Thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself 

Of all the stories with which to regulate our lives, why not choose the one that inflicts the least damage on other people? The problem with most deeply held faith is that it requires of its adherents that they view their particular solution to the puzzle of life as the only valid one. Apart from the arrogance of such an assumption, there is an implied belief that one therefore has the right to impose one's answers on others.

In its most joyful form, this urge to proselytize becomes an effort to "share the good news" of salvation. The advantage of this approach, from the point of view of society at large, is that those not interested can change the channel; no one is required to listen. Unfortunately, people who are filled with the Holy Spirit are seldom satisfied simply to persuade. Sooner or later the urge to coerce others into listening begins to surface. Thus they have the need to inflict public, sectarian prayer on students; or the requirement to begin athletic contests and graduations by invoking Jesus; or the absolute necessity of having "under God" included in the great secular religion that is patriotism.

But even if we all were only bullied into listening to the public prayers of the faithful (Why, one wonders, does an omnipotent God require such frequent praise?) things would not be intolerable. But, of course, words are not enough. If one is privy to the revealed truth, those who will not listen must be forced to conform to the word of God. It is not enough that the benighted lose their souls; they must first lose their right to live according to their own lights.

The theme that runs through any coercive fundamentalist belief, whether it is in the God of Islam or the divinity of Jesus, it is that ultimately we must correspond our social and governmental structures to the dogma of the Koran or the Bible (as interpreted by the true believers). The Taliban in Afghanistan and the mullahs in Iran have given us a glimpse of what such a society, one in which the church IS the state, looks like.

The element that all such societies have in common is the rule of fear and a fondness for the death penalty to deal with heretics and unbelievers. Note that our own fundamentalists are inordinately fond of punishment, whether corporal or capital. They also are fearful, of those who are gay, of liberal elites plotting to take their Bibles from them, of a wrathful God, ready to send them to hell if they transgress. I find it hard to believe somehow that a Christian theocracy (toward which we seem to be moving) would be any more palatable than an Islamic one.

The essence of democracy is freedom of choice, the choice to live one's life as one pleases as long as it does not intrude on the rights of others. The core of fundamentalist belief, however, is limitation of choice. ("Thou shalt not ...") Not for the faithful are the gray areas of moral relativism that they deplore in "secular humanism." They insist on the moral absolutes expressed in their particular and literal interpretation of the Bible. And they are inordinately fond of war as a means of settling arguments. To characterize each war as a "battle for freedom" dignifies the undertaking and sounds better than calling it a crusade.

I am a member of an organization made up of veterans of Vietnam who served in the 11th Armored Cavalry. In the latest newsletter, the born-again chaplain of the organization recalled the aftermath of an action in 1969 as follows: "In the morning our guys policed up 248 Gook bodies in the wire." He goes on to wonder what the "bad Iraqis" are called by the warriors of another generation, presumably to dehumanize them so that they can be killed without guilt. I wonder that we have learned so little over the 30 years since our last defeat by "insurgents" whose country we chose to occupy.

In the long history of mankind, there have been many stories to explain the origin and purpose of life, to comfort us in the face of the misfortune and unfairness that surround us, and to give us hope in the face of the death that is our common fate. That our disagreements about these stories have produced so much conflict and destruction suggests the need for a different approach. I long for the emergence of a faith whose core doctrine bespeaks humility and tolerance and whose guiding commandment is: "Thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself."

-- Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate who served as an Army doctor in Vietnam. He became an anti-war activist and is now a psychiatrist in Columbia, Md.


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