Thursday, 31 July 2008

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Religious Toleration in Athens

What to do with religion in the public square? It is a vexing question. However, in recent years post-Christian Athens has adopted a remarkably similar position around the globe. The following principles are attract pretty much universal adherence in the City of Unbelief.

1. Civic religion is not only inescapable, it is a necessary good. All human beings, and all human enterprise is ennobled if we baptise them with an appeal to a higher power and dignity. Thus law courts, schools, parliaments and civic occasions are endowed with a greater gravitas and dignity if civil society is able to invoke a higher power to bless them. Religious ritual has an important place.

2. Thus prayers to the deity or deities are acceptable, provided the invocation reflects Athens's doctrine of society itself, which is one of universal human rights and inclusion. The whole idea, therefore, is that civil religion is extremely useful if it genuflects to the higher secular religion of Athens, which is that Man is the universal.

All religious expression in the civic square must therefore be inclusive of all men. It must be sufficiently vague and malleable to allow all groups and religions to attribute their own distinct beliefs to the being invoked, so that all are recognised and all are included. Thus, addressing the deity as “god” is useful, because that three letter word can be filled with whatever content, allowing each religion or philosophy to partake in the civic religious exercise. The god might be Pure Reason, or Pure Being, or Allah, or Jehovah, or Zeus. In the end, that is unimportant.

What is really important is that provided all can be included, when we take oaths and vows in the name of this god, and we invoke this god in our civic ceremonies, we are really glorifying and dignifying our liberal inclusive modern Athenian society. We are deifying it and granting modern secular society itself with the attributes of deity. The invocations to the gods are mere formal, warranting concepts to reflect greater glory upon the City of Unbelief.

3. Public prayers and religious exercises which invoke a specific religion are verboten. Thus, civic prayers in the name of Jesus Christ are forbidden because they are exclusive. No non-Christian could participate in good conscience; nor are they represented in the invocation—thereby, any invocation in the Name of Jesus would undermines the fundamental religion of Athens which promulgates the equality, and therefore inclusion, of all men.

For example, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in the United States recently ruled that city councils can properly prohibit all civic prayers in the Name of Jesus Christ because: “The restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to people who come from a variety of backgrounds, not to exclude or disparage a particular faith.” (Read more.) The quotation is from the decision, written by Sandra Day O'Connor, former Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

4. Reverse discrimination and special rights, however, can be attributed to those religions that are held by those who are regarded as being oppressed, downtrodden or disadvantaged. Now, we need to be careful here. Athens, you remember, is interested only in the religion of the State, of the ultimacy of corporate man. It will tolerate a pluriformity of religions, provided all religions tolerate one another, and provided all acknowledge the overlord status of the secular state. Thus, like Rome of old, modern Athens wants all citizens, regardless of their religion, to confess that above and beyond all, “Caesar is Lord.” If they do that, then their religion is approved and tolerated.

But there are some religions that don't. One of the most militantly intolerant is Islam. Nevertheless, modern Athens finds itself willing to do all that it can to accommodate Islam. Since Islam represents, at least on the surface, a denial of the civic religion of Athens, the question is begged as to why this official accommodation and tolerance exists.

The reason lies in an attitude egregious paternalistic superiority that flows through the streets of Athens. It is a hangover from Marx, Engels and the Fabian Socialists. If a culture is regarded as superstitious or ignorant or poor or “disadvantaged” then Athens will treat the culture or religion as immature and childish and will seek to extend protection and indulgence to it, in the same way that a parent indulges a child, believing that in time it will grow out of its childishness. In the meantime, let the child have his childish fancies.

In such cases, the role Athens systematically adopts is one of defender and protector. Just as every child need protection from bullies, so Athens sees it has a duty to defend such childish beliefs against criticism from others. It quickly brands such criticism as divisive, or hate speech, or phobic (as, for example, in, islamophobic). When Islamists engage in criticism of others it is not regarded in turn as anti-Semitic or Christophobic. The first response of Athens is to smile indulgently and say, effectively, well children will be children. They will grow out of it.

In New Zealand we find another example. The Maori have long been regarded with a pernicious paternalistic eye. Traditional Maori animistic religion has now come to be welcomed and especially protected and promoted as part of the civic religion of Athens in New Zealand. No public building can be opened without Maori performing religious idolatries and incantations. Public works have to go through protocols to appease the spirits.

Why the indulgence of such animistic idolatry? Well, precisely because it is an indulgence. It is a paternalistic toleration of ignorance because Maori are regarded as oppressed and disadvantaged. The religions of the disadvantaged are welcomed in the public square—even though no-one else can join in or participate—because in the end we all know Maori will eventually grow up and stop such childish practices.

Thus, when a new highway was crossing a swamp where the local Maori believed a taniwha dwelt, offerings of money had to be made to appease the evil spirit. Athenian officialdom kept a straight face through it all, muttering about the need to be culturally sensitive, by which they meant the need to be paternalistic and indulgent.

Jerusalem, for its part, has seen it all before. Its confession is, Christ Jesus is Lord of all. Jerusalem, when its citizens are thinking properly, will have nothing to do with the secular civic religion of Athens. It will not participate in invocations to amorphous gods. It will not enter into the religious displays or services of the modern Athenian state. It rejects civil religion and will not participate in it. It will not declare “Caesar is Lord” so as to win acceptance and toleration.

Its exclusive loyalty to the Lord Jesus means that it regards all other religions as idolatries which leave people outside the heavenly City. But at the same time it seeks to do good to all men as it has opportunity. The stranger and the exile are welcome—but only as they lay down their idolatries at the door. They may pick them up again when they leave and go outside, but not while they are under our roofs and at our tables.

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