Thursday, March 05, 2015

Convincing conviction

Religious education in schools has gone through many names. Some of us received an O-Level in Scripture, others in Religious Instruction. Some of us sat through periods of Religious Education and then got a GCSE in Religious Studies. Notice that, already in the simple case of nomenclature, there has been a radical shift in what is being taught.

To receive an O-Level in Scripture, one needed to study the Bible, to remember key texts, to understand what a passage was saying with reference to supporting texts. One received Religious Instruction which explained the Established Church and ensured that all schoolchildren understood the doctrine of the State Religion.

Of course, we now live in a society in which there are people of "all faiths and none" and thus we must study other religions and be educated in their practices; this includes those who claim they have no religious faith. What is religiously objective is now religiously subjective. At school, religions are studied as subjective quantities ("some people believe this, others believe that") often to the exclusion of allowing children to think about the implication of their beliefs or lack of them.

However, do we not all have religious belief? Is not-belief is the same as belief-not? Is "I do not believe in X" logically the same as "I believe in not-X"? For then one would have to work out one's religion in the pattern of "I believe not-X". X could be in one of two possible states, either true or false. By saying that one believes that X is not true means that they cannot believe that X is true. If they say that they do not believe that X is true, then they must either believe that X is not true, or ruling out the law of the excluded middle (i.e. believing that X is neither true nor false). Thus, in the situations in which the law of the excluded middle holds, not believing is the same as believing not.

I will admit two things, however. First, from the point of view of expression, to say that one believes there is no God does present a stronger statement of faith than to say that one does not believe that God exists. Second, that believing something to be neither true nor false is possible, but then this produces its own faith system and concomitant religion. Can God exist AND not exist simultaneously? What a lovely question. Perhaps I'll pursue that further in a later post!

What we moderns understand by "free" is that one be allowed to think what one wishes to think, and to believe what one wishes. There are, of course, restrictions on practice. One is free to believe that mass murder is compulsory, but one may not practise that belief in society. Thus "freedom to believe" is not the same as "freedom to practise belief". Society must function as far as possible for the good of everyone, but in practise must realize that it falls short of this. Society believes that to be happy, a person must be alive, and so murder is an obvious no-no. However, this does not bode well for the one facing a slow, agonizing death who believes that he has the right to end it all to prevent that suffering and to die with dignity.

I've just said, "Society must function as far as possible for the good of everyone." Now is that a subjective statement or is it objective? Is it something that must be held by everyone, or is it merely my own point of view? We have two things to bear in mind: first that we all want to be as happy as we possibly can; second, that we have to live with other people and their desires to be happy. Surely it is logical for Society to seek to maximize the happiness of all of its members.

Of course, this is going to be impossible. There are those who wish to have Halal meat, and others who believe that the production of Halal meat is cruel. Does Society opt for Halal meat due to a religious conviction, or does it ban it in regard to those who believe that animals should be treated with dignity as well? There is a third option in that Society allows those who want Halal meat to slaughter their own animals, but to disallow Halal meat for general consumption. This, of course has the danger of marginalizing Halal meat eaters within society and making it seem that the beliefs of non-Halal meat eaters seem more preferable. What does one do?

Quite frankly there is only one thing that Society can do. There must be preferred beliefs ranging from the obvious ("You shall do no murder") to the more disputable ("All meat must be Halal"). Society has to have core beliefs, but it must also have the courage of its convictions in those beliefs. If Society believes that murder is wrong, then it must have the courage to state what murder is and to stick with it. In turn, one should not blame Society from holding that position for the common good, though one should be perfectly free to influence Society in one's own belief. Yet Society can only ever be convinced of its own belief if its members understand the consequences of believing in something.

Too few people actually consider the consequences of their beliefs. They lack a coherent belief system other than beliefs presented as a smorgasbord of possibilities. This is a consequence of our pluralistic society, many faiths claiming "I have the truth! I'm right! Everyone else is wrong!" Indeed, it seems that we are being discouraged from having a religious faith. Society frowns on the one who says "I'm right! Everyone else is wrong!" because it goes against its pluralistic nature. Like Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas, in trying to keep the peace, it is better that one man suffer for his belief than for people to go into uproar from being offended by his utterances. Thus people are discouraged from being convinced, or at least from expressing their convictions. To say that one believes oneself to be right is considered arrogant, close-minded, even fundamentalist. Fundamentalism is now a word that has unpleasant images attached to it, thanks to those whose belief is that anyone who does not adhere to their appalling branch of religion must be beheaded.

The fact of the matter is that British society is founded upon Christian principles and these colour the rules that society follows. Yet, there are signs that those Christian principles are struggling against a new secular law. The Sacrament of Confession relies heavily upon the seal of the confessional whereby no-one may reveal the content of a confession on pain of excommunication. There is an increasing voice that, for example on issues of child-abuse, the seal of the confessional must be broken by law. We now have Christian law against secular law, and secular law will win because Christianity is now on equal footing with other religions and may not take precedence despite the foundation of the secular law upon Christian law. The Christian, of course, has only one course of action that is morally the best in his belief. He must break the secular law and suffer the consequences on the strength of his conviction that the Christian truth is indeed the truth.

Yet we are then faced with a further problem in that, for example of that awful murder of Lee Rigby, those who claim that killing for their religion is justified come up against the weight of the law that killing in such circumstances is unlawful and therefore murder. Lee Rigby's murderers (there's my conviction!) go to prison believing in the righteousness of their actions and suffering for those beliefs.

Now, some of us will find ourselves feeling a little uncomfortable at the equivalence of a Catholic priest going to prison unrepentantly for not breaking the seal of the confession in a case of child-abuse and the killers of Lee Rigby going to prison unrepentantly for murdering a young and innocent soldier. Both go to prison convinced that they are right. Yet, one is hypothetical - the law has not yet been passed to force the breaking of the seal of confession, though the State Church is considering it - the other is real. Are both morally identical imprisonments?

I'm not pretending for one moment that there is going to be a clear answer to this question, but it does raise the question as to how committed one should be for one's beliefs. Is prison worth risking because we hold to the seal of the confessional? The alternative would be for the Sacrament of Confession to be discontinued, and that would be more than a Catholic priest could bear with regard to the spiritual damage it would do to his flock. A good confessor will of course make the absolution of a child-abuser conditional precisely on his giving himself up to the secular law courts and receiving the due punishment. That is a sensible and reasonable attempt for a spiritual situation being reconciled with the spirit of the law in which those who abuse children must receive due and proportionate punishment. If the confessor is then punished because the abuser did not fulfill the satisfaction given to him in confession, then the moral guilt for that lies squarely on the abuser who does not receive absolution but accrues a further list of sins of great gravity.

What we are faced with here is the question of the locus of true justice. The secular law courts deal with temporal justice. Other religions hold to the locus of true justice lying beyond the temporal. For the Christian, the only true judge is God. For the Moslem too, the true judge is God. For the IS militant, the true judge is God. If one's locus of true justice lies beyond the secular, then one must be prepared for miscarriages of justice which will be resolved beyond the secular sphere.

Abortion is a great evil in that it mortally damages two people, mother and baby. It is still perfectly possible for an innocent baby to be aborted just because they are the wrong sex, not to mention the use of abortifacients as a means of casual contraception due to an "inconvenient" pregnancy conceived by consenting adults! However, I think it a general case that many people in the United Kingdom find the whole idea abhorrent and would actively seek to avoid such a situation as far as they humanly could. Most people, I am sure, would be horrified to consider it as a soft option. However, it may be that, by legalizing it, such a number of people who would be so horrified is falling.

However, rape is also a great evil which affects not only the person being raped but the family and any child conceived as a result of that violation. If a nine-year old conceives from rape and is not physically able to carry the child and so is taken to an abortion clinic by her mother to save her life, how evil is the abortion and who is to blame? If anyone thinks this is an easy question to answer, then I would kindly invite them to put themselves in the positions of each person in this scenario and then consider. The Catholic, while pleading in anguish that such an act be not committed, would believe that this situation would eventually be judged perfectly and precisely by God. A secular society which permits Abortion would clearly permit this regardless of loci of true justice that would not, much to the frustration and horror of all Catholics.

On the other hand, as is the case in secular societies that forbid abortion by law, it is the case that women whose baby dies in utero are not permitted to receive an abortion in order to save her life from the incipient infections. Similarly, things can and have gone so far that women who miscarry are found guilty of abortion and duly punished. Is this morally right?

Let us be clear, Human Justice is never perfect and the Catholic Church should, and in most cases I believe does, agonise over all these situations. They are not clear cut, nor can they be clear cut. There will be innocent found guilty and guilty allowed to be free. If we believe then we will have to suffer injustice regardless. No Secular Law Court will get things right in difficult cases and, indeed, set precedents which make future judgments less certain. To my mind, this gives a very good reason to believe in God who will judge things according to true righteousness that only He possesses and we only possess by imperfect reflection. If the Secular Authority is all, then Timothy Evans and John Christie both lost their lives, one justly the other unjustly but there is no way that Evans can be compensated. If there is only Human Law, then there is no true justice, but only that which is arbitrary. If there is God's Law then we can expect true justice.

I started this waffle thinking about how we are teaching children about religion. It seems that we teach them that there are no absolutes and that everything is relative and subjective. If everything is relative, then there are no miscarriages of justice just differences of opinion, and therefore no true justice. The Secular Law would then exist to preserve order only by promoting one legitimate opinion over another equally legitimate opinion. Do we teach children about how to have a conviction about a belief to the extent that they would be willing to lose their liberty for it? If not, then perhaps we see why our Churches are emptying as just one opinion in a million. If we believe in absolutes, then do we pass them on to our children?

Of course, people do not believe in the same absolute, but that is no reason for Society to fall apart. If all parties are willing to allow people to be wrong, and give them space to be wrong, even to the extent of choosing their own damnation (after all, God allows us to choose our own damnation by rejecting Him!) then there will be some order for society. True secularism does not destroy belief but provides an arena in which all beliefs can vie for the common good - but then, is the common good an objective moral value?

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