03 November 2014

Muslim Extremists and Why the West Needs to Start To Take Meaning Seriously

Thanks to Thomas Jefferson, the US was founded not just with religious freedom but freedom from religion. Others wanted to have a church-member in good standing requirement for politicians that he dismissed.

There is, in the West, still a misunderstanding about religious freedom. You can hear it in this video when the Muslim extremist protests his lack of freedom to take away the freedom of another person. ("Why can't I tell you to cover up? Where's my freedom?") You get an insight into the minds of religious extremists in this remarkable piece of reporting from Clarissa Ward. What has fueled progress in the West is that we no longer bind people to the unproven - and unproveable - beliefs of others. The simpletons she interviews - whether intentionally or unintentionally - don't get that distinction.

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One would hope that people in the West would gather at least two lessons from this video.

One - particularly for the US - we can hope that anyone who wants to impose laws on others because of their own religious beliefs will see how absurd that is. The simplest difference between good religion and bad may simply be whether it is imposed on others or on one's self. You believe that at the moment of conception a zygote is fully human? Fine. Impose that belief on yourself but not another who might feel that sperm and egg aren't human until weeks or months past the point of conception.

Two, it's long overdue for the West to offer young people an approach to life that gives their lives meaning even if they aren't the best, aren't great athletes, celebrities, or rich. We tell them the game is to become these things but don't tell them what to do when it looks as though they won't be winners in this game. That can lead to a crisis of meaning that neither markets nor elections can address. There has to be more to life than capitalism and democracy but in the West such matters are not part of the public sector. If you feel alienated from this system, you're vulnerable to extremists beliefs like the characters Ward interviews.

We need to take meaning more seriously, to help people to construct meaning even while insisting that beliefs that can never be proven never be forced on others. This is no trivial task. In fact, it might be as big a challenge as the work of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson to articulate and enact religious freedom. It's a project worth taking seriously but one that the  modern West has - so far - left to pop songs.

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