Monday, January 11, 2010

Religious liberty in a liberal democracy

The dispute over Brit Hume's recommendation to Tiger Woods has inspired some good commentary about the nature of religious liberty in our democracy. Yesterday, it was Ross Douthat in The New York Times:
Liberal democracy offers religious believers a bargain. Accept, as a price of citizenship, that you may never impose your convictions on your neighbor, or use state power to compel belief. In return, you will be free to practice your own faith as you see fit — and free, as well, to compete with other believers (and nonbelievers) in the marketplace of ideas.

That’s the theory. In practice, the admirable principle that nobody should be persecuted for their beliefs often blurs into the more illiberal idea that nobody should ever publicly criticize another religion. Or champion one’s own faith as an alternative. Or say anything whatsoever about religion, outside the privacy of church, synagogue or home. ....

This doesn’t mean that we need to welcome real bigotry into our public discourse. But what Hume said wasn’t bigoted: Indeed, his claim about the difference between Buddhism and Christianity was perfectly defensible. Christians believe in a personal God who forgives sins. Buddhists, as a rule, do not. And it’s at least plausible that Tiger Woods might welcome the possibility that there’s Someone out there capable of forgiving him, even if Elin Nordegren and his corporate sponsors never do.

Or maybe not. For many people — Woods perhaps included — the fact that Buddhism promotes an ethical life without recourse to Christian concepts like the Fall of Man, divine judgment and damnation is precisely what makes it so appealing. The knee-jerk outrage that greeted Hume’s remarks buried intelligent responses from Buddhists, who made arguments along these lines — explaining their faith, contrasting it with Christianity, and describing how a lost soul like Woods might use Buddhist concepts to climb from darkness into light.

When liberal democracy was forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars, this sort of peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. And the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.

If we tiptoe politely around this reality, then we betray every teacher, guru and philosopher — including Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha both — who ever sought to resolve the most human of all problems: How then should we live? .... [more]
Op-Ed Columnist - Let’s Talk About Faith - NYTimes.com