04/28/2013 11:21 EDT | Updated 06/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Can You Respect a Religion You Disagree With?

How can the adherent of any religion (or even the atheist) -- who believes that his faith (or lack thereof) defines the true reality and offers the correct perspective on what is ethically and morally correct -- even accept a value of freedom of religion when it permits behaviour that this person deems incorrect?

A statue of Jesus Christ on the cross can be seen at a Catholic church in Ouidah, Benin, on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013. Ouidah, considered the major cultural city in the West African nation of Benin, is preparing for its annual Voodoo Festival on Thursday. Voodoo is an official religion in this nation of 9 million people and this year's festival will honor the slaves taken from surrounding countries and sent into America and the Caribbean, people who brought the religion with them. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

In my last post, I implied that one of the reasons we may wish to perceive religious choices to be solely about methodology -- and not substantive theological and ethical concerns -- is because it is much more uncomplicated thereby to accept the value of freedom of religion. If differences in religious practices are simply matters of style -- how I do spirituality versus how you do spirituality -- it is much easier for people to tolerate, even defend, any diversities between them. We can declare that what we are really doing is ultimately the same -- pursuing the same goal -- just going about it a bit differently.

Religious intolerance can thereby be compared to golfers hating bowlers and bowlers hating golfers. They could still argue over which sport is better, golf or bowling, but, in the end, they must surely recognize that the issue is really one of personal choice. Viewing religion in the same light makes it similarly easier to accept religious diversity. One is just making a personal choice -- and I should be able to accept another's personal choice, especially as it need not impact upon me. I can easily, thereby, advocate for freedom of religion -- for people should be allowed to claim their own path.

What I presented, though, was a problem with this perspective as devout adherents of religions, especially more traditional ones, do not really view their faith in this manner. To them, religion deals with substantive matters and does clearly impact ethical concerns. One's practices and beliefs can, as such, extend beyond the personal and affect other individuals and the general society. It is the result of what one believes to be the true structure of reality. Adherence to a religion, for such individuals, does not mean that one is just embracing a specific way of doing spirituality. Religious belief defines life. By extension, it defines what is right and wrong -- and the adherent accepts this yardstick.

It is within this perspective that freedom of religion becomes something of a challenge. How can a devout adherent accept a value of freedom of religion for, thereby, he/she could be accepting someone doing something wrong? If Joe believes that a certain act is terribly immoral, how can he tolerate Bill's performance of this act? True, within Bill's religious perspective the act is not wrong -- but to Joe, the act is still immoral?

The essence of the value of freedom of religion is its demand for tolerance -- and it is easy to demand of the bowler to tolerate the golfer. When we, however, begin to recognize that religious distinctions can impact important, substantive issues, this demand for tolerance becomes much more difficult. The very call for tolerance itself, in such situations, may become an ethical challenge.

The fact is that freedom of religion as a value is already balanced with other values in our society. We do not let people do anything they may wish because their religion permits it, or even demands it, if this behaviour violates certain other values within our society. One of the most difficult areas of the law is the determination of which of our societal values should have precedence when one is in conflict with another.

This is a determination which must be made whenever freedom of religion collides with another societal value. In certain cases, freedom of religion has precedence and, in certain cases, it falls to the other value. How we are to make this determination, however, is not the issue that I am addressing. My question is: how can the adherent of any religion (or even the atheist) -- who believes that his faith (or lack thereof) defines the true reality and offers the correct perspective on what is ethically and morally correct -- even accept a value of freedom of religion when it permits behaviour that this person deems incorrect?

I believe that the answer lies in a corresponding value of doubt. Many people seem to believe that any expression of religious doubt reflects a moral weakness and poorly on the object of this belief. In simple terms, doubt is perceived to reflect badly on God. The fact is, though, that doubt, actually, is solely descriptive of a person, reflecting his/her lack of certainty. And this lack of certainty is really just the natural consequence of being human. God is the only One Who knows the complete truth. We, all human beings, are just struggling to gain some perception of what is really going on. We ultimately, though, do not fully know. Doubt reminds us of this, of our humanity.

In a certain way, it is doubt that may be the cornerstone of freedom of religion. To make decisions within life, one still has to act based upon one's perception of reality -- but there is also place for us to question ourselves. Encountering another with a different perception is one of those places. The call of freedom of religion is a call for tolerance, a call not to be judgmental -- for, while we may presently be arriving at different conclusions we are ultimately all struggling with the same difficulty -- trying to understand life. With humility in what we know, we can express tolerance.

This does not answer all the issues involved with freedom of religion. It may also raise new questions. If freedom of religions is to flow from our doubts, from the thoughtful recognition and reality of human frailty, how are we to relate to dogmatism, with its presentation of absolute surely? And to philosophies of life that attempt to gain adherence by blocking one from questioning? How can we express such freedom of religion to those who do not doubt, who do not express such a value to us?

In the same vein, it must be remembered that freedom of religion also empowers the individual. As much as it calls upon me to apply humility in tolerating another view, it also grants me the right and ability to follow my conscience and act pursuant to what I think is right.

This is actually the truth of the human condition. If we are too humble and too accepting of our inadequacies, we will never act, never take a step, never grow. We must rely upon our conclusions to go forward. If, though, we are too sure of ourselves, we will not give space to the other and not pause enough to question ourselves and change as is necessary. Life is a balancing act and freedom of religion brings this demand for balance into the public arena.

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