I was brought up to believe that religion, among other things, preaches tolerance; tolerance for another’s faults, tolerance for opposing points of view and tolerance for a different set of beliefs. However, today it seems that religion is veering more and more towards extremism. There is, of course, the much publicized extremism of Islamic fundamentalists, who commit unspeakable atrocities in the Name of Allah. But at the other end of the scale, there is a kind of reverse extremism among people living in Western countries.
I am talking about the policy of separation between church and state. I find no fault in this, but it appears that in their zeal to appear secular, the establishment in the West has almost made religion a bad word. A few years ago, there was a huge brouhaha in America about school prayers; and if I recall correctly, a courthouse in the US got into trouble because it had a sculpture of the Ten Commandments at the entrance.
Now a Christian teacher in Britain has lost her job home tutoring children too sick to attend school, because she offered to pray for a sick child she was tutoring. She was visiting the home of the child when she spoke about her belief in miracles and asked whether she could say a prayer. When the child’s mother informed her that she and her husband were non-believers, she did not go on. Nonetheless, the parents lodged a formal complaint with the teacher’s managers, accusing her of talking about her faith with the child. The teacher was told that her that sharing her faith with a child could be deemed to be bullying; and she was fired. Her crime was that she told the mother that there were people praying for them, and asked the child if she could pray for her. Just a year ago, a community nurse was suspended last December after offering to pray for a patient. Fortunately, she was reinstated after community members raised a hue and cry.
I can understand the intent – and even the necessity – for separating church and state. History is replete with examples of the clergy blatantly interfering in affairs of state. Some popes in the Middle Ages even set themselves up as absolute rulers. And in centuries past, the Church has spread its tentacles in most aspects of public life. Even atrocities like the Spanish Inquisition were sanctioned by the State.
Now it seems we have come full circle. The desire to be politically correct has become so acute in the West that it is sometimes carried to ridiculous lengths. In France, Christian school children are not allowed to wear a cross on any parts of their bodies. In another European country, some schools banned the displaying of Nativity scenes. And as described above, it no longer has just nuisance value. People have lost their jobs and livelihood because of this absurd obsession.
Personally, I have always been skeptical of organized religion and the clergy. From the First Century onwards, the clergy has sought to control their “flock” through intimidation, indoctrination and inducements. Original sin, hellfire and damnation; and rewards in heaven are some of the popular weapons employed. The priestly class, in all religions, has the arrogance to indoctrinate the laity into believeing that God can be reached only through their intervention. This is total nonsense, but the myth has been ... perpetrated down the centuries as a tool to exercise control over the "ignorant" masses.
That said, I readily admit the ‘masses don’t really mind being gullible; especially when it comes to a subject as complex and bewildering as God and religion. They prefer to let the “experts” do the heavy thinking and just tell them, in simple terms, what they are expected to do to remain in the Almighty’s good books. Religious symbols are a big part of this; crosses, rosaries, St.Christopher medals. Thousands of Christians feel a sense of comfort carrying them around, although there is no real evidence that they work. However, they don’t do any real harm; and for the authorities to object to this is just palin stupid.
India, where I live, is constitutionally a secular nation, but we have a different concept of secularism. For us, secularism means not divorcing religion from public life, but being tolerant of all religions. This is the ideal. The unfortunate reality is that tensions between religious groups does exist and are often exploited for selfish purposes. But religion is interwoven in all aspects of our daily lives; and politicians are no exception. It is not unusual for newly elected government ministers to have a religious ceremony performed before they take up office.
I’m not saying that the Indian version of secularism is better. However, for many people, prayers and rituals are very much part of their daily lives. Some have real faith, others use it as a crutch when times are bad. And these people are found everywhere, cutting across class, political affiliation or social standing. Making religion politically incorrect can only do more harm than good.