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.