Doing Unto Others

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The lack of flexibility in Fundamentalist cultures and religions (you cannot masturbate, you cannot have a gay relationship, you cannot marry outside your caste,  etc) is total, and it’s undeniable this leads to a lot of man-made suffering whether you believe such suffering is justified or not. Rigidity is one of those things all Fundamentalists have in common, but the problem’s not as simple as it first seems.

I read a story in the New York Times a few weeks ago about a Nigerian court that was punishing homosexuality with whippings, and how proud the judge was of his progressive views because the law officially allowed for the death penalty – and the crowds outside the courthouse were clamoring for the gay men’s deaths. If they were surrounded by people with less Rigidity in their Beliefs, those men would not have to suffer physical abuse and possible murder.

But that isn’t exactly a fair thing to demand, see: for people to stop believing what they believe. After all, isn’t that what they would say, the intolerant villagers, of people whose opinions they disagree with? That they should stop believing what they believe? Tolerant beliefs are better than intolerant beliefs but. It’s no better to force tolerant beliefs on others than to force intolerant beliefs – that would innately make the tolerant beliefs intolerant.

And if no one had any Rigidity in any of their beliefs, we’d all be aimless existentialists who could be convinced to allow anything: rape, looting, murder, etc. Rigidity of our Beliefs is necessary socially, and also gives life meaning. The problem here is something else at play.

The problem is in Rigidity of Consequences. The problem is when your cultural system or faith system tells you that based on your beliefs you should take some kind of action that harms or deprives others of their own beliefs or choices. Consider that a devout Christian who believes abortion is wrong and lives their life according to that belief in an independent and private manner is unimpeachable socially: they are depriving and harming no one. On the other hand, a devout Christian who believes abortion is wrong and misleads or intimidates vulnerable young women outside abortion-providing clinics during pickets or kills the doctors who work there with bombs and bullets is a horrible scourge upon our community. The Rigidity of their Beliefs is the same. The difference is the Rigidity of their Consequences.

At a certain point you stop being a faithful devotee and start being an officer of Team God: World Police. When a group of people stop worrying about being the best believers they can be and start worrying about how to force everyone else to believe what they believe, that’s when you get jihads, and the Inquisition, and dystopian nightmares the likes of V For Vendetta’s world. And equally, forcing liberal beliefs (which I hold dear) on others leads to left-wing dystopian nightmaresor at least some level of frustratingly guilt-based elitist nihilism.

Consequences of actions are rarely so clear or predictable that we should believe we have the knowledge necessary, much less the right, to take choices out of other people’s hands or put our own hands upon them.

Consider: every reasonable person hates the criminals who abduct and harm children. It seems intuitively moral, if extreme, to support the death penalty for child abductors and child rapists. However, regardless of your stance on the death penalty, this would be a pragmatically terrible decision for us all. If a child abductor knows his crime warrants the death penalty, he has no incentive to let the child live afterwards, and an added incentive to murder the child: so the child won’t be able to tell anyone or point the abductor out.

Rigidity of Consequences almost never works out well.

Most religions have some dictum built in about leaving the judgment-and-consequences job description to the higher power in the end, and I think this is the Safety Button that was worked into the system so reasonable people in every belief group would know to basically chill and live and let live. The same Safety Button should be easily accessible for those of us in various elevator levels of Non-Believer. Ideally, we all have some hard-line beliefs in our lives that we hold right up against our being and wouldn’t compromise on. Ideally, one of those beliefs is that you should let other people have their own.

Even if it means their own enjoyment cometh in mysterious ways.

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