For example, I’ve indicated before that I am a strong supporter of Freedom of Speech. I think that’s a true statement. However, I am well aware of the fact that MY freedom of speech ends when it interferes with YOURS, or when it endangers the public at large. Thus, I can really only enjoy the right to speak my mind when I grant others the right to disagree, and/or don’t endanger others (the classic illegal “yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre” scenario). That means that “Freedom of Speech” is not an absolute right.
I would suggest that just as I support freedom of speech, I support the notion of freedom of religion. Again, however, I think that there are limits, and that they are much the same as for freedom of speech. That means that I am free to believe that MY religion is the only “correct” one, but I am not free to ACT on that belief in attempting to shut off YOUR right to believe that that is the case for the beliefs you espouse. Nor would it be proper for me to try to make laws which support my religious positions at the expense of yours.
According to Wikipedia: “Extremism (represented on both sides of the political spectrum) is an ideology (particularly in politics or religion), considered to be far outside the mainstream attitudes of a society or to violate common moral standards.” (emphasis added) What concerns me is that I think we, as a society, may be getting in the habit of using this term simply as a way of referring to those we disagree with and without considering the actual definition. I think I understand why this may be the case (it’s quick and easy, like slogans) but it may be putting us in the position of being just as extreme as those we would condemn. I will admit that the definition of extremism does require some careful thought as it creates a number of problems if we are going to use the term accurately, as we probably should.
The first problem is that we must attempt to define the “mainstream attitudes of a society….” Whose society? Which one? How can we meaningfully define “society?” We might be able to do that, at least to some extent, when we talk about a single country, but I’m not sure it’s really possible when that country is as large and diverse as the United States. One doesn’t have to look very hard to note that there are differences in social attitudes between rich and poor, urban and rural, geographic regions, etc., to say nothing of the traditional differences between young and old, male and female, etc. And, we haven’t yet touched on the racial, religious, and other differences which seem to be of considerable importance to many people. So, we seem to have a real problem in simply trying to define “mainstream attitudes” in a way on which all could agree, except, perhaps, on a VERY local level.
We MAY have an even more difficult time when we try to establish “common moral standards.” I think the difficulty here lies in the fact that many, probably most, of us look to our religious beliefs for the basis of morality. Hence, there seems to be a common assumption that OUR religious/moral background is (or should be) accepted as the basis for ALL “moral standards.” This is a difficulty because, while many of us MAY have similar religious/moral backgrounds, the fact is that we don’t have identical ones. Something as simple as the Ten Commandments can create problems….
Personally, I have little difficulty with commandments V-X. The ideas of: “honoring your parents;” “not killing;” “not committing adultery;” “not stealing;” “not lying;” and, “not coveting another’s house, spouse or possessions” seem to me to make a lot of sense as a reasonable basis for having a peaceful society. Commandments I through IV (as they are commonly listed) are somewhat more problematic because they seem to speak rather strictly in support of a specific group of religions which are based on the book which contains these “commandments.” It might be worth noting that that book (the Old Testament) contains what are claimed to be the founding principles of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the religions of “the book”). Based on some VERY cursory research, these ideas (all ten) would appear to be common to something just a bit over 50% of those who espouse a religion. Of course, that’s a long way from universal agreement, especially if we include the entire world as our society, which seems like a good idea, given the realities of present day life. But, even if we assume that commandments V through X represent ideas which we all could agree on, the fact is that we don’t actually follow them in practice.
“Thou shalt not kill” is a pretty definite statement and wouldn’t seem to allow much “wiggle room.” It simply says that killing is NOT okay. It makes no exclusion for killing under orders in the military, when engaged in the defense of a religious belief, or even in self-defense. Thus, we get around this “common moral standard” by making exceptions for police, the military, for defense of home and family, etc. However, some folks, apparently, would argue that killing is a proper way to enforce personal religious positions (like by killing abortion providers and justifying that by saying that their religious beliefs regarding the sanctity of the life of the “unborn” take precedence over civil law). That strikes me as just as extremist as killing a satirist for making fun of a religious leader. Imagine what could happen if we killed people for satirizing political leaders? Most of our humorists would be doomed! Goodbye to The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live and a lot more! The scary thing is that that HAS happened in history, and still does.
I will refrain from discussing coveting, lying and stealing, especially since it’s income tax season. I don’t think it’s really necessary to state that violations of these “standards” are often excused with statements like “Everybody else does it,” “I’m just trying to avoid being ripped off,” especially at this time of year. Given the constant stories in the popular media, it would be hard to suggest that not committing adultery is really a widely held virtue, as it is, apparently, not disapproved of to the extent that it really hurts the success of a fair number of celebrities, at least if the tabloid press is to be believed.
All this seems to suggest that finding “common moral standards” and “mainstream attitudes” may be more difficult that it first appears. My concern is that it appears that people of many religious persuasions have chosen to try to define acceptable attitudes and standards in terms of their own religious beliefs and then attempted to codify them into law. I think that that desire is understandable, but it seems highly dangerous.
It’s dangerous because once we define a specific religion as “normal, legal, proper:” we are defining those values which are different as “abnormal, illegal, improper.” Then, we make it worse by adding some sort of verbal preface (Islamic, Fundamentalist, Radical, etc.) to THOSE values and define them as “wrong,” when the fact is that they simply are different. Once we do that, we (the “good” people) believe that we should have the right to try to shut them down because THEY are outside of the accepted norm (they are the extremists) and WE are not (we’re the normal people). I think that is a pretty extremist position, in, and of, itself.
What makes this particularly dangerous is that it mixes religion into politics, which has been shown throughout all of Western history to have dangerous consequences. ALL religions, even subdivisions such as denominations, sects, etc. (at least every one I know anything about) maintain that IT (and only it) is the “complete, final, absolute TRUTH” and that any form of debate or discussion about that is not really possible. When that sort of attitude gets mixed into the political landscape, we are likely to have trouble.
Churchill is claimed to have said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” I think he was probably correct. Personally, I’d suggest that the worst possible form of government is a theocracy. That’s not because I’m against religion, but because I abhor the notion that any specific set of religious beliefs can be established as the only acceptable option. I’d suggest that if you don’t support abortion because of your religious beliefs, fine: don’t have one. But, please don’t suggest that YOUR religious beliefs trump mine and deny me the right to have an option. If you are against same sex marriage, that is your right. But, since we have chosen to use the same term to refer to both a religious AND a legal (civic) relationship, I am hard pressed to figure out how YOUR religious beliefs should be allowed to interfere with someone else’s legal rights under the “equal protection” clause of the US Constitution just because your RELIGION may choose not to sanctify this relationship. I’m not going to suggest that you, or your religion, must support this within the confines of your religious community (church), but to act to deny legal protection in the civic arena, is unacceptably extreme, at least to me.
I think the point here is that it’s become far too common for all sorts of political groups to adopt “religious” justifications for their actions or positions because that makes them unarguable. That may be comforting, but it seems highly unlikely to lead to any sort of peaceful resolution of the underlying questions because both sides are convinced that they are “right” and that their religious beliefs “prove” this. That being the case, no peaceful resolution is possible and one is justified in taking whatever actions one chooses to force the other side to accept a specific point of view as “Truth.” That seems to me to be a form of extremism of which far too many of us are guilty.
Unfortunately, when people start doing this with guns, bombs, and terror, it seems unlikely that it’s ever going to encourage others to actually accept any particular set of beliefs. It seems far more likely just to contribute to the atmosphere of violence and distrust which we call extremism (but only when referring to somebody else’s actions).
So, how do I propose resolving the problem of extremism? The fact is that I think it’s unlikely that it’s going to be resolved; especially as long as some people insist that only they have direct access to divine authority. A world which accepts that there might be many acceptable paths and is willing to discuss beliefs in a way which grants others the right to disagree might end extremism, but I’m sorry to say that I’m pretty pessimistic about that actually happening. Still, given that pessimists are surprised as often as optimists, but always pleasantly, it may not be too much to say that I still hope to be pleasantly surprised.