Tuesday, April 29, 2008

IS RELIGION THE OPIATE OF THE MASSES?

I am not a fan of Karl Marx, as there are many viewpoints -- some of which I shared on here -- and others I have yet to share -- that reflect my preference for a market-based economy, as opposed to a socialist one.

That does not mean I do not support viable programs of government intervention or support where the market fails to deliver or cannot meaningfully deliver in the public interest; it simply means I support people's freedoms and have a preference for promoting positive choices for themselves.

However, that being said, Marx did say something interesting about religion. Religion was thought to be the tool of the power elites to convince the masses to placate themselves about the state of being they are forced to live in. The thought of a higher power and a 'better place' is supposed to promote the so-called proletariat to consider their misery on this Earth as temporary and that after they die, they will be in a 'better place' and blessed by God.

I don't buy religion. It is not that I am against it. I just don't have a religious belief or faith to call my own. This doesn't mean that if you are being harassed or attacked because of your own religious beliefs, my firm will not fight its damnedest to ensure you maintain your right to uphold and practise your faith. I have defended various people, ranging from Muslims to Hindus to Rastafrarians to even a Jehovah's Witness. Many times, certain tenets of a person's faith gets them into trouble with their employment, their housing or even in the community. To me, we cannot have real freedoms in our society if we do not have the right to practise and express our faith.

However, that being said, I also support the separation of church and state. In countries where religion and faith dictate the law, there is no such freedom of religion. You must adhere to the state's religion or be subject to harassment and in some cases, even torture and imprisonment. To me, that is wrong. I am related to some members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and while I am not engaged in this faith, I see the happiness this faith brings to its adherents. There are countries of the world where people of this faith were at best barred from practising and ministering this faith; many were put in prison and tortured. I read about cases where small groups of Jehovah's Witnesses would meet in people's basements to sneak in their Bible study and prayer ... and have to hide themselves from authorities that did not allow this form of religion from being practised.

I prefer a country where people can openly practise whatever religion they choose and minister to others in their community and express their faith openly. Jehovah's Witnesses have specific tenets for example in their religion that they feel strongly about. One is blood transfusions. We have heard stories in the media where members of this faith had lost custody of a child to the state where the child was then forced to endure blood transfusions, usually for treatment of some disorder or injury. These stories are often followed up by people who condemn the religion for its belief and query loudly as to why a loving parent may deny their child a "life saving" treatment. The Jehovah's Witnesses feel very strongly about this issue and in fact, have advanced medical research to the extent that would make blood transfusions in most cases unnecessary, if alternatives were explored.

In this situation, how do I feel about it? To me, to force somebody to act against their faith by forcing them to take a blood transfusion when they have made an informed decision not to is equivalent to rape. People have the right to their faith to that extent and I would back them 100% on it. This also applies to other religions as well, as many religions have dietary issues, clothing issues, as well as sacred Holy days. Fridays are the Holy Day for those of the Muslim faith. Adherents to this faith pray five times a day and this needs to be accommodated in situations of employment and study.

However, strong adherents to any religion tend to believe members of other religions are foolish or hoodwinked into having their beliefs. To me, these are beliefs. Just because I may not share these beliefs does not make them less legitimate for those that do have them. For many adherents, these beliefs are more important than other vital issues in our lives, such as having enough money or keeping certain friendships. Because there are people of many faiths in our country, we have to be tolerant and develop a barrier-free society for folks that choose to practice their religion (as long as the practice is not harming other people).

Only in a free society can people be provided with the opportunity to explore, study and make informed decisions as to what faith (or any faith) they will choose. Many faiths provide "open houses" to their religious services at certain times of the year to give members of the public an opportunity to learn about what they believe. I am fortunate that in my profession, I encounter people of a variety of faiths and many are quite pleased to share with me their customs and ideas. I learned a lot about many different faiths and hold no prejudice against any of them; in fact, there is probably more in common between the different faiths than there are differences.

However, to me it is important that faith not be part of any political or legal processes. Once this becomes the case, freedom of to have and to practise one's own religion becomes restricted and accurate information about unsupported faiths (e.g. faiths the government does not include in its political or legal processes) is difficult to find. In cases where a state religion is present, it may be next to impossible to even practice a different faith. If you find this hard to believe, try being a Christian and ministering the Bible in an Islamic country, or try to bring the Qu'aran to a strictly Jewish state and impose this view. State religions force people to hate those that are different. In some countries -- even today -- even the defence of freedom of religion is barred.

I read a very depressing article in today's Toronto Star about how China wants to present itself as a state that adheres to the "rule of law" and independence of the legal profession. In countries like our own (Canada, Great Britain and the U.S.), the legal profession is independent and the "rule of law" is intact. That means that in Canada, Great Britain, the U.S., and several other countries as well, its legal profession can challenge the laws that are passed, fight for minority interests against the state and use the legislative/judicial system to force the state to do things it might not otherwise choose to do. With an independent legal profession and judiciary, legal advocates can oppose the state on many matters and not suffer any personal harm or consequences for this act alone. An independent profession can defend the rights of a minority -- even somebody whose practises are offensive to the state -- to allow that person to engage in their practises and beliefs.

In China, there is not an independent bar. Legal professionals are trained and licensed in China, but they are expected to respect and support the practises of the Communist government. Their executive, legislative and judiciary are not independent of one another, but are fused with the interests of the state. If a lawyer in China goes on the limb on human rights cases, they can be abducted, imprisoned, tortured and disbarred -- simply for taking on the state and challenging its interests. In Canada and other western democracies, I think we take this for granted at times ... we laugh at people filing human rights complaints against the RCMP, for example, so they can be allowed to wear a turban or think an employer is playing favourites if they permit an employee to take Sundays off to participate in their Christian faith.

In places like China, this type of dialogue is not allowed. The state knows best. Minority religions, such as those of Tibet and the Falun Gong are prohibited and its practitioners are barred from practising their religion. If they choose to challenge the state by hiring a lawyer, for example, and taking the government to court - their lawyer is doing this at great personal risk to themselves. Therefore, most members of the profession would not engage in anything as controversial as pushing for such freedoms or human rights of the minority. In Pakistan, when its leader recently declared its state of emergency, it suspended the rule of law and put the Chief Justice under house arrest. The first participants to challenge this leader were members of the legal profession. When "rule of law" is suspended, so are our freedoms. So is just about every human right you take for granted and enjoy today ...

While I am not particularly a person of faith, I can understand the need for it. One of the reasons I don't get too involved in religion is because each religion presents a world view that its adherents are expected to believe. I don't believe in anything just on faith ... I have to see and understand things for myself, sometimes choosing ideas from different religions, sometimes ideas strictly from science and nature. This collage of a belief system to me is just as important as having as any particular formal belief system. Further, I have trouble with many religions as they predict some type of 'doomsday' that is supposed to come around "soon" because we all sinned and we evolved from Adam and Eve, or their equivalents in other faiths. This doomsday is the 'storming of the Bastille' so to speak, the condemnation of the money changers from the temple at a larger scale ... we are all going to go through it, so by high waters -- join whatever faith that is describing your doom to be and you will be 'saved'.

At the same time as predicting doom and gloom and thereafter, a very positive future for everybody that sustains themselves through this predicted turbulence, these same faiths prefer their adherents not to become involved politically, as some say this is attaching oneself too closely to the ways of the world and others, being more gentle, simply feel that any forward action by individuals or groups is either going to move us more quickly toward doomsday or not make a difference in our fate whatsoever. This kind of thinking has its origins, although its reasoning and promises have changed over time. During the days of the feudal state, its serfs were discouraged from uprising against the system because to change the order of things could only lead to disaster. Some of this was thought to be an extreme version of thinking from Edmund Burke on the French Revolution, but even Burke can be saved as he did not promote passive acceptance - he promoted gradual and consensual change of the order. To have the serfs rise up would not necessarily destroy the 'order' of things but would simply challenge the role of the lords and the monarchy.

Religious beliefs at the time were that people who were in the monarchy were somehow deserving of their status and were more worthy than the serfdom. The idea that a serf or a group of serfs can replace them in status and value was feared and not spoken of. Religion provided a world view for the wealthy classes that preserved a sense of order, while religion for the serfs preserved a sense of the deserving afterlife. Sure, this life sucks -- but after you are gone, things would be so much Holier for you. All religion is rooted in some form of order and the preservation of this order. It is not that order is not important to me; it is just that with the type of order this originates from, there can be no freedom.

I question everything. To me, that is only a natural thing to do. And yes, sometimes it is best that there be some form of preservation of order in place to ensure some protection and confidence of society. For example, I tend to be conservative in some of my views, which drives some people around me crazy. They can't understand how I support a regulated environment and "rule of law" with the supremacy of authority arising from competing forces of the executive, judiciary and legislature. The key word for me here is 'competing'. As each of these forces and centres of power evolve and 'dialogue' as one might mildly say, progress is initiated. We become concerned about the environment, but somehow don't want to pay the price of gas ... so somebody invents biofuels. Then we don't want to face the ultimate food crisis this may lead to, so somebody else is researching other alternatives ... so that perhaps, one day we may not be dependent on any fossil fuel for example but have a choice from a number of alternatives that through a strange form of market competition, can both keep their prices in check and protect the interests of the environment at the same time.

I look to evolution of technology and the constant conflict arising from Karl Popper's analysis of how scientific questions are asked and answered and how the answer may not necessarily be the same one next year as it is this year. All progress in this direction is based on the hypothesis, testing and replication of experimentation and keen skills of observation. I don't believe in doomsday. I believe that since the origin of human kind, there was always a crisis in the making, whether that crisis be the invention of fire (and the subsequent struggle and final success in learning how to control it), hunting and gathering of animals in the wild (and the very risk that we ourselves can become prey just the same), the discovery and conquering of many diseases (and subsequent discovery and elimination or amelioration of the same by vaccine or other means), the destruction of our environment (and the growing technology that is becoming more based on renewable resources), as well as other incidents -- which have always been unintended consequences of earlier discoveries and "cures". As humankind is imperfect, it is always going to struggle. Our struggles will only be different at one point of time to the next, where for awhile there may appear to be no solution other then pending apocalypse for the faithful (until some genius finds a new trick that will deal with the pending disaster).

However, some religious folks don't like the idea of there always being a crisis. They fear a crisis because a crisis represents the very dissolution of order that they try so hard to maintain. In the 1930's, nobody could ever imagine, for example, how almost every home in the western world is inhabited by at least one PC. Nobody really knew what a PC was or could even imagine what power and authority it could represent. Some religious folks point to the huge generation of knowledge and how it has geometrically grown in the past hundred or so years ... but these folks are only thinking from our generation. They did not think the way people did in 4 BC, for example, and try to imagine what life would be like in 1400 AD (where in fact knowledge has also geometrically increased) The invention of the printing press has opened a brand new world that never existed before that. We hear of people talk about the horrible and evil things lurking in our society and how much they claim this has not been the case before ... the fact is, it always was the case. Because time moved on from a very primitive sphere where knowledge about the outside world was very limited to a time where knowledge expanded exponentially, we become more aware of these horrible things ... and in turn, because of the increased access to communication and media devices, people with these horrible ideas are in a greater position to communicate them to others.

Even if we went back to Biblical times, there were very horrible people living back then. What about King Herod who issued a decree to kill all babies under two in the country? How about the one of two references given to birthdays in the Bible where the head of John the Baptist was offered on a plate? How about the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah? How about the folks that dared pollute the church with the engagement of the money changers? Further, Jesus was said at the time to be surrounded by prostitutes, thieves and other criminals - all living among those at the time who were more saintly. Times haven't changed much; our way of communicating information or receiving information about these issues has. I don't think human kind is going to figure out how to become less sinful and greedy; however, societal problems will all eventually be dealt with through the efforts of individuals or groups of individuals that can develop better technology or ideas. An example of this is the "discovery" and present status of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). When it was first discovered, it appeared in a cluster of gay men in a particular community and later spread to other communities, even across continents. The causes or transmission of AIDS was soon discovered and while it started out as almost always deadly and fatal within a few years at most, it has now been developed into a chronic disease that is treatable. We are on the way to finding a vaccine where it may be possible to even eliminate AIDS. Yes, new diseases will appear ... but we've been afflicted that way throughout all of history ... the Black Plague, Yellow Fever, Tuberculous, Small Pox, Polio ... all busted.

It is perhaps my own system of beliefs that keep me actively interested. I also believe that we have to be active politically to ensure there is progress in the structures we consider important in our society. If we decide not to vote, for example, or just avoid politics (because nothing will ever change), we will fulfil that prediction by not acting and for sure, nothing changes. We did not always have the "rule of law". Remember such historical events as the Crusades, the Holocaust, various wars over the ages ... and the fact that slavery of Blacks was once considered an acceptable part of Christian society in the U.S. and parts of Canada ... and only half a century ago, it was okay to annihilate whole populations of people on the basis that they were "life unworthy of life". These ideas were put forth and accepted by the world religions, not opposed. To me, we have to ask questions and keep right on asking them and take NOTHING on faith ... because I know where faith can sometimes lead.

We all know what road was paved with good intentions. My good intention however is to keep right on asking.

1 comment:

anarchris said...

your understanding of 'faith' seems to be 'believe in a belief that something is true when you don't have reason to believe it or when there's reason to believe otherwise'. certainly there are too many who understand 'faith' this way. in deed, unbeknownst to yourself,you are guilty of this approach as well when you write that we have and therefore will 'discover' ways of solving problems/diseases. is this not an act of 'faith'? "i believe we will" even though you don't know that for a fact you will base your life and decisions on that hope that may or may not come true. if it is not true, there will be dire consequences and you realize that yet you do so just the same. are you so different from those you believe are asking you to blindly believe without question?
consider that faith does not require mindlessness and unquestioning loyalty to contradictory claims. faith is a state of being that can be 'discovered' and rediscovered only after the mind is satisfied that the mind cannot perceive the truth, that language cannot recreate reality, that the senses cannot observe life. go ahead and question everything including your 'equipment's' ability to answer questions. the medium is the message and if our senses/mind and language are the medium they may have a nature or modus operandi that prevents them from recreating the truth, reality- yourself. you may be a good lawyer but that doesn't necessarily make you a good philosopher or even historian about what the prophets were trying to tell people. don't judge the master by their disciples but the follower by their leader.