Monday, 8 June 2015

Personal Beliefs

It seems, in a way, particularly trivial. A nursery worker (that's a kindergarten worker for you Americans) gets fired for telling her gay colleague that "god is not alright with her". It's pretty clear to see what is going on here. The Christian worker has let her personal beliefs come out whilst at work and her gay colleague has felt insulted and discriminated against by it. So those who employ them both decided to fire the Christian one. However, at a later employment tribunal it was ruled that she was discriminated against on the basis of her religious beliefs.

Now what are we to make of this? There will be those who think that the Christian is a bigot pure and simple. And bigotry is wrong so she should have been fired. She is clearly a terrible person. And we have other cases too. There was, for example, a Christian couple who ran a guest house. They refused to allow gay men to share a room. They were taken to court for discrimination and lost. Because they were being discriminating.

So far, so good. It all seems fairly straightforward. But then I think about it for a while and I read some of the online comments concerning the case. And some of them seem a bit confused. We are told by some that "religion should be kept out of the workplace". But that Christian nursery worker wasn't threatening to set up a church at the nursery. She wasn't insisting that her colleague face Jerusalem and pray before lunch. So I don't see what commenting about "religion" has to do with it. Another comment I read stated "When will these people realise that religion doesn't trump real life?"

I expect that the answer to that last question is something along the lines of "At that point, if they ever get to it, when an imaginary friend in the sky who is in charge of everything seems to be no longer a justifiable belief". For what we are talking about here, at the end of the day, is personal beliefs. Things that people hold dear. Things that they could no more stop believing than they could willingly cut off their own arm. It is not for this Christian nursery worker a trivial thing that there is, according to her, a god. She does not, I am sure, believe it lightly. Beliefs, indeed, are those things that you cannot help believing. Do any of us have a choice about the things that we honestly hold to be true? "But she is a bigot," you will say. I wouldn't disagree with you. But she cannot be blamed for acting in accordance with something she holds to be true anymore than you can. And I don't understand why anyone would think she should be. Are the trueness of her beliefs to her any less true than the beliefs you hold true are true to you? There are other grounds to condemn her. But this is not one.

People in general seem to have an issue with personal beliefs - as well as with its brother in arms, free speech. They try to delineate areas where only certain things can be said and certain beliefs held. This, it seems to me, is largely because they have a negative view of the beliefs concerned and, often, the worldview of those holding the belief. Free speech, it seems, is only free if you agree with me, for some at least. Unlike in the USA, where there is supposedly some constitutional protection of these things, I grew up in the UK where there is not even a general bill of rights. So expressing beliefs in public or uttering certain kinds of speech can be a dangerous thing and you never really know where the line is. So if I utter my unacceptable personal belief in public am I to be judged harshly for that? How can a person who believes in an all-powerful super being be expected to "keep it private"? How can they judge that this belief is not a matter of "real life"? What, indeed, could be more real, or more important, than a belief that you have a personal relationship with the being who made everything?

People are always trying to privatize religion. One problem is that religion takes no prisoners (if you'll pardon the pun). Religions generally tend to make universal claims. The god believed in is not usually the god of one or two people. It's the god of everyone and, whether you believe or not, this god makes claim over you. Over everything, in fact. Is this not why, according to the Westboro Baptist Church, "God hates fags"? But why, in a suburban nursery, should we fear the woman who believes that her imaginary friend is "not ok" with gay people? And what should we do about it? Should we ban her expressing any personal opinions? What personal opinions, in that case, are allowable? And what of freedom of speech?

I think we need to take some time to get things straight in our heads here. Religions are always going to make universal claims. Because that is what religions do. Asking religions, or religious believers, to keep their religion to themselves is asking any honest, upstanding, practicing religionist to do the impossible. It is consequent on their genuine belief in their imaginary friend that they act in accordance with their honestly held beliefs about him. (It is usually a him.) The request that they become a hypocrite by believing one thing and doing another is not going to find any favour with a genuine believer. How, indeed, can it? If you believe that a super being is in charge of everything and holds certain attitudes regarding people of certain sexual orientations it would be a remarkable feat of self-discipline (and inauthenticity) to keep quiet about it. And so I find the oft heard request that people "keep their beliefs to themselves" to be somewhat incoherent and lacking in insight. Surely whether you can or should keep your personal beliefs quiet depends exactly on what those personal beliefs are? At least, it will to you.

But, nevertheless, the argument extends to the public sphere too. We are told by some that personal beliefs should play no part in public life, places like politics, work and schools. But how can that be? To be a human being is precisely to hold personal beliefs - and to be held by them. These, so we think, inform our intentions, our decisions and our choices. To act in the public sphere, to live life in public, is to have personal beliefs (maybe even terrible ones) and to act upon them. Unless it is thought that what is best is a society in which no one acts according to the things they genuinely hold to be true then I am not sure what is being asked for. Are we looking for a two-faced society?

But this, of course, is not what is being asked for. What is being asked for is that the people concerned, the people with the personal beliefs we don't like, stop acting according to their beliefs and start acting according to our better ones instead. The problem is that you don't believe the same things as I do. And you are wrong. For your views are "bigotry hiding behind belief". And my views are just a perfectly good set of personal beliefs. Does anybody see the problem here?

And so we try to filter out all the nasty beliefs, the ones that involve telling gay people that god is not alright with them. But the people who believe that god is not alright with gay people still exist. And they haven't stopped believing it. Now, perhaps, they feel victimized for their belief, a belief they honestly hold and maybe even could justify in their own way. But we would not accept their justification, more than likely, especially if it maybe relies on holy books and the dogmas of their church and private messages received in prayer. For we do not accept these sources of authority. We have other, different, better ones. But let's be honest. It's not just about theists and their crazy beliefs here. Homophobes, sexists and racists alike have no need to believe in gods in order to share and act on beliefs that we don't like.

So what are we to do? We believe in free speech but we are always trying to curtail speech that we don't like. We believe that people should be free. But we are always censoring people who use their freedom in ways we don't approve of.  We believe that people are allowed to form their own opinions but then fire them if they share their opinions with other people at work. If only there was some way to adjudicate between all these beliefs in a world in which we seemingly all act contrary to the things that we say we all want.

The fact is that there is and there isn't such a way to adjudicate. There isn't a way because there is no central point about which we can gather, no "library of true facts" to which we can go and check out which of the beliefs are true and false. There is, ironically, no god who can tell us who to believe and allow and who to disbelieve and sanction or ignore. There is no language that we will ever be able to speak that could fully express an unarguable truth. And yet it is also true that there is a way. For we each have the networks of belief and contacts with which we have grown up that have formed us as human beings and given us the beliefs that we hold today. These beliefs, the beliefs that were formed in exactly the same way as the person that you don't agree with, the one who should not be allowed to utter their beliefs in public, are, in fact, the only platform that we will ever have for deciding which beliefs are ok to utter and which beliefs should, in our humble opinion, never be uttered. We will never be able to get past these socially situated and rhetorically justified beliefs to something more solid, more permanent, more able to shut up all those other beliefs that we think shouldn't ever get an airing in public. All we can ever do is keep justifying the things we believe to be true along with the moral or other basis for holding these things as beliefs in the first place in the hope that this might convince more and more people that what we hold to be right and true is more worthy of belief than what our bigoted neighbour does.

In short, we are all in the same boat and the issue is how to sail without the boat rocking too much or without the need to throw anyone overboard. And that's really all there is to it.

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