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Tolerating Religious Untruth PDF Print E-mail

Winston L. Frost
Trinity Law School

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

My talk deals with the issue of how to address truth claims in the religious arena. Now that might sound rather strange coming from the dean of a law school. But it is a Christian law school, one in which we struggle on a day-to-day basis with how to integrate faith and function—how to integrate law and theology—while at the same time having a student body that is racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse.

Our faculty has a statement of faith that we conform to; however, our students do not. This leads to some wonderful dialogue in the classroom and opportunities to learn from people of different perspectives, faiths, and cultural backgrounds. It is one of the things that make it truly a privilege to be at Trinity law school, where we have the diversity that state schools struggle for and can’t seem to obtain.

While the University of California system was having trouble recruiting minorities for its law school, this past year our incoming class was almost 50 percent minority, with a blend of Asians, Hispanics and African Americans. As a religious school we are succeeding in doing what the secular community has not, and that is getting minorities into law school and helping them succeed. Our pass rate on the baby bar, is the third highest in the state, and we are in the top 10 percent of small law schools in terms of the pass rate on the California State Bar Exam.

What I will address here is the issue of how to address truth claims in the religious arena. I am going to deal with three areas: the nature of religion, the nature of tolerance; and the relationship between tolerance and truth claims.

The first thing that I want to deal with is where we are in our society. Today, tolerance and pluralism are constantly given as the goals of our educational system. However, what do we mean by pluralism? What do we mean by tolerance? Those are important questions that we have to ask, because as religious groups, or as minority religious groups, we must first address these questions in dealing with the issue.

Dennis Praeger, who is a friend of mine, has a radio show in Southern California. For an Orthodox Jew, he probably knows more about Christianity than most Christians. He had a radio show on religion where he had a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a minister, and he was better at identifying the fine points of Christianity than many of the Christians who were on the show. He has this to say:

Secularists are always talking about pluralism, but that is not what they mean. They mean melting pot. Properly, pluralism means that Catholics are Catholics, Jews are Jews, and Baptists are Baptists. That’s what pluralism means. Everyone affirms his values, and we all live in civic quality and tolerance. That is my dream. But in public Jews do not meet Christians. Christians don’t meet Jews. Jews don’t meet Hindus. Everybody meets nothing.

That is, as I explained to Jews, why their children so easily intermarry. Jews don’t marry Christians. Non-Jewish Jews marry non-Christian Christians. Jews for nothing marry Christians for nothing. They get along great because they both affirm nothing. They have everything in common—nothing. That is not pluralism, but that is exactly what the secular world wants. They want a bunch of secular universalists with ethnic surnames.

That is the point that we need to look at. What do we mean by toleration? What do we mean by pluralism? If we all claim to be members of a faith but do not recognize the tenets of the faith or actively practice them, we really are members of that faith in name only.

That is why I think that we have seen the growth of small religious groups. Because they know what they believe in, and they are willing to put their faith on the line. They are not swimming in the mainstream. This strengthens their convictions and beliefs and in many ways gives them something that perhaps many fat, happy Christians don’t have. Many claim to be Christians because they were born in a Christian nation. Often these people cannot articulate what it means to be a Christian, or what the basic tenets of the faith are. As a result, they are Christian in name only.

On the other hand, many of the groups that we deal with and whose rights we need to protect, are groups that know what they believe. Not only do they know what they believe, they go out and share that faith. Again, sharing your faith strengthens those convictions. As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Life is most dynamic when you are being shot at.”

One of the things that we have to do with religious toleration is deal with what it means to have religious freedom. One of the interesting things about U.S. jurisprudence in the area of religion is the fact that the Supreme Court has never really defined what a religion is. We have 200 years of jurisprudence on the First Amendment, but none of it ever defines what it means to be religious or be part of a religion. The closest thing that we come to is the definition one finds in Casey C. vs. Planned Parenthood, where Justice Kennedy sees “religion as essentially belief in a Supreme Being or a symbolic expression of what people affirm as a value to them as the highest meaning in life.” In other words, it is a very, very indefinite definition of what religion is.

Perhaps a more academic definition is that religion is a complex form of human behavior by which a person or group deals with human existence. Essentially, it is belief in a reality that is the center of all human beings. It includes a belief system, a ritual system, and a moral system that is experiential in nature. I am not so sure that I buy that definition, but it is one that you will find in textbooks. The man on the street essentially defines religion more along the lines of a conscious belief in a Supreme Being. When you talk about what religion is, it is essentially a belief in something. Whatever that something is—whether it be the force, whether it be Jesus Christ, whether it be Buddha—it is the idea of belief in a transcendent being.

The definition that I would like to use, because I think that it helps us in terms of religious freedom, is simply the one that Roy Clauser uses in his book The Myth of Religious Neutrality. Clauser’s premise is very simple: Most belief systems, if not all, are religious in nature. Whether they are beliefs in a transcendent being, or whether they are beliefs in a process such as evolution or naturalism, that is equally as religious in nature as the belief in a creator God. Clauser’s book essentially identifies the meaning of religion as being “the status of the divinity or whatever exists independently of everything else.”

In other words, religion is the ultimate root source of your truth claim. So the divinity of his definition of religion is that which is transcendent or that which exists independently of everything else. In naturalism it would be the belief in evolution and in the scientific method and naturalism. On the other hand, faiths such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the creator God and by whom man was created.

The second point that he attaches to belief is that it concerns how humans come to stand in relationship to the divine or the transcendent. So we have two points which make up religion. There is something that exists independently of everything else, and how we relate to that “something.” Essentially, from these two points we can begin to look at all belief systems or worldviews and see they are essentially religious. Using such a definition, we can open up dialogue between faiths. It allows us to talk with those who have no faith as well as those who share different versions of the same faith because we are starting from the perspective of a worldview that we can essentially bring down to its most basic elements.

For me as a member of the Christian faith, the question that I have to ask is, can we afford to sacrifice truth on the altar of tolerance? Can we tolerate religious untruth while at the same time remaining faithful to the beliefs of our religion. To answer these questions, it is particularly important that we understand what tolerance is and what it isn’t.

There is a mistaken view that tolerance means that you have to accept everything and everyone’s truth claims as being true. Such a view would mean that you can hold no truth claim to be less valid than your own. Because if your truth claim is an exclusive truth claim, to accept that everyone’s truth is equally as true is to invalidate the claims of your own religion. So what we have to realize is that tolerance does not mean accepting that everything is true. Tolerance means being able to distinguish between what is and what isn’t true, but accepting the fact that there are those who believe differently than you do and allowing them to have that view and to be able to discuss, debate, and deal with that in the public square.

In a legal and political sense, toleration means refraining from prohibition or persecution. It implies disapproval or dislike of the thing being tolerated. That is one of the things that we have to accept. Part of toleration is that you disagree with the other person on the nature of their truth claims and yet you are willing to agree to discussion. You are willing to listen, to dialogue, discuss, and to be open to new ideas, new thoughts, and new approaches. So when we are talking about tolerance, as Bernard Kripp describes it, “It is the degree to which we accept things of which we disapprove or the deliberate forbearing of power we could use otherwise.” In other words, if you are a majority religion, it means not using force on minority religions or those with minority beliefs to believe what you want them to believe.

Perhaps the best illustration that I can give from history is the example of slavery as it relates to the Christian church in America. You had within a religious tradition with two completely different views of slavery. Although it is hard to understand in the 1990s, American Christians once justified slavery on the grounds that God ordained the institution to evangelize heathens with the gospel. Support for slavery varied by denomination and over time. In a quarter century following 1745 the Presbyterians and Episcopalians—who disproportionately included the southern elite—were primary authors of the mission-to-slaves movement.

Many of these Christians believed that the institution of slavery was neutral but that slaveholders were responsible to Christianize their slaves. In contrast, Methodists and Baptists during this period, who originally were among the lower-income groups, criticized slavery, at least in the abstract, as per se evil. By the 1830s Methodists and Baptists in the South included slaveholders who silenced the antislavery message. Finally, in the 1840s Methodists and Baptists split bitterly over slavery into northern and southern branches. Only a few denominations, Quakers and Freewill Baptists, for example, remained steadfastly antislavery throughout, refusing to allow slaveholders in their midst, whereas Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans developed a disinclination to admit that slavery was even a valid subject for discussion. They put their heads in the sand. Presbyterians and Episcopalians split on the grounds of expediency and ease of administration, not due to theological differences. The Congregationalists and Unitarians tended to favor Afro-American re-colonization schemes rather than emancipation.

The defenders of institutional slavery claimed to be biblical literalists, and they identified blacks as the descendants of Ham and Cain, heirs to curses of perpetual subjugation.Likewise, they contended that American slavery was consistent with the slavery of the patriarchs of the Old Testament and emphasized that neither Jesus nor his Apostles condemned slavery, even though it was practiced during their time. Finally, they emphasized that Saint Paul admonished slaves in several epistles to be obedient to their earthly masters and even ordered an escaped slave Onesimus to return to his master. In contrast, abolitionists insisted that Christians must examine the Bible in its totality, including its overriding emphasis on principles such as justice and righteousness and the inherent value of human beings—ideas they claimed were entirely at odds with the institution of slavery.

Abolitionists also rejected claims that Afro-Americans were heirs of Cain or Ham’s curse and tried to prove that American slavery was harsher than the slavery that the Old Testament tolerated. The Civil War brought these viewpoints into head-on collision, and the abolitionists eventually won.

The point is that within the church there was a battle over an issue, and it took the Civil War to end the conflict. Since that point in time the church has come to the view that slavery and, indeed, racial discrimination are inconsistent with the Bible. We have come to the point where the church was active in the civil rights movement in the sixties, and in doing away with the racial discrimination, and the ongoing attempts at abolishing the residual affects of slavery.

Still the lesson is clear. Conflict within that religious tradition led to a civil war. That is one of the things of which we must be careful: Religious views not only between groups but within groups can lead to factionalism and division, which can lead to conflict. It can also lead us to a position of not talking but acting.

At this point we also need to distinguish between toleration, indifference, relativism, and celebration because they tend to be used rather loosely. To be indifferent is when you do not care about an outcome. To be indifferent to the plight of minority religions is to not care what happens to them. The danger in that is if you don’t care what happens to minority religions, you will soon find yourself in the same position with your religion and with a secular state. Again, if you are indifferent to the plight of your brothers and sisters who are being persecuted for their faith, then you are not, at least in my religious tradition, living up to the commandment to be concerned about our brothers, to do what is right, to pursue justice. So the first thing that a Christian must do is to not be indifferent.

Second is relativism. If we assume that all views are relative, then all views are of equal worth. The problem with that is that if everything is of equal worth, then there is no philosophical basis for being able to say that those who have done wrong have done so or to distinguish between that which is bad and that which is good. A completely relativistic universe doesn’t function very well, and if you don’t believe that walk into the home of your neighbor and walk out with their stereo system and see what kind of response you get from them. If they are relativist, how can they condemn that action on your part because the value of that property means nothing to you? On what value can they say you can’t do that, because your desire to take it is equal to their desire to keep it?

Third, approval or even celebration is not toleration. There are many things we can celebrate, but that doesn’t mean we are being tolerant; it simply means we are joining in a response to that. The Christians’ goal is not to be tolerated. The goal of Christianity is to love and be loved. There is a difference there. We are to celebrate the differences, but that is not to say we accept all beliefs. Toleration concerns how much you allow deviation from the desired norm. Toleration is not the same as religious freedom, although they overlap.

Religious freedom is the total amount of freedom which is allowed or which exists to act on your view of ultimate truth. It is the sum of what is tolerated plus those things to which you are indifferent, plus those things to which you can get the relativists to agree actually exists and the things that you can do nothing about.

As we have seen in this conference, religious freedom can mean different things. In America, religious freedom in many ways deals with issues of accommodation to menorahs, crèches, and religious discussions in public schools. In other places around the world it means giving your life for what you believe. It means being jailed or persecuted. We cannot always look at things from our own perspective. Again, religious toleration is important because it’s part of religious freedom. The vitally important role of religious toleration in the modern world is that it focuses precisely on those areas where there is disagreement but, at the same time, it calls for peaceful coexistence.

As one speaker said yesterday, religious toleration calls for dialogue and discussion. It does not require a celebration of that which you would rather not celebrate, nor does it fall within the view that all views are equal or trivialize the role of religion. Nor does it justify persecution. Toleration requires a burden. Toleration requires you to take other views seriously. Indifference seems safe, but the question is, what happens when things that we are not indifferent about occur? Relativism seems benign, but it has no serious differences to contend with. If you are a relativist, all is equal.

Celebration seems marvelous, but what if we can’t celebrate? If we acknowledge that there are real and important differences between human beings on religious matters and that these differences will not soon go away, we will need to face the strengths and weaknesses of those beliefs and of toleration. The point is, with toleration the goal is not agreement but disagreement. What passes for disagreement today is usually sheer cacophony. People for the American Way and various denominations on the religious right do not disagree. They talk, more likely shout, or even more likely conduct direct mail campaigns against each other.

Just look at bumper stickers and you see the type of logic that is involved in, let’s say, the abortion debate. It is not a matter of discussion; it is a matter of sloganism. “Disagreement,” John Courtney Murray said, “is a great accomplishment, because it only happened when a more fundamental consensus on the terms and boundaries of discourse had been achieved.” Americans in particular must relearn what it means to disagree, for without disagreement there can be no tolerance. If there is no tolerance there is no religious freedom. We have to be able to come together and realize that if you do not believe what I believe, that is fine. The fact that I do not believe what you believe is also fine. We can discuss the differences; we can debate them; we can look at the theological points on either side.

Now I would like to conclude with a very brief analysis of what this all means. Essentially, we can look at the world around us in terms of human rights. Genocide, slavery, torture, imprisonment, discrimination, and other restrictions of civil rights are grounds enough to seek protection of religion under international law. There are pragmatic reasons for protecting religious minorities. They are human beings created in the image of God whose rights are being violated, and we can protect them on those grounds. But we also have to protect their right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief.

That is why policies promoting religious tolerance are essential to respond to the dangerous forces now driving international politics. In the absence of religious toleration, the rule of law itself may collapse, because religious fanaticism is inconsistent with international law. And unless the international community seeks religious freedom, it will not be able to effectively advance any other fundamental freedoms.

Finally, in the absence of religious tolerance countries eliminate the only coherent explanation that men are in fact invested with universal, inherent, and inalienable rights. There is no philosophical system other than a theistic worldview that can truly justify human rights. Genesis says that God created man and woman in his image. At that moment in time, both Adam and Eve had an inherent value because they were created in the image of God.

We can go through each and every one of the philosophies—utilitarianism, pragmatism, the natural rights theories—and all of them at some point break down in terms of their logical consistency because there is no answer to the question of why human beings are unique and why they deserve protection. That brings me back to where we started. When you define religion as being the belief in something that transcends mankind, you can see why religious freedom is the first and foremost of the freedoms and why we have to protect it. If we don’t, we will find ourselves in a situation where our belief systems are subject to the whims of the state.

In closing, I was struck by one thing: There is danger lurking in the public square. The danger does not come for the most part from the other religious groups with which we interact. The danger comes from those who don’t believe in any religious truth.

In the 20th century, the governments that were atheistic or promoted a secular religious tradition were those most oppressive of religious freedom. Very simply, if you cannot tolerate truth claims then you are going to suppress them, and you are also going to suppress the people who make them. So when we look at the world today, we have to remember that minority religions have more to fear from the secular state than from their religious brothers and sisters.

Again, the violation of separation of church and state that we have to beware of is when the church uses the state or the state uses the church to achieve its political ends and not to promote religious freedom, religious toleration, and religious ideas. The thing that we have to remember is conferences such as this are vitally important, because they bring together people of different faiths to dialogue, to share, and to be tolerant.

As the Bible says, “I know the truth, and the truth shall set me free.” As a Christian, I have no fear of minority religions, because I believe in an absolute truth claim. I believe that truth claim can be tested in the crucible of the public square. It can be tested against the beliefs of other religions and other religious groups. As the Apostle Paul said, “We are ready to give an answer to all that ask.’’ As a Christian, I am not going to force my beliefs on anyone, but I am ready to dialogue, to explain and discuss them, and to share any faith. If we cannot sit down with the secular community and other religions and dialogue about our beliefs, we will never understand each other and we will never truly achieve religious tolerance, let alone religious freedom.