My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
My somewhat tongue in cheek post about the firing of the Rapport columnist, Deon Maas, earlier this week and a subsequent post on the Thought Leader page have elicited strong comment from several quarters berating me for my intollerance and lack of respect for the freedom of religion of others. Others have said that the successful campaign to get Maas fired from Rapport was merely an expression of freedom of expression and religion and that I am just a hateful person for calling such people bigots.
As a guy called Attie du Plessis memorably summed it up on Thought Leader:
We live in the real world where some people have chosen to keep their faith. Just because you are to[o] small minded to understand that choice is the basic foundation of our society, does not give you the right to critisize.
It seems to me this criticism emanating from people who support the axing of Deon Maas, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of freedom of religion (and freedom of speech) in a democracy.
What they are saying is that they see their religious beliefs as so sacred and untouchable that they have the right to silence anyone who in any way challenges those beliefs. Rapport, they seem to say, is our newspaper, and if anyone is going to be allowed to write anything in that paper that does not square with what we believe already, we have a right to get rid of that person. This is the freedom we have to use our commercial muscle to shut up things or ideas we do not wish to be confronted with or know or think about.
They talk the language of “choice” and “freedom” but their actions reflect a profound distrust of choice because they wish to prevent the exercise of any meaningful choice and thus the exercise of any meaningful freedom.
In my opinion, at the heart of the South African Bill of Rights is the notion of dignity in freedom, the idea that one can only truly live a life in which one’s dignity is respected if one has the choices to decide who one is, what one believes in and how one wants to live. This requires food to eat and a roof over your head, yes, but also the education and the exposure to different ideas that would make one’s life choices meaningful.
Of course, one must be free to choose one’s religious beliefs or whether one wants to believe in anything at all (I like the Australian bumper sticker that says: “Everyone has to believe in something – I believe I will have another beer), but that belief must be a genuine one based not on habit or tradition, but on an active choice made after some exposure to opinions that are not shared by the majority of people in one’s community or the country.
If I was born into a Christian or Muslim family and I was never exposed to ideas about other religions or belief systems, then my choice to remain a Christian or a Muslim would not really be a religious choice respecting my dignity at all – it would merely be a choice not to upset my parents or not to face up to other powerful societal forces, a choice to conform and to do what is expected of me. That is not religious belief but religion as culture. But I would make an even stronger and somewhat controversial claim: I believe that in the absence of such a choice I would not be living a life of dignity in freedom, but a life of un-freedom and (internalised) oppression.
I always think it strange that many people who believe that their god is the one true god – and believe this passionately and with much conviction – do not seem to revel in the opportunity to test their beliefs against the beliefs or non-beliefs of others. Such people seem to express a severe insecurity about their beliefs – as if any mention of other beliefs or non-believing will threaten the very core of their existence.
The people who had the columnist at Raport fired for presenting a view that differed from their own, therefore seem to me to be rather defensive about their beliefs and do not at all seem sure that these beliefs would stand up to scrutiny. Either that, or they are just plain intolerant, narrow-minded and hateful and think: we are the majority and we do not like this so we will stop this person from having a say in our newspaper.
The problem is of course that many adherents to almost every religion believes that theirs is the one and true religion and that their god is extra special and thus demands obedience and respect from all – even non-believers. The very nature of strong religious beliefs therefore often seems to make religious tolerance difficult if not impossible. If I believe only my god can save the world from eternal damnation and if I believe only my god is the Truth, why would I want to listen to what others have to say: I would be certain and would really have a duty not to be led astray by sex or drugs or rock and roll or philosophy.
This kind of religious certainty has, of course, caused much conflict and death in the world and will continue to do so. Like all absolute certainty, it seems deeply illiberal (to use a favourite Ronald Suresh Roberts phrase) and perpetuates hatred and fear in the world. It is that certainty that is at its heart intolerant and, I have to say, bigoted, because it condemns all other views and all others who hold such views (“turn on burn” says the Christians for instance) and demands uncritical obedience.
Our Constitution tries to steer a middle course by saying all religions and all religious beliefs must be respected and protected along with other beliefs and opinions. The problem is that many religious groups find it shocking to have their religion relegated to just one more belief system that can be discussed and debated and criticised alongside others. How dare you compare Satanism with the Holy NG Kerk?! That shock stems from an unfortunate intolerance and hatred of Others that comes with the absolute certainty of one’s own beliefs.
In the end the Constitutional Court’s demand for respect for diversity and respect for the dignity in freedom of every person is not easily squared with the kind of religious intolerance and hatred of Others that so many believers still cling to. I suspect no matter what the Constitutional Court or anyone else say, this kind of certainty is not to be dislodged, so we will continue to live in a society in which intolerance of other views and hatred of “the Other” will thrive.
Finally, I would contend that by putting forward this argument I am not displaying intolerance, as alleged by my detractors, because I am not saying believers should not be allowed to write articles in Rapport where they can denounce my views or even me. I am saying, let us express our views frankly and openly and let us talk about it and let us see who wins the argument. If that is intolerant, then thank god for intolerance.BACK TO TOP