Religion can be very divisive precisely because people hold different religions to be true. If you are Christian you cannot be a Muslim; if you are Jewish you cannot be a Sikh. It is a way in which people define themselves in opposition to others; Christian versus heathen, Jew versus Gentile, Muslim versus infidel.
A religious worldview is one that divides the world into ‘us’ and them’. This isn’t a discussion about whether you have the right to express your religion in public. It’s a question of whether you should.
“Expressing your religion” is evidently a vague term, used to justify a variety of practices varying from public readings and religious education, to extremism and bigotry. Take, for example, religious schools. A child who goes to a religious school may arguably receive a one-dimensional view of society.
Drawing on my own experiences, I have found that the administration of religious schools has little problem putting the ethos of the school before the education and wellbeing of their students. These schools are places where homosexuality can be demonised, awareness of other religions can be non-existent, and sex education is minimal. Children are impressionable and likely to accept what they are told by a person in a position of authority, like a teacher.
It is often true that the best education is to be found at a religious school, to the point where parents feel the need to fake religious commitment to give their children the best chance. Notice the number of families whose children are aged 9-11, attend church for two years, get into the school of their choice, and never return.
Wearing religious symbols is a more difficult affair altogether. When it comes to religious symbols in public, we should remember that the question is not whether such expression should be legal, but whether it is a good idea. Wearing something as seemingly insignificant as a crucifix in a public role is important because you represent a religion in whose name much harm has been done historically. One’s public display of religious affiliation
may, for that reason, be a source of discomfort or unease to others. No one should feel uncomfortable in a school or a hospital.
Religion becomes dangerous when it is more than a private matter. Currently, there is in hospitals what some might perceive as a discrepancy in uniform policy: Christian staff are not allowed to wear crucifixes, but Muslim staff are allowed to wear headscarves. Rather than pitting religious groups against each other, all staff must be treated equally through a policy of total neutrality.
For those religious people for whom public expression is an integral part of their faith, the question remains as to why such proselytising is necessary. Surely it speaks to the insecurity of a religious group that it feels that the only way to preserve its role in society is to shove its beliefs down the throat of an unsuspecting populace. Public preaching is rarely effective – if a person feels like something is missing in their lives, they will do their own research. The Internet provides an infinite resource for the religiously curious. Yelling apocalyptic messages in the street will, if anything, put people off, and only exacerbates the tensions between different groups.
In a free society, everyone should have the legal right to express their beliefs. But whether they should do so is another question. Some particular forms of expression do more harm than good.
Don’t you just hate it when people try to impose their faith on you? Isn’t it offensive and arrogant to assume you have the answers and try to share your own faith with others? Shouldn’t faith be kept private?
In 4th Week, the Christian Union are holding a week of talks for Oxford students named ‘Uncover’, which seeks to explore some of the biggest questions of life and faith, and the answers Jesus gives to those questions. Should this week be condemned as offensive, or should it be welcomed?
To start with, I would argue that sometimes, Christians share their faith in an offensive way, without listening or trying to understand other people’s positions, or being arrogant and trying to score intellectual points. If you have experienced this, I want to apologise, as this is not how we are called to live in view of the faith we profess. All people are valued by God and are therefore worthy of respect.
However, I would like to suggest that we all have a way of seeing the world that makes sense to us; we all have a faith. These beliefs profoundly affect the way we live, how we make decisions, how we form our opinions, and how we converse. Should my faith in the feminist movement be kept private? How about my faith in the scientific method? Should my faith in equal opportunities for black and ethnic minority students be kept private? It seems difficult to justify why we would distinguish between religious faith and non-religious types of faith. Indeed, what if religious aspects of my faith coincide with, and are reinforced by, my non-religious ones?
A world view is inescapable, whether it is given a recognised name like atheism, Christianity or Islam, or whether it’s individually constructed. Our world view is never purely personal. Ironically, by telling others that faith should be kept private, we are ourselves publicly expressing a faith position that faith should be kept private, thus defeating our own argument.
Surely the deeper questions that need answering is which faith enables us to respectfully engage with each other as we seek the truth together, and, ultimately, which faith is true?
A core tenet of the Christian world view is that every person is equal and precious in dignity and honour, which gives a solid basis for upholding respectful dialogue and human rights. I’m not for a moment suggesting those who aren’t Christians aren’t often much more respectful and kind than Christians, but rather, I think that other world views give no basis within themselves to guarantee a respectful approach.
And as for the question of truth, well that’s the biggest question any of us could ask. The Christian world view says that truth exists and can be known and is therefore of vital importance for each one of us. C. S. Lewis, the famous Oxford professor, put it memorably. “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
That’s really what the ‘Uncover’ week is all about: an invitation to start a dialogue about truth, life, and which world view is true. Two highly respected speakers will explain why they believe Christianity makes sense of our world and there will be an opportunity to ask questions and continue the conversation afterwards. We hope to see you there.