Sunday, December 6, 2015

Pluralism requires work

This is a short speech I gave to the Lake Superior Freethinkers this morning. It's something we do before the main presentation. We call it the reflection.

I'm sure you all have been watching the news lately. We have Syrian refugees and terrorist bombings around the world and our own wonderful political reactions to it here at home. In looking for to help sort this out, I've found some impressive voices from people who call themselves progressive Muslims. Progressive religious voices fascinate me because I don't understand how they remain true to their specific religion while speaking so well on universal human rights. One of them is Irshad Manji. I watched her in an interview and one minute she was speaking about her right to openly identify herself as a lesbian and in the next she was expressing her love for Allah and her voice was cracking and her hand went to her heart.

What does this devoutly religious person have, to tell us, the people in this room? I also saw her respond to a conservative Imam, who asked her if she thought the Muslim community should change it's stance on gays. Her answer was "no", but she would like it if they stopped saying gay people should be killed. And she has the knowledge of the Quran to back up her stance on that. To bridge these seemingly unbridgeable groups, she placed the value of coexistence, that is, not killing each other, over a requirement that all Muslims completely accept her.

This is her version of freedom of religion.  In this country, we have freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to express the idea that religion should be eliminated. Or, short of that, the tax advantages it enjoys should be eliminated or closer scrutiny should be given to how children are taught religion. It includes the freedom to make jokes about religion. But people still have the right to call themselves whatever they want and claim their holy book means whatever they want it to. We're all free to do that, as long as it doesn't come into conflict with any other laws and rights.

Keeping this in mind is to everyone’s advantage. If you live by this rule, it is reasonable to ask others to do the same. You can challenge those who say, they are doing their religion “correctly” but those terrorists or those skin-heads are doing it wrong. This usually leads down a path where you find their "correct" version also has something you consider a human rights violation. But, you can avoid all that religious justification and go straight to the values of not harming innocent people.

This approach also opens us up to partner with people who are using ways of thinking we would normally not consider valid or reasonable. The author I mentioned has the challenge of being a Muslim in a Western country and within that she has the challenge of being a gay person within that community. For her, it is a double oppression. It is her very unique seemingly incompatible circumstances that fostered her ability to identify an approach to bridging them.She looked to the underlying value, what makes us human, not simply what makes her a Muslim.

I call these underlying values "liberal", but I'm not talking about "liberal" as in "voting for Bernie Sanders", I'm talking about the idea of liberal that grew out of the Peace treaties after the wars between the Protestants and Catholics, when the power of the Pope over most of Europe was taken away and people were allowed to think for themselves about what was right and wrong without the threat of a torture chamber. One of those values is recognizing when people are marginalized, discriminated against and oppressed. If you are in a position to do something about that, it benefits you and everyone else to do something. When you look at issues from that perspective, I believe you will find that people who call themselves Muslims or Christians and even people who call themselves Conservative, see the world in much the same way.

Now, I'd like to end on that high note, but I want to be clear that my rose colored glasses are off. I realize there are very few religious people who are reaching out to the rest of the world in the way I just described. I'm not suggesting that people here simply need to turn around and recognize that the world is full of tolerant, pluralistic, LGBTQ organizing regular folks who just happen to also like football and using hunting rifles in a responsible manner. I'm aware of how the world works. I'm suggesting the promotion of tolerance and pluralism is our responsibility and that it is work, work that requires self-reflection as much as it requires speaking up about what others are doing.

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