Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ethics and Apostasy

Following on from the spiritualism post and, for that matter, the atheist bus post, I've been pondering the nature of apostasy; the ethics that surrounds the acceptance or otherwise of someone's intention to leave their religion. Many religions stigmatise such a move, and from their "we're right, everyone else is wrong" perspective that's understandable, if not always appropriate. An individual who waves the banner for their particular faith or creed, demanding universal respect will not necessarily hold back in criticising those who, for reasons however valid, realise that the religion is no longer something that they can feign or sustain a belief in.
It's a curious discrepancy; it's not just that people demand a freedom of religion for themselves, they will happily allied themselves with members of other religions in their fight against what they perceive as secular encroachment. But the idea of converting from one religion to another remains an act whose severity shows the loose foundations on which such alliances are built. Unless of course it's someone converting in.

Here, as I see it, is the problem. You're dealing with salvation. Whichever religion you pursue, you own a dream ticket, be it to heaven, a higher vibration, valhalla or whatever. Your friends and family have the same ticket, and the importance of the ticket goes above and beyond any earthly concerns. If someone turns their back on their religon then, to the faithful, they are not only insulting their godhead or prophet, but are selling themselves down the proverbial, condemning themselves to damnation of one flavour or another. So it's understandable from the perspective of the faithful, for such a departure to be heavily criticised; criticised more than pretty much any sin going. Thus we get religious shunning, and in less progressive regimes, execution.

What we have here are two conflicting pressures - the faithful generally recognise that other religions exist, and have a right to exist. Some may even acknowledge that atheism and secularism does too. But they also "know" that their religion is right; that the other paths have a right to exist, but are nevertheless wrong. So when someone of their flock decides that Jehovah, or Allah, is not for them, then that decision tends to lead to a fair amount of conflict. The question we must ask ourselves is, where do we draw the line - when do we view someone's decision as valid. It's an awkward question, because it can't be imposed without placing a judgement on someone else's values, thinking and beliefs. We can't even draw the line, even in the sand, without falling foul of the conflict we're attempting to avoid.

Sadly, though, these things aren't even thought through. The faithful will go with their gut instincts, their moral compass (ho ho) and act accordingly. It seems to me, from the security of my atheism, that the best someone can do is to let go but to keep the lines of communication open. Maybe the decision-making hasn't been done in earnest; perhaps it's just that there are a few border-line acceptable sins (homosexuality, shellfish, usury...) that the person wants to have a crack at. Maybe, though, the decision has been long thought about through agonised and sleepless nights. Maybe, and here is the sign of greatest courage, maybe they are right, and it is you who are wrong. To cast out one's apostates, to ignore them, runs the risk of missing the truth when it finally comes around.

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