Religious Freedom in a Secular Society


A couple of weeks ago, there was a story in the news about a Texas high school track team that was disqualified from the state meet because one of their athletes pointed toward heaven after doing particularly well in his qualifying run. Apparently, it broke their rule against “excessive celebration.”

Despite being an atheist, I don’t twirl my mustache in maniacal glee when I hear about things like this. Now, hopefully, this really didn’t have anything to do with the kid referencing his religious beliefs and was actually only about the celebration rule. Still, it would be nice for common sense to prevail in situations like these.

But we can find other examples of people being persecuted for their religious beliefs in modern, secular society. In France, laws have been put in place that prohibit people from wearing large symbols of their religious beliefs “in the spirit of secularism.” This means that the hijab (an Islamic headscarf for women) has been outlawed. While I get the desire to encourage secularism in an effort to minimize the religious differences between people, I think it tends to only drive people closer to fundamentalism. After all, religions love martyrs, and you can’t have martyrs without persecution.

I think that real religious freedom means that people should be able to express their religious beliefs without fear of persecution. We may not always like what other people believe, but that’s precisely why the freedom to express ourselves must be defended — because there are always people who would like to stop it. When we allow people to express themselves freely, we start to take away their suspicion that we’re out to get them. That makes it possible for some of them to begin seeing us as fellow human beings, not infidels.

Furthermore, you can’t legislate morality. I agree that the hijab is degrading to women. But for women who sincerely believe that they must wear it to be pleasing to Allah, we’re doing them no favors by outlawing it, because such a law causes them to sin. How should they react to that? All we’re doing is presenting them with a very clear choice — “you should obey God rather than man.” Is that the kind of ultimatum we want to give people? At best, they’ll simply withdraw from society so that they aren’t forced to violate their consciences. So instead of taking part in the larger world where they can learn about other points of view, they’ll be left in an echo chamber where the lines between “us” and “them” are very clear and defined.

Instead, we should welcome people into society regardless of their beliefs, and hope that in time they begin to recognize that tolerance of one another is the only real path forward.

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41 thoughts on “Religious Freedom in a Secular Society”

  1. Hurrah. An atheist blog that I feel comfortable commenting on when the author is right. This is a very important point. The persecution only makes martyrs and martyrs are good for the business of building fundamentalism. And whatever form it comes in, fundamentalism is not what we want to encourage.

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  2. Oh sure, when you “point to heaven” that way, nobody seems to like it… 🙂

    And sacredstruggler, thanks for your comment too!

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  3. I totally agree that all people should be welcomed into society regardless of their beliefs — or NON-beliefs. Here in the US, the religious freedom that you speak of is often turned around and it’s the unbelievers who are ostracized. In fact, I sometimes wonder if this nation can correctly be called a “secular” society.

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  4. I totally agree. I live in Alabama, where it’s assumed that everyone is a Christian — the only thing up for grabs is your denomination. It’s frustrating. It’s been encouraging to see the increased acceptance of homosexuality over the last couple of decades; I hope something similar is happening with non-belief.

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  5. Nate, I really appreciate this post, especially coming from an Atheist. You don’t attack or ridicule us believers. You seem to be Christ-like. 🙂

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  6. Hey Nate. As usual this is very well said. I wish that more people of all faiths and non-faiths would push for real religious freedom. It seems that whenever a group is in a minority then that group cries for religious/worldview freedoms but when the tables become turned and that group becomes the majority they become the “oppressors”. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this because it kind of make sense that this would happen, but I wish more people could both be more empathetic and also see that providing these freedoms would create a better society for all.

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  7. “Despite being an atheist, I don’t twirl my mustache in maniacal glee when I hear about things like this.”

    Nice illustration 🙂

    The points people make should be weighed based on the validity of the points themselves, rather than based off assumptions of the nature of that person or where they come from.

    This I think also applies to religion. Free expression is how we allow points to be explored and validated. A person who is considered deluded, based on their faith, and says nothing to whether their points are valid or not. Even a person of a disgraceful reputation can express an unpopular truth. After all often the desires and conveniences of the majority guide the common sense. Common sense is not always true however. A person can also assert a poorly expressed truth, but this doesn’t make the expressed truth any less valid. It just makes the truth poorly expressed and less clear 🙂

    The truth rests on (and should be assessed) by the very validity of what is said, not who is saying it.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I think this can only be achieved when people are allowed to represent themselves and their points. For the alternative to this is that people and their points are instead misrepresented by other people.

    Valid points are then at risk of being merely disregarded, on the basis of the unpopularity or inconvenience of what is being expressed, and or reputation of who is thought to have expressed it. Rather than the point to stand on its own validity, I think the suppression of the expression of beliefs causes more confusion less reflection. It sacrifices further understanding, for the sake of the preferences of the majority to see those they disagree with as they want to see them.

    Without the privilege of self expression, we cannot validate points as they are, people wouldn’t be able to separate the points themselves from the loyalties, emotions or expediencies used to justify them. We wouldn’t be able to build on our own understanding, for we would have no other points of reference, since the only points that would not be dismissed would be the expressions of the majority.

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  8. Hey Nate, many days I haven’t hard from you! Hope you have been well.

    We are in agreement here. Freedom of religion and from religion must mean each person allowed to practice whatever their fringe faith teaches without trying to impose it on anyone and it would be wrong for a secular government or organisation to prohibit a person from practicing their faith however fringe.

    Kudos for saying what need to be said.

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  9. Like everyone else, I totally agree with what you say here. The idea of governments telling people what they can and can’t wear is rather frightening, from anyone’s point of view. And I also think that alienating people because of their beliefs can only drive them further away from open society and closer to fundamentalism. I don’t see that anything useful can be achieved by limiting freedom of religious expression … however much I think most of it is harmful nonsense in itself.

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  10. Thanks for all the great comments!

    Makagutu, thanks for the well-wishes. I’m doing great — just been busy at work lately, and it’s been hard to find the time to write. Hope you’re doing well too!

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  11. I don’t want to be boring, but I totally agree too. In a pluralist society, “do as you would be done by” is a pretty good guide. You as a non-believer don’t want christian rules forced on you, and I as a christian don’t want unbelieving rules forced on me.

    You may therefore enjoy (if you haven’t seen it before) this statement of 10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On. It’s old now, but still good.

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  12. Sure, people should be free to be themselves. My thought is that if a damsel freely desires to wear a black bag (with a little squinty mesh in front to peer through)—nobody should intervene.

    But if she has to wear the bag because the ‘men’ she is forced to associate with will do her a damage for being such a wanton harlot as to be on the streets unbagged (and unattended by close males riding shotgun) … not good.

    Given what we’ve been told, especially about Afghanistan and Talibanis and things … what’s the likely outcome of projecting present trends?

    As an atheist I’d rather be forced into Christianity than Islam. Islam seems so … compulsory. (And painful.) Both are immoral, because as stated: “you can’t legislate morality”. To me immorality begins with the any initiation of force. Sole exemption self-defense; responding to force isn’t so much a right as a duty.

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  13. So Nate I had gone back to that first post to kind of catch up on why and when you converted or deconverted or at least the basics until I could read the whole blog, still haven’t had time to read the whole thing so I hope it is ok to reply to all I have read so far here because I am limited on time to address one at a time in each individual post since I am catching up on a lot. I believe in evolution. I don’t believe we used to be monkeys but I do believe we have evolved over time. I actually have an uncle who was raised church of christ but was also a science teacher (is now over the board of education) so he had trouble agreeing with the church on a lot of things including this subject. He broke away from the Church of Christ although he is still a Christian, I think he goes to a Baptist church now and the Church allows him to teach a class on his beliefs about evolution because he still believes in Christianity along with it. I haven’t even gotten to sit down and listen to it all myself but I found the fact he was even doing it fascinating so wanted to share. I will try to share more later on as I find out more.
    As for such a cruel God, the worst thing that can happen on this Earth is death and if we go to Heaven and it is better than this than that is not even a bad thing, of course I am not a Christian that thinks most of the world is going to Hell and never have been, and have always interpreted the Bible differently than some I guess or not so literal in all areas I guess. As for thinking God should have created us perfect to begin with, then we would all be mindless robots. We would have no choice no free will. He wants us to choose to love him just like we want that from others including our own spouse. And how we will we be perfect in heaven finally? Because we made the choice. It is not like God decided for us to suffer, or said I will make them and if they don’t love me than i will burn them forever. We chose sin and suffering ourselves, separation from God is suffering, we have seen where sin gets us yet we choose it over and over, some do anyways and some forever will, some people like to think of Hell fire etc etc but I do not take the Bible that literally, I just think of it is separation from God so it could be the most luxurious place in earthly terms but without God and his love it is really all the bad parts of Earth without the good to me but maybe that is what some people want and choose and that is what they will get but that is not what I want. I would rather have the good without the bad without the costs that come with sin. I have experienced them and I don’t want them in the next life.
    I guess I have never focused on the Bible as much as you in the past. I have started to more lately and am doing more Bible study and truly reading it from beginning to end for the first time ever, but I think focusing on it too much actually contradicts what it says about turning things meant for worship into your own idol. What is more important is your personal relationship with God rather than a book while inspired by the Word of God was written by man and has been translated many many times since. I think the word is in our hearts anyways, which is why people in places who have never even heard of Jesus know who he is, they describe someone like him but not by name, which is why I think anyone anywhere has the chance to go to Heaven, of course I have never been one of those Christians who thinks hardly anyone is going to Heaven. I used to have trouble thinking anyone would go to Hell. I have to admit when Jay and I went through all we did part of the reason I questioned my own beliefs at times were because I had trouble believing someone like my husband could go to Hell, he was such a good person even though he was not a Christian, which is why I married him anyways, then he left me and cheated on me and my viewpoint changed (I am very publicly open about this because I wrote a book about my postpartum depression and a blog etc). I had questioned my entire beliefs because of this person and then all of that happened and I realized I put my faith in someone who loved me a lot less than God did but who I loved more than God, I put above God. I thought God had abandoned me but the truth was I had abandoned God for someone who would eventually abandon me, three times actually.
    The stuff you and debated over two things I recall years ago when you were a Christian were following your heart instead of the Bible, which trust me I have learned my lesson on that since then lol and it may not sound like it because I said I think the Bible is in your heart etc but now I get all of that Fireproof stuff about you have to lead your heart etc Also we debated about divorce I justified it in a lot more situations than the Bible does because of my own parents then I had my husband wanting to divorce me when I did not want to and I will tell you what I told him, he might as well have killed me, it would have hurt less, and I could finally see why God hated divorce finally about to be a victim of it myself liek most people I had to be in those shoes first I guess.
    I felt abandoned, he was my family, how could he do this? Well Jay had no idea what all I was going through internally and once he did we worked things out and Jay got saved once he hit an all time low of sin the night before. We went to see Joel O’steen and not only that night but for a long time leading up to that Jay and I could both see God speaking to him and to us, for the first time in his life Jay opened his mind up to that and that it could be real. That night when Joel did the invitation I lifted my arm up because I knew Jay was going to stand up and my arm would be in his way, for the first time in 16 years of praying he would get saved I finally decided tonight he is going to get saved, I had true faith he will for the first time ever, no doubt was in my mind finally for the first time ever, and he stood up less than a minute later. Twice during all we went through I got on my hands and knees and one night even prayed, “God I know you don’t want me to get divorced but I don’t know what else to do”. I never had more faith before and I never saw prayer answered so quickly and my marriage was eventually restored when noone thought it would be. Even myself and Jay at one point.
    I finally read the entire book of Job recently and wish I read it years ago, I related so much to that story. I felt like I had my job taken away, my husband, my father, my grandfather, my health, an entire side of the family not speaking to me, and I kept wondering what I did wrong to deserve all of it, I had lived a good life, like Job I had sinned but considered myself a righteous person who tried really hard to live a life that was pleasing to God overall. I got angry at God, I wished I had never been born, i prayed for death, I also had some “friends” just like Job who were more judgmental than helpful. My own sin did not cause all of what happened to me however I chose to sin based on some of it happening to me because of my lack of understanding and because I did not trust God, because my faith was not as strong as I originally thought and I was somewhat prideful. Just like Job though in the end everything was restored for me and I learned lessons and had some long time prayers and questions answered and grew closer to God.
    I actually grew up going to Church of Christ some with my grandparents and Baptist on the other side, I have been to Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of God, Independent, Non denominational, so far I still don’t think any of them have it 100 percent right because we are all flawed humans but from growing up with one side who didn’t go to church much but had a close relationship with God and another side who put more importance on going to Church and weren’t as good of examples in the way they lived their lives, I think I finally realized both are important to me. I have found a way to fit Church into my life and a relationship with God but I do try to make sure Church, and traditions and rules never become more important than on get in the way of my personal relationship with God. It is a constant struggle but I like to think I find balance from both sides of my families strengths and weaknesses.
    I also forgot to comment on the Democrat Republican thing. I don’t call myself either although I lean more towards Republican, I am really more of a Ron Paul fan myself, however I want to say that Republicans don’t want to not help poor people, and although the Bible does say to help the poor it also says a lot about people being lazy, taking advantage, and many other things. Noone wants people to starve they just don’t want them to be encouraged to be lazy and our current system does that, i see it every day in my job in Human Resources, they just want more control over the current system and less abuse. To work so hard and have it go to people who don’t is hard to watch every day. I will give everything I have to someone I see in need, but to have it taken and given to people who refuse to work is frustrating.
    Anyways,sorry this is so long, I just wanted to share all of this with you because like I said before I hope your current beliefs are just another stop in your journey and that maybe you eventually come to a middle ground because I think there is a middle ground between believing most of the world is going to Hell and not believing in God or the Bible at all. I think there is so much more ahead, we were created for better than this. I have always been criticized by other Christians and even told I believe the parts I want to believe etc which is not the case, I actually get bothered when people try to fit their religion to their life instead of their life to their religion because then their is no point to religion, however, at times I have conflict with the two so I always pray, read the Bible, etc to try and really determine is it me that needs to change and sometimes it is or is it maybe that my religion is not what I thought, it isn’t what other people told me or how I was taught growing up, after reading and praying on my own and coming up with what I actually believe and not what someone else wants me to or what someone else told me to this religion does fit with my life. At least that has been the case for me. That being said, I don’t think Atheists should celebrate Christmas and Easter because if you give up the bad you should have to give up the good too 😉 You can’t have your cake and eat it too mister lol Sorry had to add a little humor in there.

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  14. Thanks for the comment, Amanda. Obviously, you cover a lot of ground, so I won’t try to address any of it here. We may not see eye to eye on a number of things, but I’m very glad to hear that life is going better for you now than it was. Sounds like you’re in a good place. 🙂

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  15. Hey, Nate, I’m all for freedom of expression of religion … except, of course, when it involves a suicide bomber. 😮 So where do you draw the line? That becomes the difficult question, methinks. On the other side of the bomber coin is the maniacal “Christian” who goes about shooting abortion doctors. I’m not sure that persecution is the only thing that drives people to extreme fundamentalism. Sometimes it’s just the nutty leaders and what they are telling the sheep (who blindly follow them).

    I think the reason I like your blog so much is how you make walking on water look so effortless. 😉 Plus, you make me think. Always a good thing.

    Take care, Nate!

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  16. I agree with you on all points Nathan. As a christain this often ruffles the feathers of fellow believers. Sadly most only want true freedom for Thier beliefs and want to oppress those of others. Another reason I’m a big fan of civil unions for all, getting the gov’t out of the marring business leaving that to one’s religion of choice.

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  17. Matt,
    I totally agree that too many people talk about religious freedom, when what they really mean is they want their own beliefs to get special status. Thanks for the comment.

    JudahFirst,
    Haha! Thanks for the compliment! 😉

    Of course, you’re absolutely right that sometimes people push their beliefs too far and encroach on others’ rights. And yeah, it’s really hard to know where to draw the line. Ideally, we could stop the crazies before they strike, but that’s not always easy in a free society. But I think that even in these difficult situations, we have to keep our principles and not take away their rights just because they frighten us. If we do, then they’ve already won, to some degree. Is that how you see it too?

    Thanks again.

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  18. Nate, I was talking about this blog with my daughter and it occurred to me that the French ban of the hijab may have more to do with civil rights of women than with religious freedom (thinking about this in light of where to draw lines). Consider that the law to wear the hijab likely stems from shiriah law (I’m probably not spelling ANY of this correctly, sorry), which is extremely oppressive to women. I understand a society’s desire to keep that out, just based on women’s rights. But you also have to consider where shiriah law may lead … when a group is allowed to oppress another group (here, women), it seems to open the door to oppress others (i.e. the infidels – non-Muslims).

    For me the bottom line is that religion itself is to blame. Religion, to me, is man’s explanation of the world in terms of god(s). Because religion stems from man, it brings all of man’s flaws with it. In my view, Jesus came to do away with religion (not create another one: Christianity). Unfortunately, most of mankind has missed that message. 😉

    Bottom line: religious freedom is dangerous because it leaves the door open to extremism on every side. But everyone should be free to believe what they want to – practice is a whole other thing. In fact, my nasty-music-blasting-neighbor provides a perfect example of this. Is it his right to listen to whatever music he wants to? Of course. Is it his right to blast that music into my house? Nope. In his four walls he can do what he pleases. Out in the rest of the neighborhood, no. Forcing me to accept his “practice” is wrong. Simple respect of others should teach us this.

    Ok, ‘nuf said. Have a great Memorial Day Weekend!

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  19. When thinking about the conviction of a person’s beliefs.

    I think these are valuable questions whether a person holds theist or atheist beliefs.

    1. If everyone else you knew turned away and stopped believing what you believed, would you still believe?

    2. Furthermore, if some of these same people even treated you differently, harshly and excluded you because of your convictions, would you still believe?

    I think a person’s answer says something of why they believe.

    Whether a person has a belief based on the social support it brings, from the group reinforcement, the apologetics, or whether a person’s belief is grounded beyond this. Or maybe it is a mix of all these, as well as grounding beyond them.

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  20. Sorry I meant to write,

    I think these are valuable questions whether or not* a person holds theist or atheist beliefs.

    think a person’s answer might say something on whether a person beliefs are grounded beyond the social support, group cohesion and apologetics it brings.

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  21. I think those are awesome questions to ask Ryan! I think about those things when it comes to my own beliefs, and I even wonder whether or not I answer them correctly given what I believe about the strength of things like confirmation bias.

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  22. Nate, just to clarify something I don’t think I said very well in my last comment last night… I would define religion as man’s attempt to get to God, whereas I think Jesus came to show us that God is determined to get to us – but because of love, not because of right/wrong or judgment/punishment, none of that.

    portal001, I love your questions! For me #1. has already happened in a way. I find myself still believing, albeit quite differently than the group I used to be a part of. And #2. has also happened to me. The treatment did not change my core belief in God, but radically altered my understanding of church.

    One of the things I’ve learned through my continuing journey is that no matter what group you are in the problems and issues are the same (see my post on believing the unbelievable for a short blurb on ‘people being people’). I think Nate pointed that out last Christmas when he found atheists criticizing other atheists who celebrated the holiday. A good example of the legalism of MAN, completely apart from religion. 🙂

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  23. Howie, thanks, I sometimes wonder what I would do, I’d like to think that if I had a very important conviction, that I would still trust that conviction even if I was mistreated for it. But I really don’t know for sure how I would respond, since I’ve never been in such a situation.

    JudahFirst, thats really encouraging that you still hold to what you believe is most important, despite going through such experiences, I suppose thats where faith and integrity come in.

    Nan, no worries, if you like 🙂

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  24. Sorry I’ve been away for a few days.

    JudahFirst,
    I think you bring up an important point about the cases in which someone’s religious freedom begins to infringe on the rights of others. With the hijab, I think it’s tricky. If a Muslim man is forcing his wife or daughter to wear the hijab against their will, then there should be some legal recourse for that woman. However, I’d be willing to bet that in most cases, the women also believe they should wear it. And the problem I have with the French ban (assuming I understand it correctly) is that it doesn’t take such nuances into consideration. If a woman feels she should wear it, she should be allowed to — at least, that’s how I see it.

    But on every other point you made, I think we’re in total agreement. 🙂

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  25. Ryan, just wanted to echo what everyone else has said and let you know that I also think you raised some important questions. Thanks!

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  26. Nate, I guess my real issue with “freedom of practice” is the whole idea of one thing leading to another. The woman wearing the hijab may indeed be wearing it willingly … just as she may decide (in the course of her religious journey) to wear a suicide bomb quite willingly in the future. This is my issue with “practice”.

    By the French banning the seemingly benign practice of wearing a hijab, they are in effect saying no to the less benign practices of the muslim faith (to which tolerance of the hijab may lead).

    It’s so interesting that I am arguing for government control in this matter since I am a total follower of Ayn Rand!! Probably I’m playing devil’s advocate in this case, because deep down I don’t believe any government should dictate anyone’s actions (as long as those actions do not harm someone else). But I also know what religious fundamentalism looks like (having been steeped in it for so many years) and how dangerous it can be to those inside and outside of it.

    Bottom line: if a society as a whole (assume the French PEOPLE, the COMMUNITY, not the gov’t) says “no” to a religious practice (like wearing the hijab), then the people within that community should submit to the decisions of the community or move somewhere else. I would say that is a blanket “rule” for life within any given community. In other words, my freedom is limited by the decision of the community as a whole (which means if my neighborhood won’t support me in getting my back-yard music-blasting neighbor to stop playing the music, I guess I’m either screwed or I sell my house and move). 😉

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  27. Fair point about possibly encouraging people to move if they don’t like it. As far as suicide bombings go, I imagine most everyone already knows they’re illegal 😉

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  28. Sorry for the last comment being so long, have not had a chance to get back on here.. Was trying to cover too much at one time and I don’t think this site allows you to delete comments once you have posted them lol Just to try and stay on the subject you guys are talking about currently and not to get into every single thing on this site I am still taking in and currently overwhelmed by as you can tell by my previous post lol I believe religious freedom is like any other freedom like one of you said if it imposes on other’s rights than it is not ok and it is no longer a personal freedom. I have seen every religion and atheists all trying to either force their belief or non belief on people or prevent others from practicing theirs even when it does not impose on their personal rights. Unfortunately like everything else I don’t think it is unique to any one belief. I personally believe abortion should be illegal but not based on my Christian beliefs alone but because of evidence I have seen and personally experienced that makes me feel it is personally infringing on that baby’s personal rights to practice it even if it is ok according to someone else’s religious beliefs. Not to mention the father’s rights in some cases. However, I did see someone say they would rather have Christianity forced on them than Islam for certain reasons. I personally don’t believe Christianity can be forced on you. People try to force it on you but Christianity requires a personal choice by the person to have a personal relationship with God. No one can even 100 percent tell if you are a Christian as it is something in your heart and personal. Certain practices of Christianity as with any other religion can be forced but not actually being a Christian.

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  29. @ Nate

    “But for women who sincerely believe that they must wear it to be pleasing to Allah, we’re doing them no favors by outlawing it, because such a law causes them to sin. How should they react to that? All we’re doing is presenting them with a very clear choice — “you should obey God rather than man.” Is that the kind of ultimatum we want to give people? At best, they’ll simply withdraw from society so that they aren’t forced to violate their consciences. So instead of taking part in the larger world where they can learn about other points of view, they’ll be left in an echo chamber where the lines between “us” and “them” are very clear and defined.”

    I agree with your above reasoning.

    Thanks

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