In the early centuries of the development of Christian belief, there arose two fairly well-defined Christian positions.
The first was deliberately and aggressively anti-intellectual. The supporters of this position argued that since God had apparently spoken to us (through the words of the reasonably arbitrarily compiled scriptures) it was no longer necessary for believers to think. With it grew a more orthodox, but minority position, that whatever was good or true was necessarily Christian, having been underpinned by the word of the Christian God.. Two of the early protagonists in support of this position were Tertullian followed later by Jerome.
The opposing point of view posited that if God had given us intellectual capacity and an ability to reason, then surely He meant us to use these capabilities. The early Christians which were proponents of this point of view had been influenced by Greek philosophical thought which emphasised logic and reason. This approach was championed by St Augustine and taken up much later by St Bonaventura and Thomas Aquinas.
In pursuing our beliefs then we have two well-defined pathways: shall we slavishly follow what the ancients have written and purported to be the word of God or should we allow our beliefs to be shaped by our personal judgment and intellect?
Let me state my position clearly (if you haven’t guessed from the content of my previous writings) I belong to the latter group.
As a result from my various readings and discussions I have come to these conclusions:
1. Jesus was not the son of God and I am not convinced he even existed except as a trumped up character embodying the characteristics of his pagan predecessors in order to be attractive to a Middle Eastern audience two millennia ago.
2. Muhammad was an ordinary man and not a prophet who was intelligent enough (notwithstanding the various contradictions in the Quran) and pragmatic enough to be able to meld sufficient unity in various Arab tribes to consolidate an Islamic state and to eventually create an Islamic empire.
Many fundamentalist Christians and Muslims rely on their scriptures and affirm their unassailable literal truth and would vigorously oppose the positions I have put above.
It is interesting that the believers in Christianity and Islam would assert that their particular book undoubtedly contains the word of God (Allah) but would look askance for example at the Book of Mormon as purportedly (and just as improbable as the claims of Muhammad) revealed to Joseph Smith which has no more authority than their own scriptures, viz that it is purported to be the word of God and the only authority in support of such a claim is its own assertion!
Anyhow it is not my intention to coerce anybody into believing anything. Believe what you will but at least be consistent in how you approach those with differing beliefs.
It is instructful, I believe, to look at the current controversy regarding the Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Wilders’ platform seems to be that Islam is a totalitarian belief system which is inimical to liberal democracies. In its more radical form it attempts to usurp the law of the state and replace it with the illiberal concepts of Sharia law. He points out apostates and critics of Muhammad are threatened with murder. And we have seen the recent hysteria from the fundamentalists when cartoons depicting the prophet were published and a bad quality video critical of Islam was distributed.
No doubt by now you have ascertained I am not a Christian. But in support of Christianity and how they manage within a liberal democracy, I don’t see Christians trying to silence the press when they make allegations about sexual abuse by Catholic priests or prevent discussion about the agonizing issues concerning the Anglicans about the status of gays or the ordination of women. But when someone dares to criticise some of the more obnoxious elements of fundamentalist Islam, all of a sudden they are subject to vilification and death threats.
In a liberal democracy we must be prepared to hear the multifarious viewpoints of our citizens. Our democracy is demeaned when we fail to do so. I believe that people like Wilders should be heard. As people have pointed out in the press, Islamic spokespeople (sorry that’s an aberration – spokesmen!) with far more radical points of view than Wilders have been able to propagate their points of view without any significant impediment. Mind you, to their credit, a couple of Islamic organisations, in defiance of the more belligerent, reactionary factions of Islam, agree that Wilders should be listened to and his ideas debated freely.
The Australian newspaper recently published an article by Wilders. His language was temperate and he attempted to argue that Australia needed to guard against allowing Muslim immigration to undermine our democracy in the way he believes it has in Holland.
As I have argued many times, we do have to be vigilant that our freedoms are not eroded. Certainly I have been vocal in ensuring that freedom of speech is defended at all costs. That is why I believe Wilders must be allowed a voice. Contrast his situation with the picture of a man demonstrating against him holding up a placard saying something to the effect that “Those who insulted Islam should be beheaded”! This to me is an admission that fundamentalist Islam can’t be rationally defended therefore its adherents can’t allow their beliefs to be challenged!
I disagree with many of Wilders conclusions but we risk our freedom by curtailing his ability to put his point of view.
For example I would not support an argument to ban Muslim immigrants. It would be an anathema to me to ban anybody on the basis of their beliefs unless there was strong evidence that their presence in Australia presented a demonstrable threat to our way of life. Of course there are many moderate Muslims who are comfortable living in a pluralistic society and grateful to be here with no ambitions to impose by force their beliefs on others. They will add to and enrich the Australian population just as the waves of Italian, Greek, Chinese and South-Asian immigrants have already done.
But it does seem to me to be that a necessary condition that immigrants must meet is to adhere to the rule of Australian law and to recognise that our democracy depends critically on the proper separation of church and state. I would treat it as a failure of our democracy if we were to allow a minority to impose Sharia law on a subset of our population just as I believe it is misjudged when we allow our indigenous population to resort to “traditional law”.
So what am I trying to say here? I suppose I am advocating that we should be robust enough to allow exposure in popular debate to all points of views. We don’t have to agree with them but let us enable all the sages, all the delusional, all the bigots, all the idealists, to have a platform to put their ideas to us. In many ways that is the easy side to the equation for in response we must try to consider those viewpoints without rancour and defense and with a good heart and with as much rationality as we can eke out, then decide for ourselves what seems true to us. That is the way of democracy.
So then what would my message be to government? It is simply this – don’t try to shield us from anything because of political correctness and trust in our innate ability to reason with good sense. Similarly don’t allow minority groups to interfere with the proper relation between church and state. Beware of those who confect offense when their views are challenged! Encourage debate that some might feel uncomfortable because we get no where unless our comfort levels are challenged.