I sought to write out this entry because freedom and religion are concepts that frequently permeate my consciousness and the end result is always conflict. Rather than continuously allow my mind to swim in circles contemplating these doctrines of enormous complexity I realize the only way to come close to settling the debate is to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard I guess) and map everything out. Dawson Trotman said, “thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass through your fingertips.” I think he was right and what you read below is the outcome of that process. I’m not actually trying to settle the debate. I don’t think any debate involving religion can ever be settled until you die and see what is on the other side. Once my thoughts are mapped out and explained, I can move on to other mysteries of the universe like why people in Thailand drive so fast but work so slow. I’ll explore the basic underlying concepts of freedom and religion in America and then detail the questions that arise when asking how the two can coexist.
America is supposed to be a bastion of freedom. I know that’s kind of funny to say as there are plenty of examples that say otherwise. Just ask the blacks, Native Americans, Japanese, and gays. Freedom is the idea at least. On July 4, 1776, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. I believe the most powerful and important sentence in that document is, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is because of that statement that blacks were able to overcome slavery and any other minority in the United States today will be able to overcome discrimination they may face. Not everybody has been free since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence but thankfully freedom was written in as the endgame. That sentence is what makes any minority’s battle for freedom within the United States a winnable battle. I am not making the argument that America is the perfect country but the founding fathers set up a system that allowed this country to become the most powerful and profitable country in the world to benefit of all its citizens. A strong work ethic and relentless pursuit of your goals will get you farther in the United States than most other countries in the world. I really believe that. Americans aren’t better than anyone else but our system of freedom and liberty is the main reason we are where we are today.
Here is a list of countries by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in order by size http://databank.worldbank.org/data/download/GDP.pdf. The United States is at the top of the list by a huge margin over China, which is listed number 2. A country doesn’t reach the top by restricting its citizens’ freedom. I’ll hold the China vs. America debate as it relates to economics and democracy vs. communism for another entry. The point is, in America, economic and educational opportunities are limitless and if you are a citizen you have the freedom to pursue any of those opportunities. Our GDP is directly related to our system of freedom and liberties. Besides, China’s huge economic growth has been the result of shifts in policies and granting more freedoms in the marketplace.
One of the freedoms we have in America is the freedom to practice any religion we choose. The majority of Americans have chosen Christianity as their religion of choice. This Gallup poll shows the break down of religions practiced by population in 2012 http://www.gallup.com/poll/159548/identify-christian.aspx. The religious concepts I will explore are prevalent in each of the major religions but they are coming from my Christian background. I grew up attending church every Sunday and attended services in a wide variety of Christian churches. I’ve been to churches that were Methodist, Baptist, and non-denominational. I’ve been to mega churches and small churches located in traditional buildings, strip malls, movie theaters, school cafeterias, and trailers. I’ve seen just about every variety of Christian church you can imagine. Luckily, I never attended a Westborough Baptist type church. Westborough Baptist practices brain washing not religion. There were differences in each type of church but the message was the same.
When you die, you go to one of two places for all eternity, heaven or hell. The only way to go to heaven is to surrender to the Lord and give your heart to Christ. God has a plan for each and every one of us and it is our duty as Christians, faithful servants of the Lord, to follow his plan. God is miraculous, he has the ability to heal and bless us through prayer. He also puts us through trials and tribulations to test our love and devotion. We cannot question or test him ourselves.
Without going into the concept of Christ dying for our sins, that is essentially the premise of Christianity. Summarizing the Holy Bible in one paragraph doesn’t do it justice but that is in fact the fundamental concept of Christianity as I interpret it. I could stop here and I’m sure you could begin to see where conflict between freedom and religion arises but I will explore the all the conflicts that I see and struggle with.
I grew up in a single parent household but was lucky enough to have a mother who made it clear to me from the very beginning that with an education I could grow up to be anything I wanted. I also went to church every Sunday with my father and it was made very clear to me that there is one true God, King of Kings, Lord of lords. What never occurred to me at the time was I can’t be whatever I want. I have to be what God wants me to be. I never saw any conflict between the two ideas. As I got older, gained a more in depth knowledge of the Bible, and greater capacity to critically think I began realize how I and others may struggle.
First off, which religion do you choose? Most people choose the religion that dominates the region they are in. If you live in America chances are you chose Christianity. If you live in Jamaica there’s a good chance you went the Rastafarian route. Most people here in Thailand are Buddhists. There are lots of Hindus in India. The Middle East is the ultimate clash of religions. Do all these people think they made the right choice and are just lucky that everyone else in their region practices the same religion? I’m from the Deep South, so naturally I decide to be a Christian.
Anybody who knows me knows that rules, authority, and conformity are pretty low on my list of priorities. I have a tough time with anybody telling me what to do. Asking me to surrender and submit to the will of someone else is going to be really tough. I’m American, and we bow down to no one! Oh wait, I’m supposed to surrender not to a person, but to a greater being. For many people this seems to come easy. I have been to the Holy Land, Israel, as well as countless number of churches and have witnessed people get touched by the hand of God. Hearing pastures speak in tongues and watching people laughing hysterically and convulsing on the ground is intense. They lose complete bodily control and have to be caught by a group of people so they don’t get hurt when they hit the ground. This didn’t happen at every service I went to but some services were out of control. The preacher is literally walking around the room touching everybody on the forehead, sending their brains to outer space. I went to Israel on a Benny Hinn tour a few years ago. Every religious site we went too ended in practically every person on the tour convulsing on the ground. Eventually I found myself saying silently, “God damnit not again!” As you can tell, God has never spoken to me (if he has I didn’t hear him) and I’ve never physically felt his presence. If he has sent me signs I’ve missed those to. I’ve seen plenty of rainbows but no burning bush. If God had spoken to me or I physically felt his presence I wouldn’t be writing this today.
I govern my life with logic and analysis. There are so many questions about God and life that don’t have answers. I have been told we are incapable of knowing, I must have faith. That blind step is what is so incredibly difficult. Billions of people on this Earth past and present have taken that blind step called faith and it’s resulted in a lot of chaos. How many wars have been fought and how many lives have been imposed upon because of religion? I don’t understand how a person capable of independent thought can just go along with doing what they’re told and not ask questions.
This is an enormous question with multiple answers that evolve over time. Looking back at the history of civilization I see an absolutely horrible existence. Just imagine not having any of these great technological advancements that make our lives so much easier today. The things that people have died from historically are absolutely insane to imagine by today’s standards. The brutal rulers, wars, slavery, and disease are unimaginable. I think religion is a coping mechanism many people use to deal with horrible surroundings.
Another reason is how impressionable we are as kids. When you’re young you don’t have the capacity for critical thinking and can be easily taught to believe and do anything. Fear is also a huge reason people become religious. Who wants to suffer in hell forever? Whatever the reason may be, millions of people in this country have decided to forego a level of freedom in exchange for the gift of everlasting life in heaven. They consciously decided that for the rest of their lives they are going to please God and do whatever he asks them. Most of those people would disagree with me and say they haven’t lost any freedom whatsoever but here is a group of people that lost their freedom because our country was founded by Christians.
There is supposed to be separation of church and state in this country but that hasn’t happened yet. All greenbacks feature the words, “In God We Trust” and every day at school I recited the pledge of allegiance which meant saying, “one nation, under God”. Some laws were enacted based on biblical scripture. Here is one example of a small minority of people who lost their civil liberties because church and state were not actually separated. The Bible is very critical of homosexuals. Homosexuality is a serious act of immorality. Homosexuals are not to get married and are not to enter the kingdom of God. For most of American history homosexuals have not been legally allowed to get married because of what is written in the Bible. Freedom and religion are contradictory and gay marriage is a perfect example. But as I stated previously, freedom is written in the rules as the end game and every battle for freedom is a winnable battle in this country. Write now at the time of this writing, Hawaii just became the 15th state to legalize gay marriage. Religion has prevented gays in America from getting married but religion in Iran is causing gays to be executed. There is a large group of people who are honest about their religion and explicitly state that freedom is a western ideal and not compatible with religion.
There are large numbers of Muslims who say you can’t have freedom of choice and simultaneously carry out the will of Allah. They don’t have to deal with the conflict that I’m writing about because freedom isn’t an idea they believe in or try to live by. The way they practice their religion is really scary though. Most of them don’t accept a modern interpretation of the Koran or the Hadiths. If you are a non-believer, female, or gay in the Middle East good luck hoping to enjoy any of the freedoms we have here in the United States. Their belief in the afterlife is so strong they will attach bombs to their persons in order to carry out the will Allah. That is conviction on an insane level by rational people. I mentioned earlier about religious wars in the past, but at this very moment America is fighting a war of freedom versus religion. Islam is not going to win the war against freedom. As passionate as Muslims are about their religion and establishing a global caliphate, sectarian fighting will prevent them from making huge advancements.
My intent is not to criticize religion. I’m merely trying to discover the right balance between faith and self-reliance. On one hand you’re supposed to leave it up to God and on the other hand you’re supposed to make your own decisions and do the things you’re capable of. Most Christians have the balance figured out perfectly and live happily serving the Lord while enjoying American freedom. Sadly, some Christians have gone way off the deep end and make people like me question everything. I remember talking to one of those Christians who have that balance figured out and he was openly criticizing the absurdity of the behavior of those who have gone off the deep end. He was telling about something he witnessed after Church one day.
After attending a Sunday morning service, one of the members of his church was unable to start their car. Some other members came to help. They circled around the vehicle, joined hands, and prayed to God that he would get the car started. Their prayers went unanswered. Eventually they got the car started by putting gas in it.
I remember this elderly gentleman of faith laughingly telling me the true story. Unfortunately there are some really sad stories of religious people unable accept reality and instead relying too much on faith. In 2009, a couple in Pennsylvania was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the death of their 2-year old son. After becoming sick his parents opted to rely on faith and prayer instead of modern medicine. Had they taken their kid to a doctor he certainly would have lived. Just this year that same couple lost their second child under almost identical circumstances.
These stories aren’t representative of most of the Christians I’ve known in my life but they do make me wonder how you balance piety with self-reliance and freedom. America is still working separate church and state. Marriage laws are changing and people are fighting to remove prayer from schools and nativity scenes from public places during Christmas. Many Christians are fearful these are signs this nation is a taking a turn for the worse but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The founding fathers knew in order for there to be freedom there should be a separation between church and state. That process is merely being carried out today. When that process is complete and there is no legislation based on scripture, all groups of people from atheists to religious fanatics will be able to live freely and harmoniously.