Our country was founded more than anything else on the premise of basic individual freedoms, including freedom of religion, which also had to include freedom from religion, for those so inclined. Most of those who came to this country were fleeing religious persecution; they were refugees from the moral certainty of their persecutors. As American educator and historian Arthur Schlesinger stated: “Those who are convinced they have a monopoly on The Truth always feel that they are only saving the world when they slaughter the heretics.”
Believer is a label. So is the word heretic. One indicates belonging and conformity. The other describes a non-conformist, a deviant from some orthodoxy. The word heretic has persisted in infamy throughout history, the cause of some of the worst crimes of man against his fellow man. Groups get very upset when someone deviates from ultimate truth. In every instance throughout history, the oppressors believed that in their case circumstances justified their behavior.
Among our early forebears, it took almost no time at all for the oppressed to become the oppressors. Let’s revisit a bit of Americana we may have forgotten. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed by a business that was strongly influenced by Puritan theologians. About 20,000 folks from England emigrated to this central part of what we now call New England. In short order the Puritans came to blows with the local Indians because they did not understand their culture. The leaders of the colony had to pass an examination about their religious beliefs before they could take office. (Anything sound remotely familiar here, folks?)
One member of their community, a guy named Roger Williams, was banished (excommunicated) on the grounds of sedition and heresy (non-conformity), and the religion-dominated General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony accused Roger of “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.” In the dead of winter, the sheriff came to pick up Roger (the Church using the police powers of the State). Roger escaped by hiking through a blizzard 105 miles to an Indian tribe where he was given refuge. Imagine! A Christian given refuge by the heathens from his fellow Christians. Roger and a few of his buddies obtained land from the Indians and called their tiny settlement Providence. The very next year they decided that in their settlement, government would be restricted to “civil things.” Unknown to them, they had established the first settlement in modern history with religious liberty and separation of church and state.
But wait. The story gets even better (and worse). About four years later the first law was passed to make slavery legal in the English colonies. And no, it wasn’t in the South. It was the very same religion-dominated Massachusetts Bay Colony that had made Roger Williams run for his life. Eleven years after their infamous law was passed, Roger Williams and a colleague spearheaded the passing of a law banning slavery in their new province of Rhode Island. The pernicious influence of the Massachusetts Bay colony prevailed however, and Roger Williams’s law was ignored and became a dead document. Seventeen years after his death Newport, Rhode Island entered the African slave trade and remained the leading slave trading center all the way up to the American Revolution.
In one case, persecution was theology motivated, in the other case it was economically motivated. It never really matters. When a group wants something, they will always find the means to justify it. When a group succeeds in uniting with the police power of the State, minorities will suffer. Labels are a big part of the propaganda campaigns in advance of misdeeds by isolating the target, portraying them as a threat to the greater community, an instrument of Satan or a danger to society.
Labels become a higher priority in an adversarial or judgmental context. We know someone or something should be condemned, if only we can get the label right. What exactly is an atheist? Indeed, what is a believer? In what kind of god or God? Do you believe in an anthropomorphic God, one with human-like characteristics? Is your God male or female? Or do you believe in a more ancient model, a pantheistic god, a god who cannot be separated from the universe, that God and the Universe are one and the same? Or do you subscribe to an Eastern model of God, an infinite force that is everywhere at once? Or do you simply not know, but in talking about “God” infer something beyond human reference? There is a continuum between your literalist, fundamentalist believer at one extreme who believes in a personal God who hears and answers every prayer and another believer at the opposite extreme who believes in God as some manifestation of quantum physics, some indefinable energy field or force stripped of human characteristics–or believers not at all, at least not in any traditional sense. All of the world’s belief systems fit on that continuum somewhere. And the vast majority of them have mystical components to their spiritual lives that include good and bad spirits and ultimate rewards. Even many atheists have churches and services, rituals, liturgies and prayers.
How complicated life can be, when all we want is your basic “us versus them” so it can be clear who has truth and who is sadly in error. Continuums of any kind have no place in our group orthodoxy, because they introduce uncertainty and ambiguity. It is the insistence on certainty and final truth that makes any group dangerous to their fellow travelers, whether they are believers of the religious or secular stripe. Let any group of such believers get their hands on unchallenged power of the State, and we can be sure that whatever is left of the Constitution would be eviscerated overnight. The primary differences in our political parties today is only which parts of our lives they most want to control. They have no interest in the individual. Control of groups is the source of their power. The laws that are passed and enforced by the State’s monopoly on power are nothing more than the codification of the cultural beliefs of the majority. As always, behavior considered deviant by that group will be punished. You are either in or in trouble.
When we feel compelled to impose our sense of superiority or moral rightness on those around us, it is humbling to reflect that it was the Christian world that plunged us into warfare that eliminated 100 million of us during the 20th century. America is the most religious Christian nation on earth, and we have soldiers in over 170 countries, doing what exactly, other than maintaining our military-industrial complex and doing what empires do?
Bertrand Russell once said: “Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance.” Every group believes their group will be different. As a matter of fact, they’re certain of it!
The only sure protection in any society is to enshrine and protect the rights of the individual. Otherwise life is like entering a prison where the only safety lies in quickly being accepted and protected by members of one group from the predations of opposing groups. The government, as the warden of our society, has little interest in the individual, because what can one person offer the warden that he cannot get in greater abundance from the group? Is it any wonder then that our Constitution has been under assault almost from the day it was written?