In all the discussion of freedom of speech because of the “Innocence of Muslims” video, and the resurgent disputes about Islam – which, if any, aspects of the religion are cause for concern, what in it deserving of regard – both the left’s and the right’s reflexive political positioning tend to overlook a deeper issue. People’s reactions to the politicized debate consistently reflect an unexamined piety that transcends any political divide, even that between the religious and the secular. That piety is the profession that people’s faiths, even if they are not shared, should at least be respected.
In what is considered to be civil discourse, it is usually only the atheist who will criticize doctrines of faith – transgress, that is, against the automatic acquiescence in respect for them. Yet permitting challenges to doctrines of faith to be identified with atheism lets the faith doctrines off the hook. Then, the challenge can be considered by others to function purely as a rejection of faith itself. The critique of a set of ideas is thus frequently overlooked by respondents, who come to the defense of religion in general.
Consider that what we mean by faith is both an activity of the spirit, a belief in something, and of the mind – the organized collection of ideas, symbols, metaphors, and narratives in which the person believes: the doctrine. It is reasonable enough to see the latter as the product of the former. There is a natural human drive toward meaning, with the desire for solace amid our existential mystery and dread. This drive creates out of the spiritual inclination to believe, in various forms and from various historical circumstances, the particular objects of belief: the various faith doctrines, both lesser and greater in the numbers of adherents to them. These doctrines, in turn, in answer to spiritual yearning, produce more of the former sense of faith: the activity of the spirit, as additional people are drawn to believe, to become adherents of an established faith. The doctrines of these faiths are generally total, all encompassing accounts of the world and our being in it, so that they are exclusive of other accounts, of other doctrines.
Historically, we well know, the presence of competing faiths has led to bitter, even greatly murderous conflict. It is currently so, in regions around the world. In response, in the increasing refinements of our civilization, liberal societies have sought to accommodate this multiplicity of mutually exclusive faith doctrines. Because the force of the human drive that produces them is so great, and the dread and the fearful mystery of that drive’s source so universal, a common bond, ironically, is created across these otherwise exclusive doctrinal divides. In our secular historical development toward social accommodation we have created, as an adjunct idea to various social accommodations, an ecumenical accommodation, as well – a kind of holy of holies that seeks to bring peace among all doctrines and between the religious and secular worlds. This meta-level faith-teaching affirms that all faiths are expressions of our deep need for connection with God and God’s love. Accordingly, all faiths are to be respected.
That is the piety. It is rejected by some numbers of religious fundamentalists and extremists, but we marginalize these rejectionists by those very labels we apply to them. It is also rejected by those atheists who, rather than simply lacking or rejecting faith for themselves, intellectually campaign on behalf of their atheism.
A Marxist will reject this principle of accommodation because Marxism is an atheism. However, most people on the political left, because of contemporary notions of tolerance for difference and esteem for diversity, will accept the principle. Most people on the right will accept it, too, particularly in the United States, because the principle is part of the mythos of the nation’s founding in religious toleration and freedom of worship. It is sometimes, too, part of a hard-earned accommodation by religious minorities that struggled to gain respect for their own faiths. However, it should be readily apparent, though it is an appearance mostly overlooked, that for the faithful of left, right, or middle, there is a buried source of potentially continued conflict beneath all of this accommodation – and this is the unaltered totality and exclusivity that persists in each religion’s individual doctrine. These unaltered claims to singularity and supremacy together are the unecumenical bomb in the theological armory whose fuse goes unlit – the Love (Kumbayah) that is actually not love (infidels!) that dare not speak its name.
For the more secular on the left – those whose spiritual inclinations are more casually directed in life – this unacknowledged conflict emerges in the contradiction between their general and profound commitment to reason and the unreason in the faiths to which these secularists offer so much privilege. In the ongoing and emotional conflicts over Islam, for instance, throughout the West and in the U.S., many on the left are quick – because they think the attacks from the right to be politically motivated, emotional, and exclusionary – to claim rejections of Islam to be acts of intolerance and bigotry. If one does not simply accept and assert that Islam is a religion of peace and love – because, according to the piety, all religions are doctrines of peace and love (hellfire and eternal damnation and historical subjugation of the Godless inferior or infidel notwithstanding) – then one commits a form of secular sin.
Jesus Christ’s declaration is “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But still, though Christianity be not your way, and your eternal soul be damned, and against much historical evidence, you must say it is a religion of peace and love, and you should respect it.
The rules for inclusion in the protected circle of this piety are not codified. Origins obscured by ancient history are beneficial. When reason did not rule, it seems more likely to many, the Creator would more likely have made His appearances in all sorts of now unbelievable ways. For some, the eighth century origins of Islam are a little less beatified by the ancient holy halo. Take it to the Mormon nineteenth century and golden tablets in upstate New York, and though considerable progress toward fallacious respect has been achieved, one can still cry “cult” and not be branded a bigot. If the faith is small enough, conventional of practice, and seeks no political role, respect in toleration is easily proffered.
There is every reason to offer this respect in mere toleration. This liberal ideal is purposeful and valuable. Until we all find our way to that truth that is the one way for all, or that permits, quite lucidly and coherently, all ways for one and all, it is the only way we can live in peace. But faiths will not always go to work, come home, and behind closed doors sup and keep to themselves. They will impinge on their neighbors. When they do, we need to consider religious doctrines as we would any other set of ideas, any other conduct, any other argument or claim about the nature of the world. There is no good reason – no reason at all – to treat religious faiths any differently, and nothing other than circular reasoning to argue that a nonbeliever should acknowledge any religious doctrine, far from sacred, as anything more than just another set of ideas. No faith, as a system of belief and a practice of living, is automatically deserving of respect just because others commit their lives and pray to it. Ideas, whatever label we affix to them, including that of faith, must earn our respect intellectually, as well as spiritually, and not be uncritically awarded it.