The Governor of Arizona vetoed a bill yesterday that had a lot of people up in arms. Did you hear what the bill was about? I saw a lot of activity on social media with posts about discrimination and race and homosexuality. It seemed to me the bill must be about letting people decide to discriminate against minorities if they wanted. I assumed it must mention specific issues abridging a gay person’s rights. Who would support that? Stupid. This morning I finally got around to reading the bill. You know it is amazingly simple to get informed in our day and age. The bill I found is only two pages long. You can read it yourself in less than three minutes. Even with the legalese it isn’t hard to get through it. I was surprised at what I found. This bill isn’t about discriminating against gay people, its about protecting people’s rights to act according to their religious beliefs. That is what it says. The government is not allowed to make anyone violate their conscience. It is basically nothing more than a repetition of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Personally I am very happy to have the First Amendment guaranteeing me that no one can make my wife wear a burqa or tell me I can’t read the Torah. If you’ve looked around you know that religions ask people to believe and to do lots of things. What to wear, what to read, what to say, when to say it, who to associate with, who you can marry…tons of stuff. Most of it leaves somebody shaking their head one way or another. There is no sensitive way to say this, so here it is: freedom of religion means the freedom to act stupidly.
Now if it happens to be YOUR religion, it is the freedom to act piously or correctly or whatever, but if its someone else’s religion, that’s a different story. We all know this or feel this, but few of us can be real enough to say it out loud. And some religions take their particular set of beliefs and practices so seriously that venturing to criticize or laugh at them will get your name on a religious hit list. Religion is about pleasing God, improving the world and/or getting to heaven. If you believe in God, there aren’t many things that could be more important than your religion. Forcing someone to give up their religion’s belief structure is stealing their core identity. It is intolerant. It is evil. No matter how stupid it may seem to you.
The dirty little secret, though, is that only religious people try to force their religion upon others. The religious are both the oppressors and the oppressed. It is the nature of religion to enslave, not to free. If you really believe you have THE set of beliefs and behaviors that please God and that God can only be pleased by people believing and acting upon these things, you cannot help but look down upon those who don’t. You have to relegate them to second class citizenship. You have to oppress them either implicitly or explicitly. You have to discriminate against them. They are the people messing up the world by acting in ways that displease God. They are the ones who bring judgment on all of us.
Great, you say – I was looking for someone to finally agree with me that religion is the problem so we can all agree to get rid of it. But it isn’t so easy as that. The absence of God or gods does not mean the absence of religion. If you have what you think are THE set of beliefs and behaviors that will make the world a better place if everyone would just adopt them, you have the same issues as the religious people. You don’t have a God you have a Good that you worship and serve. You are in fact, a religious person without a religion. And you look down upon those who don’t hold your beliefs. You are intolerant of them and you oppress them in the name of your Good. Your non-religious religion is just as enslaving as any other. The fact is there is no such thing as religious freedom.
I will make a claim here that will make many of you scoff, but it is true. The Christian gospel is not religion. The Christian gospel is the opposite of religion. I am not saying Christians are not guilty of religious abuses. I am not saying Christians don’t do stupid things in the name of Christianity. I am saying that the Bible does not teach religion. The Bible is not the story of what we must do to please God or to get to heaven or to make the world into a great place. The Bible tells the story of what God has done to help us, to fix what is broken, to get us to heaven and to make the world a better place. The Christian gospel is not about bad people gradually becoming better people from the outside in by their beliefs and behaviors; it is the story of God changing people from the inside out when they start believing what he has done and that he is for them. People who rightly believe the gospel have no business looking upon others as second class citizens because they are not keeping the right rules and holding the right beliefs. Christians know that they are not making the world or themselves better because they keep the rules or believe the right things. They know it is a miracle of grace that they have come to believe the gospel. They can’t give themselves any credit for it. God is the one making everything better by what he does. Christians don’t expect to be better people than their neighbors and have no glory in it if they are. A Christian can only claim to be loved by God for no good reason, and because they know that the last thing love can be is coercive, they know better than to try forcing the gospel into anyone’s life. It can’t be done. There is no such thing as religious freedom, but there is freedom from religion. The gospel is freedom from religion. It is freedom to love people who really disagree with us. It is freedom to know that God is the one who will make everything right in its time and in his way.