coexistI recently had a friend express to me the hurt he felt that his Christian family did not accept his alternate religious beliefs.   He then went on to explain that his own religious views did not require everyone else to abandon their views in favor of his.  His consternation at the closed-mindedness of Christian proselytizing was clear.  The pain and distress experienced by my friend was real and evident, and I expressed my sincere sympathy with what they were going through.

So why can’t we all just get along?  I’m sure you’ve seen the “Coexist” bumper sticker before (see the image above): each of the letters are formed to represent a religious or other ideological view.  The implication is that these ideologies have not been doing a good job of peacefully coexisting, and that world would be better if we all just got along.  Is that a fair interpretation of the message being communicated here?  Isn’t this also the message expressed by my friend?

Still, though, the application of this is pretty unclear, isn’t it?  The devil’s in the details, as they say.  We can cry for peace all we wish, but it cannot be achieved through declaration or emotion alone.  There are two problematic assumptions I see with the “coexist” approach.  1. All paths are presumed to lead equally to God, and/or 2. Religion is considered a placebo.  But both of these assumptions are really condescending towards anyone who takes religion seriously, aren’t they?

Concerning “all paths lead equally to God,” most religions differ with every other religion (and I include atheism in this) over the big questions of life.  What happens to our consciousness upon death: reincarnation, absorption into the great spirit, heaven or hell, extinction?  What is the significance of mankind: God’s special creation, insignificant happenstance of evolution, insignificance of illusory existence? Who was Jesus: a deceiver, a lunatic, the son of God?  All religions could be false, but under no circumstances can they all be True (with a capital “T”).

In regards to religion as a placebo, I mean that it is an atheistic view which presumes from the outset that all other religious views are false, but that it has some positive psychological benefit for the believer, so it is OK for a person to believe.  At least, it is so long as they don’t take it so seriously that it starts to affect other people in any way.

In either of these cases, religion is reduced to an ice-cream parlor in which you choose your favorite flavor, mixing and matching components as it suits you, to pick what appeals to you, and in which it would be ridiculous for someone else to say your preference is wrong.  But is religion simply a matter of opinion, like ice cream flavors, or are does religion refer to absolute truths which are independent of our likes and preferences?  The only good reason to hold a religious (or any other) view is because it is objectively true, and accurately reflects reality, isn’t it?  This makes it rather important to thoroughly investigate and compare coherence, consistency, and completeness of the core claims of any religion being considered, and see if they accurately explain the world we in which we live.

At any rate, this view of religious tolerance self-destructs.  Reflecting back on the conversation with my friend, I wish I had asked him why, if trying to change others’ religious views was such a great moral crime, he was trying to change his Christian family and my religious views?  After all, Christianity is a missionary religion, and respectful persuasion is part of our core beliefs.