nine (the age of Muhammad’s bride Aisha when their marriage was consummated).

Wait a minute, what am I saying: everyone knows that while religion deserves credit for inspiring people to do good things, it’s never at fault when people’s religious beliefs motivate them to do bad things. Islam is defined to be compassionate and merciful and just, so anyone who commits hateful or cruel or unjust acts in the name of Islam must be perverting the True Faith!

Even as the overwhelming majority — and I repeat, the overwhelming majority — of the world’s Muslims embrace Islam as a source of peace, it is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam…

Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL, they’re not the first extremists in history to misuse God’s name.  We’ve seen it before, across faiths.  But right now, there is a organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts, twists them in an attempt to justify their killing and their terror…

Groups like ISIL are desperate for legitimacy.  They try to portray themselves as religious leaders and holy warriors who speak for Islam.  I refuse to give them legitimacy…

We shouldn’t play into terrorist propaganda.  And we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem.  That betrays our values.  It alienates Muslim Americans.  It’s hurtful to those kids who are trying to go to school and are members of the Boy Scouts, and are thinking about joining our military.

That kind of mindset helps our enemies.  It helps our enemies recruit.  It makes us all less safe.  So let’s be clear about that.

I don’t know which would be more depressing: if Obama really believes all that, or if he thinks that pretending to believe it is the politically expedient thing to do. I don’t doubt that the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are horrified by the actions of ISIL; so I understand they might not welcome the idea that their religion is part of the problem. But that’s the truth: the beliefs, methods, and goals of ISIL are taken directly from the seventh-century worldview of Muhammad and his followers, no selective twisting necessary.

We desperately need moderate Muslims to modernize and reform their religion, to discard those parts of it that are incompatible with civil society; but that’s not likely to happen while the President insists that Islam is as awesome as apple pie (and that to suggest otherwise is terrorist propaganda that helps our enemies). By refusing to acknowledge the link between specific Islamic doctrines and the atrocities motivated by them, it’s Obama who’s betraying “our values” (which hopefully include things like freedom of speech and gender equality), turning his back on those who are oppressed daily by Islamic regimes following Islamic teachings.

Muslim Americans shouldn’t be treated like immature children who might decide to go fight for ISIL if we hurt their feelings by criticizing their beliefs. Those who share our values should be willing to stand up for them, even if that means rethinking and revising their own religion when it conflicts with those values. And if some of our fellow citizens are actually committed to anti-democratic ideas (which I’m sure is true for many non-Muslims as well), that’s something we need to recognize and talk about honestly. Denying the problem doesn’t make us safer. I wish the President were more clear about that.