Is freedom a religious or secular idea?

Paula Kirby has written a fabulous and thought provoking article in Today’s Washington Post. Paula, like myself, is a former Christian, so she can view this from all sides. Here is how it starts …

Is freedom a religious idea? As John McEnroe would have said, “You cannot be serious.”

If you value freedom, you should flee from religion as the antelope flees the lion. Religion is the very antithesis of freedom, insisting on our complete subjugation to the unachievable demands of an invisible but supremely powerful overlord. Think of Islam, whose very name means ‘submission’! Think of Christianity, which claims it is disobedience that brought original sin into the world, with all that entails in terms of suffering and injustice and even earthquakes and tsunamis. Imagine! To claim that human obedience is so imperative that the purposes of an omnipotent deity and the very fabric of the planet, if not the whole universe, depend upon it and can be catastrophically disrupted at the first whiff of rebellion – and then to claim that such a religion is the source of human freedom!

The Abrahamic god even enthusiastically endorses the vilest of all negations of freedom: slavery. In Leviticus 25, there is a direct quote from this supposedly perfect deity, specifically permitting the Israelites to take and keep slaves, the only proviso being that they must be from the neighboring tribes and not from their own people. Straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, and hardly a shining example of freedom as a religious ideal.

Religion delights in petty rules and the exercise of power over its followers. What theistic religion does not attempt to curtail believers’ freedom with nonsensical decrees about foods that may or may not be eaten, fibers that may or may not be worn, days on which they may or may not work, coverings that must or must not be worn on their heads, books that must or must not be read, images that may or may not be created, words that may or may not be spoken, ideas they may or may not explore, actions they may or may not perform, rituals – whether physical or symbolic – they must perform in order to cleanse themselves of impurities of religion’s own invention?

There is no aspect of our lives, no matter how intimate, which religion does not unblushingly insist on its right to control. Whom we may love, whom we may desire, with whom we may physically express those feelings: in such restrictions on our freedom religion is at its most insistent and intrusive. But it does not stop even here, for religion does not limit its control to our deeds or even words: no, the invisible Thought Police of religion do not scruple to pursue us even into the innermost recesses of our minds and there to stand ready to condemn us for our very thoughts. Not even the most heinous ruler or most brutal slave-owner ever achieved such extremes of tyranny; yet religion grants us no privacy, nowhere to hide, no freedom to entertain even a fleeting thought without its being immediately known to – and judged by – a cosmic dictator. Religion is the ultimate slavery: it is the slavery of the mind, slavery to the fear of divine judgment and damnation. The devilish irony consists in the fact that ‘divine judgment’ and ‘damnation’ are themselves the inventions of religion: religion creates and exquisitely perfects the fear, then cynically declares itself the sole and indispensable liberator from it.

The rest of the article is here. I encourage you to read it, its well worth taking the time to do so (at least it was for me, I suspect some believers might not agree).

While she may not win friends among believers, folks like myself truly applaud this. I found it to be quite accurate. My time as a rabid speaking-in-tongues fully fledged fundamentalist wing-nut allows me to observe that what she says is quite correct. (As a side note, I’m better now, I managed to think my way out of it … it took time, but I got out).

As I think back, the church had elders and a leadership that you were expected to respect and obey. What the pastor said was the final word on any matter. Freedom did not exist as normal people would understand it. It was not as bad as some, but not all that great either. Yet, when inside, I would have defended any criticism, and justified and rationalized the setup as God’s way of doing things.

The stark reality was that those in charge were on a power trip, some strove to do what they thought best, oblivious to the harm they caused to many lives, others actually abused their positions of trust (it was seeing that reality and coming to terms with it that enabled me to start questioning what was going on)

People should of course be free to believe whatever they wish. In many ways, I knew what I was getting into and bought into the ideas. Yet, I’m also conscious that if permitted to do so, the believers I mixed with would have very much liked to impose their beliefs on others who did not hold the same beliefs.

Paula’s point hits the nail spot on … if you permit religions to impose their values, they will rush in to do so.  If any culture is to have freedom, then complete separation of church and state must at all costs be maintained, not to do so is a road that rapidly leads to a religious dictatorship. But then Paula puts it so well …

True freedom requires us to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of religion as well as from the tyranny of brutal earthly regimes. True freedom involves the freedom to think, to explore, to grow; the freedom to pursue knowledge and learning, wherever they lead; the freedom to be different, not to conform; freedom from bigotry; freedom from ignorance; freedom to love and to express that love as we choose; freedom to be ourselves, to accept ourselves, warts and all, and to accept others on the same terms; freedom to choose our own meaning and purpose in life, and to make our own decisions on the basis of those free choices; freedom to make mistakes; freedom to change our mind; freedom from fear, especially from phoney fears invented by those whose only aim is to control us in word, thought and deed.

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