Freedom of religious practice….respecting the rights of others

I once gave a talk on ‘the permissive society’ at a Day Centre for the elderly, having completed my unusually erudite and intermittently witty spiel,  I was at a total loss to respond to a woman who – without a hint of irony – complained about permissiveness on television: ‘I think it’s terrible,’ she said ‘the way young girls have sex stuffed down their throats!’

With the polarisation of society, it might have been more apt if she’d expressed concern about religion being stuffed down throats. Of course, that was not the topic, but it might have been – and there is a connection to permissiveness – or more properly, greater openness and tolerance in society. There has been a backlash from some with strong religious views – and others who have suddenly developed such views.

Whether this entails wearing a burka or niquab, a sheitel or headscarf, there has been greater polarisation between those with strong religious beliefs – and those without. Sometimes, I feel religion is used as a crutch to seduce the vulnerable and those at a low ebb; in the 1970’s in the USA I saw young people befriended on the streets of New York by followers of Sun Myung Moon and Scientologists, later, at a ‘Christ is the Answer’ presentation in a huge marquee in Washington DC, we were emotionally blackmailed by adherents, who asked us to stand up and give ourselves to Christ, whilst dramatic music was played over loudspeakers, anyone not standing at the end was made to feel like the devil incarnate.

Recent problems in the UK relate to Ofsted inspections of Muslim and Orthodox Jewish schools, where inspectors complained of historical texts being redacted and a failure to include in lessons details of gay and transsexual lives. Concerns were also expressed about safeguarding issues. Secular inspectors versus religious schools, an inevitable recipe for conflict. As with all things, common sense should prevail, schools should be allowed to follow their religious beliefs whilst ensuring pupils are safe and receive an excellent general education, with sensitive issues taught in a sensitive way.

A clearer example of religious intolerance arose recently, an El Al plane was delayed for an hour when two Orthodox Jewish men refused to sit next to women. Maybe they needed a lesson in the overriding requirement for mutual respect and good manners.

Many religious communities and groupings reject the liberal values of the West; yet they enjoy the lifestyle, healthcare, ability to travel and comforts of 21st Century living.

We must protect religious freedom and the right to worship – but we also have a duty to regulate society in order for all groups and individuals to live freely, as long as they obey the law and respect the rights of others. Freedom of religious practice should not be at the expense of others, it should be a role model for a pious, respectful life, not a recipe for conflict with non-believers.

The great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made a unique contribution to civilisation – the 10 Commandments, received by Moses – still form the backbone of the Judeo-Christian hegemony of Western society. But, let’s be honest, if any of those great prophets were able to return and see our world, they would have a great deal more to learn from us, than we, from them. That’s not to denigrate the vast contribution made by them – just imagine the very first thing that Moses would google: The Exodus? A hundred tasty recipes for manner from Heaven? Maybe, he would get hooked on Facebook or other social media, one of the things that binds us with our forebears is communication.

Religion is a roadmap that can point us in the direction of happiness and fulfilment, but reaching the destination is the objective, not obsessing with the way to get there.

Those unduly concerned with the minutiae of religious dogma, may smell the sweet aroma of what’s cooking, but are unlikely to actually get to taste it.

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