Religion: Silence Is Not Tolerance

The Christian radio station is a surprisingly good listen when RnB, electro-synth pop, and dubstep take over the radio waves at 2am on Saturday morning. Half-speaking, half-shouting in a thick Jewish accent, a preacher declares, “Many people seem offended when I ask about their beliefs. They say ‘oh my beliefs are private!’ Really? Are your beliefs so private they do not exist?”

According to the 2011 Census, 68% of Australians identify as having a religion. However, the lack of religious reference and discussion in public life indicates either the number of people identifying with a religion is in fact much lower, or those that identify keep their beliefs private. My initial thought in response to the preacher, and in response to the well-guarded beliefs of Australians was that keeping religion to oneself is a good thing. Religion is a highly personal topic, and when discussed often results in awkward conversations, people thinking you’re ‘uncool’, and, at worst, conflict. Looking back, this type of thinking is a reflection of the widely held antagonism in response to religion. Religion is not spoken about because it is an unwelcome topic. But the rejection of religion in public discourse denies the identity of believers, precisely because religion is so personal.

As society becomes more tolerant of cultural diversity (admittedly we are not completely there yet), we are reluctant to embrace different religious beliefs. Religious antagonism does not manifest in the burning of the Bible, Qur’an, Torah, the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, or religious persecution that causes people to flee as refugees; religious hostility is ingrained in snide remarks and throwaway comments condemning religion. Other than religious insults, religion is only mentioned in society through the religious ranting of those that, God forbid, try to force their beliefs upon others. Placid comments about going to a place of worship, feeling good about your beliefs on a given day, or wanting to explore spirituality are rarely heard.

There are a number of reasons religion is unspeakable. Religion is often presumed to cause conflict, if not in the physical, worldly sense, then among family and friends. It is better to avoid mentioning religion to maintain political correctness. An ANU Compliment written mid-June praises the efforts of those that maintain this political correctness. Written in good faith, the author respects those “who don’t believe in any religion but respect others who are religious, and people who are religious but keep their beliefs to themselves and don’t questionothers”. Great. It’s good to be respectful, but I take issue with the idea that beliefs must be kept to oneself. If we really respected each other’s beliefs, people would not need to keep their beliefs silent. Respect for religion seems to mean nothing more than ignoring that religious beliefs exist.

If political correctness is meant to reduce discrimination, ignoring religion in the name of respect is the opposite. Religion is the personal belief of an individual that contributes to whothey are as a person. A society which “respects” religion by disregarding it takes the freedom of speech away from people whose religion play an important part in their lives. This is not tosay there are no brave individuals that publicly and harmlessly talk about their beliefs. But if it is only the brave that can speak about their beliefs, we need to rethink how free and fair oursociety really is.

Along similar lines to the political correctness argument, people are silent about religion because of specific negative associations of religion and the potential for these to spark strongfeeling. For example, the idea that religion causes conflict is an incredibly divisive remark. If you are a Muslim, your views about religion and conflict will undoubtedly differ from a Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, a non-religious person, or someone who is interested in currentaffairs. My view is that it is not religion per se that causes conflict, but it is human pride that makes it difficult to cope with others who are different, or those that perceive the activities of others as a threats to their own – a kind of ethnocentrism.

Religion has also been associated with heinous acts throughout history and to this day.

Recently, for example, the Sydney riot in response to the film the Innocence of Muslims late last year was carried out by a Muslim crowd. The sex-abuse scandals centering around the Catholic clergy is another example. Acts such as these mar the name of religion. However, the institution of religion and the way it is carried out should be distinguished. Muslim leaders were quick to condemn the riot and to reiterate that the reaction was not in line with the teachings Islam. Although the people involved in this incident were Muslim, it does not mean every Muslim person is violently unreasonable. Similarly, not all Catholic people are paedophiles. These acts are committed by people, not religion.

Misrepresentation occurs at smaller scales as well. Individuals who misrepresent religion are almost always vocal about it, and that again perpetuates negative connotations.

Finally, there are the arguments of scientific rationality proving God does not exist or that religion is for the weak, or that religion is not relevant to the modern age, restricting religion in public life. Without condemning these beliefs, they are value judgements and subjective beliefs of non-religious people. It is only fair that people with religious beliefs be allowed to have the same freedom to express themselves as well.

In the past, religion and politics were two topics never mentioned at the dinner table. How this has changed. For some, politics is now a frequent dinner conversation. We are urged by politicians, leaders, educators and activists to be involved in political discussion. Although race is not an ideal dinner table topic either, society is encouraged to have a conversation about race and multiculturalism. Yet religion remains taboo. I am not advocating large scale discussions about religious freedom, but I do think we need to tolerate and respect religion in a way we have not done before.

I look forward to a society where one person can say they went to church on the weekend and it centered them for the week, or they read their Qu’ran before uni; and for another person to accept it without question or criticism. Without this freedom of expression, we deny the fundamental aspects of life that so many in our society ascribe to.