In viewing the Huffington Post entry Atheists Face Death Penalty In 13 Countries, Discrimination Around The World According To Freethought Report, I, of course, shared the concern of most readers about these most extreme violations of the principle of freedom of religion.
As a member of a faith whose history is filled with the persecution of its members by dominant, other faiths, I have to recognize that my personal freedom, in the modern age, is absolutely dependent on the advancement of this principle. If I relish this liberty and, even more so, find it morally correct, it is clearly mandatory upon me to also advance this principle as others face persecution, especially death, when a dominant faith wishes to impose its beliefs upon a minority. Freedom of religion must be a basic principle of any civilized society.
As I saw the video featuring Rev. Paul Raushenbush, Huffpost Senior Religion Editor, whereby he was expressing similar sentiments to my own, I began to wonder how this principle of freedom of religion, including tolerance towards atheists, actually connects with the religious viewpoint. I am a rabbi, a believer in an Omniscient Being. He is a minister, also a believer in God -- and both of us are effectively stating that one has a right not to share this belief. How does such a principle connect with the acceptance of the Deity?
In a certain way, the persecution of variant religious perspectives would actually seem to have a logical basis. If I believe in one understanding of God, one who accepts a different perspective is, effectively, challenging mine. This is even more so in the case of the atheist. Stated in a different way, such a person is essentially rejecting the very existence of the One Whom I believe to be the most significant and illustrious Being.
The non-believer, in what I believe to be true, is effectively declaring that the God in Whom I believe is not credible, that my whole perspective on reality is wrong. Is there any wonder why this would have initiated, throughout the ages, such vicious and hostile responses? We may wonder now, though, how one who maintains such strong beliefs in an understanding of the Deity could, in fact, still express tolerance to those who challenge this belief, so fundamental to one's evaluation of life and its meaning?
My personal answer to that question, developed within the framework of my faith system, Judaism, is built upon the recognition that the service of God relies on two principles. In one respect, a call on the human being is to simply serve God -- to follow Him, worship Him and obey Him. God, however, stated another directive to humanity -- to emulate Him -- and that demands the inclusion of free thought.
God, for want of a better description, thinks -- and for the human being to emulate the Deity, he/she must also, not only have the ability to think, but actually think -- make decisions, arrive at conclusions from thought. From such a viewpoint, life is not only about the conclusions but also about the process.
The knowledge of God is not obvious. This is because the self's very discovery of the Deity must be part of this process of thought that God evaluates so highly in the call to human beings, in the effort toward their own wholeness, to emulate Him. It is not surprising that the founder of Judaism, Abraham, specifically discovered God on his own, although Jewish thought declares that other monotheists who had this tradition from Noah, in fact, did exist in the same time period. The uniqueness of Abraham is that he found God; he came to the conclusion, from his own thoughts, of the Deity's Existence. To reach this milestone, to meet his specific challenge of thought that was demanded in his personal striving to emulate God, he had to travel a path of trial and error.
In order for Abraham to go on his journey of thoughtful discovery, he had to initially be born an idolater -- and so he was. He had to consider other possibilities in a universe of thought. In a similar vein, according to Jewish thought, Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses and a righteous individual, practised every form of idolatry before arriving at the conclusion of belief in the One God. This is not to say that, in order for all to meet the thoughtful goal of emulating God, all must travel similar paths of thought with such divergent stopovers. All, though, must be allowed to think.
It is from such a perspective that one can understand, from a religious perspective, the importance of free thought and the necessity for societies to allow for variant perceptions on God including atheism. It is only with the possibility for human beings to arrive at their own decisions that one can truly exercise one's ability to think. And it is only through the ability of one to exercise one's faculty of thought that one has the ability to emulate God.
This is the value of freedom of religion: to allow this possibility. Life is a process. We must allow for this process to flow to its fruition. This is God's intention in creating us, and our goal in building societies must be to foster this Divine intention. It is for this reason that I, as a religious person, strongly advocate for freedom of religion and decry these nations who persecute those who, in the process of thought, arrive at different perspectives.
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