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Believing what we want and not pushing it on each other

By Paul Mitchell - posted Friday, 15 March 2002

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, the matter of religious belief – who holds it and why – has received in Australia the most widespread attention I can remember (yes, that shows I’m not old enough to recall the societal split caused by Protestant–Catholic enmity!).

Whether you’re a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu is suddenly not just a matter of private concern. Media commentators and the general public, perhaps fearing an outbreak of violence in Australia, have rightly wished to more carefully scrutinise religious belief.

But before members of the Islamic Al Qaeda network brought down New York’s World Trade Centre towers, for Australians the matter of religious belief was simple: "You can believe what you want, but don’t try to push it on me".


In effect the scrutiny under which religious belief is now placed represents an effort to find out whether a particular religion (or individual or group ascribing to it) is likely to violently or coercively break the second half of this Australian maxim on religious tolerance. While we can say "no" when we’re presented with door-to-door or conversational "pushing" of religion, we can’t really say no if someone’s sticking their religion in our faces in the shape of a gun.

As this scrutiny proceeds one thing appears clear: it is religious individuals (or groups) who hold exclusivist truth claims who are the most likely to perpetrate violence on members of other religions or the general public. In order to validate their exclusivist view of truth they see it as their duty to rid the world of infidels via violence or forced "conversion".

Of course the next thing this scrutiny reveals is that the world’s three major monotheistic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – essentially hold exclusivist truth claims; most notably on how this one God has been revealed to the world.

Within the broad society the point is put forward again and again: from within these religions groups of people emerge that are prepared to kill and coerce in order to assert their religion’s superiority. Why can’t these three religions just accept they’re all worshipping the one God? Forget exclusivist truth claims altogether?

As more people die at the hands of religious violence (we hope not in Australia, but who can know?) it seems Australians will continue to ask this question. But if we truly want these religions to accept this idea, we’ll have to at the same time overrule the first part of our maxim on religious tolerance: you can believe what you want . . .

The way Christians, Jews and Muslims view God is markedly different. While the beliefs of these religions are complex, it could at least be stated that Christians believe Jesus Christ was God in the flesh; Muslims strongly disagree and state Mohammed was God’s authoritative prophet; and Jews don’t accept Jesus was God, nor that Mohammed is God’s authoritative prophet - they await a messiah from heaven to usher in the kingdom of God on earth.


And that’s just getting started; only assessing one aspect of how these religions believe God has been revealed – or will be revealed – to humanity. How could society ever get these centuries’ old religions to accept that the God they worship is the same God?

To me, it seems there is only one way: this God must reveal his or herself to all the members of these religions simultaneously, and let them in on the secret that they’re worshipping the one God. But in this hypothetical situation there’s no guarantee members within this new religious conglomerate wouldn’t slip into the same violent or coercive behaviours. After all, there’d be still those who didn’t believe . . .

‘You can believe what you want, but don’t try to push it on me’ is a great maxim for religious tolerance. But, despite our current emphasis on ensuring there’s no violent or coercive "pushing" of religion, we’d do well to keep enforcing the maxim’s first half. Or else risk, via secular means, becoming the type of society religious totalitarians would create.

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About the Author

Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist, poet and fiction writer.

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