16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Is There Freedom in Faith?
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 05/07/2006
My favorite walk lately is walking around this small reservoir near my house. The other day as I was walking my big furry dog, Sam, we saw some geese gliding by on the lake. Well, we didn’t see them at first, we heard them. They saw us or smelled us, and particularly they noticed Sam, I think, for they began a series of loud braying calls. They seemed to be warning calls. And then, around the next bend in a protected corner of the lake, a mother goose and her baby goslings were slowly taking off from the shore, the mother nosing her babies out into the water, out of danger. The male geese had been warning the mother goose that danger was coming in the form of a large furry dog and a person and they needed to move away from the shore quickly. The mother goose heeded this warning and protected her babies.
Now was this warning necessary? Some of you have met my dog Sam and you’ll know that he is just about the friendliest dog you ever met. I suppose there’s still some instinct in him to chase prey. But, how often in the experience of these geese have they actually been attacked by dogs or humans? Sometimes my dog will go toward them to see them better. And some dogs might actually bark at them. But I haven’t actually heard about a hunter dog catching a goose in his mouth and killing it. Maybe Keith Hamilton will tell us later that this does happen. But I think it must be a rare occurrence.
But fear of a species that has traditionally been an enemy to another species is biologically innate. These geese are born with a fear reaction to dogs and people. Thousands of years of being prey to these species has made their very instincts keyed to protecting themselves from these other species.
I think fear is an emotion that is bred in all species as a protective device. Fear causes the fight or flight reaction that we hear about from pyschologists. When we see something that we don’t understand or don’t know about or see something that is very different from us, we often have a biological reaction of fear. This protects species and makes them successfully procreate.
However, there are often fear reactions that are thousands of years old that no longer make any rational sense. And I think that religious intolerance is one of them.
People who have been taught from an early age that there is only one truth and that is the truth defined by their religion are often also taught that other people’s truths are wrong and dangerous. In fact, these other truths are so dangerous that the people who believe them must be opposed and perhaps even eliminated to prevent the falsehoods from being propagated.
Almost all of the major religions have had times in their history when they have persecuted people of other faiths. Christianity certainly contains its share of horrific persecutions against people of other faiths or even holding slightly different beliefs from their own.
The Holy Inquisition began in 1184 under Pope Lucius III and the first people targeted were the Cathars, a devout Christian sect that believed in an ascetic monk-like existence. These devotees lived scrupulous lives fasting, observing strict celibacy, and renouncing personal wealth. But despite all these virtues, they were seen as heretics because they were different. They happened to believe that the material world had been invented by Satan. And for this unusual belief, they were subjected to torture and burnings by the Church. These practices were encouraged by the decree that the person turning in the heretic would split the material wealth left by the convicted and burned heretic. The Dominican order itself was famous for routing out these horrible sinners who prayed too much, fasted too much, and didn’t believe quite right.
Saint Augustine, in the fourth century, adopted the cultural practice of torture that local officials used, to be applied also to breaking ecclesiastical laws. Torture was often used in that time to try to extract confessions from sinners. It was extremely successful at getting these confessions.
The Christian Church also persecuted witches and Jews among others. Stories are told of women who were considered odd or different in a village. These women might be accused of being witches and were tried and burned. The interesting thing is that these weren’t people who were practicing what we might call “witchcraft” or Wiccan practices. These were often just women who seemed to have strange personalities or special knowledge about herbs or medicine and this power that they held was seen as threatening to the men in authority in the town. One account tells of an old woman who was seen muttering to herself one day as she trudged her way home. Later in the day, a terrible thunderstorm ended a village celebration. The woman was seized and accused of causing the thunderstorm through her witchcraft. She was tortured until she confessed which allowed the town elders to sentence her to a death of slow burning. (Harris, Sam, The End of Faith, p. 88)
Again, we see this fear of otherness at work in a species. When we are threatened by others who are different, maybe even special, we fear them and want to destroy them. These fears and resultant intolerant behavior becomes part and parcel of many cultural practices and religious dogma.
Sam Harris, in his book, The End of Faith, postulates that it is the very nature of faith itself that breeds this contemptible disregard for human life because the nature of faith is irrational. He believes that all faiths that contain religious dogma cannot be seen as tolerant of other faiths because their faith statements alone only allow for one truth. Harris warns us that allowing ourselves a “moderate” tolerant view about the faith of others will bring about the destruction of the world because he thinks that sooner or later the righteousness of one faith will set out to destroy others.
Harris believes that it is the nature of the Islamic faith to destroy all other non-believers and therefore we must oppose Islam itself. Harris believes that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.” (Harris, Sam, End of Faith, p. 223) In his book, he quotes pages of Koran texts that point to the belief that God hates infidels and wishes them dead. Some of these passages suggest that dying for God in the “holy war” will be rewarded. “If you should die or be slain in the cause of God, God’s forgiveness and His mercy would surely be better than all the riches they amass.” (3:169)
He admits that the Koran also warns believers against suicide but counters this with saying that the Koran allows for violence and suicide in the name of self defense for believers. And he reminds us that suicide bombers become worshipped martyrs for their faith with their families honored because of their actions. Harris points to a recent poll on global attitudes conducted by the Pew Research Center. The poll posed a question to Muslims about whether violence was ever justified against civilian targets in order to defend Islam from its enemies. The results were reported by countries. And the results are pretty horrifying. In Lebanon, several Eygptian countries, and Pakistan, there was at least 50 percent of the responders who felt such violence was justified.
Harris blames the Islamic religion for such views. He discounts centuries of political and social repression of Muslims by Western countries. He discounts a culture that is founded on tribalism and continues to be caught in a culture of personal survival. He doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as “moderate” Islamic belief because he says that the religion is founded on violence itself.
Another writer who warns Western civilization about the threat of Islamic aggression is Samuel Huntington. He sees a “clash of civilizations” occurring between the Muslims of the world and the Western civilizations. However, Huntington stresses the cultural similarities that Islamic peoples find that they have in common. He says, “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture, and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” He is speaking not of the religion itself but of the culture, language, and religious practices that make up what he names as a “civilization”. He emphasizes the cultural “commonality” that makes Islam an economic and political power that could unite against Western culture in an unholy war.
Both of these writers see the world with a bipolar lens. They see the world as Us and Them. As people in tribes only see the differences between each other, not the similarities, this is how these writers view the world. As someone put it, “There’s two kinds of people in the world- those who see two different kinds of people and those who don’t.”
Author John Esposito reminds us that we live in “an increasingly, global, interdependent world” that has not only “competing interests” but also “common interests”. America’s pluralistic society today is an example of how diverse cultures and religions can come together to form a society with common goals that make room for these differences. Our national interests sometimes supersede the differences we may have with one another. And our common political and economic interests can sometimes allow us to find commonalities with other countries whose culture differs greatly from ours. Esposito reminds us that the three Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have a common grounding in a moral responsibility toward others.
The image of armies of aggressive militant Muslims marching to overtake the West is a flashback, Esposito suggests, of times during the Middle Ages when Europe underwent threats from invading Muslim armies. The Crusades history gives the West a fearful psychosis about the nature of Islam as a religion. In Europe, there has been a growing fear of Muslim immigration overtaking the population of Europeans. In 1994, when there was a large Mosque being built in France, it was initially opposed by many citizens who saw it as a “breeding ground for extremists”. However, shortly after its opening, it became clear that the mosque leaders were interested in being leaders in moderation and reconciliation between cultures. (Esposito, John,The Islamic Threat, p. 237)
Lately, we have been hearing about the fear some have in this country about immigrants taking over our country and having access to jobs that “Americans” could hold. One wonders is this a fear based on tribalism? Many American citizens whose grandparents were immigrants from Ireland, Germany, England, or Russia cannot see that the immigrants from other cultures and nations have a right to become a part of this great “melting pot”. Especially people who have been here already for generations and have already been contributing to our country in various ways. Fear about “letting in” people who are different from us seems to be a universal tribal sense.
Sam Harris’ postulation is that what we must oppose is faith- in general. He tells us that religious beliefs are irrational and therefore ignorant and will lead to global warfare because these belief systems force their devotees to violent acts. He makes a very good case for it based on all the historical evidence provided by religious sects that have used violence to advance their beliefs. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus have all used their religion as a good excuse to advance militant causes and persecute others. I’m sure Buddhists have done it, too, although I’m not aware of it.
However, neither Unitarians nor Universalists have used their faith to persecute others with different beliefs. The nature of these two faiths have been based on some very different worldviews. These two faiths have believed one) that God is loving and loves all people whatever beliefs they hold and two) that people are inherently good and their lives have worth.
So, we have religions who perpetuate hatred and persecution based on a belief that there is only one truth and their people own it exclusively. These religions come with a whole set of cultural assumptions based around tribalism. They are exclusive in nature and believe that there is a higher power that will choose only those who follow a proscribed path. They use their religious teachings for political power and add their cultural trappings to enforce lifestyles on peoples within their power.
And then there are people who denounce faith in general as irrational and dangerous since it can lead people to the kind of acts that have been used in the name of religion to harm and kill others. I see a kind of arrogance in this position because there is no respect inherent in believing that faith is a drug that overwhelms people and makes them do irrational things. Certainly, it is true that there is violence in the world that is perpetrated in the name of religion. But that doesn’t mean that faith is inherently dangerous and irrational.
Faith is individual and how one uses one’s faith depends solely on the character and psychological make up of the individual. As James Luther Adams tells us, “We have no choice but to be free in the choice of our faith.” And he says that we have a responsibility in how we use our faith. If people choose to use their faith to torture and kill others, then that says something about their psychology, their upbringing, and their very nature. Texts from religions are often quoted as the impetus behind the violence. You can certainly find disturbing violent scripture in almost any religion. These texts were written during very violent periods of history. But I don’t think you can blame the religion for the acts committed by individuals. People must take responsibility for their own actions and their choices in faith.
Often Unitarian-Universalists are accused of not having any faith. We certainly see reason and liberty as cornerstones of our religious movement. But using reason does not mean that you can’t have faith.
I believe that I have faith. My faith has to do with a belief in a universe that operates within a powerful energy system that you could call love if you had no other name for it. My faith allows me to believe and have hope for the history of this planet. And for the history of this country, even in hard times like these. My faith allows me to have hope that human beings will discover that we can live in peaceful co-existence. That we don’t have to have power over one another but can allow others to believe what they want, and live the way they want. I know many of you share this faith with me.
I do not believe that faith is dangerous. Instead I think that faith is necessary to survive in this world. If you have no faith, I think it must be difficult to have hope. Hope for this world is possibly an irrational belief, some would say.
Another cornerstone of our religion is tolerance for other faiths. Starting in 1538, when King John Sigusmund declared that the country of Transylvania was Unitarian, but that each citizen was free to worship as he/she believed, we have been a religion demonstrating religious tolerance. We will continue to demonstrate this respect and tolerance for other’s religions by not allowing fear to be used in the persecution of others’ faith.
While fear is a powerful motivator that causes people to distrust one another, we cannot be overcome by fear. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We must overcome the fears that we hear echoing around us as people create stronger barriers to keep immigrants out, make more laws that restrict our civil liberties, and use religion to influence government. These restrictive actions are based in fear. Using our faith, we will continue to demonstrate a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.