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In the same boat, paddling all ways

Updated: February 25, 2012 8:09AM

‘The Western world no longer aspires, as did the Western Europe of Dante’s day, to be a place of a single faith,” A.N. Wilson writes confidently in his recent book, Dante in Love.

Really? It doesn’t? Has Western society given up that dream? Because many in the United States’ particular corner of civilization seem not to have gotten the memo.

Maybe it’s the scientist in me, but I’m always looking for what Einstein called the “Theory of Everything” — one formula that explains the world, and clinging to the hope that society will someday be populated entirely by your co-religionists seems to explain a lot of our current political discourse.

Think about it. Religion in the West is voluntary, in theory. You get it from your parents, but you keep it, or not, of your own free will. You can tithe, be chaste, renounce homosexuality, avoid contraception, condemn abortion and pray three times a day — five times a day, facing Mecca, if you so desire. Nobody stops you, nobody forces you.

This enormous bounty — the dream of so many oppressed faiths for centuries — is not good enough for some. Believing their faiths to be drops of Truth from the lips of God, they want — no, they insist — that everybody else practice their religion too, compelled by law if need be. That society is steadily marching in the opposite direction — toward a tapestry of varying beliefs, all given equal respect — doesn’t even register.

I don’t go to church, so I can’t speak to whether this is a point of discussion among the faithful. It should be — there should be a diversity prayer, thanking God for making us in so many varieties (that is God’s handiwork, right? Or did He make just you, and the others are unfortunate mistakes?)

My guess is there is no such prayer. Because coercing others is so popular, a reflection of power — any group that feels numerous enough to compel unbelievers to comply, tries to. It needn’t be a church. Muslims do it. Jews too, though typically too tiny a minority to be tempted — you never heard Joe Lieberman musing dreamily on a Kosher nation. But should the opportunity arise, we take the bait, and you have ultra-Orthodox in Israel spitting on girls. You’d think centuries of being on the wrong end of that spit would give them pause. But no . . .

Those who believe in religion-by-force have a ready answer — these tenets are not mere religious mandates, but what is right. Both God’s truth and good policy. Straight marriage is harmed if gays can do it; the fact that this supposed damage does not manifest itself in any concrete fashion isn’t on the table for discussion. They believe it, on faith.

That’s the trouble with faith, the belief in things without tangible reason. While it can enrich your own personal life — I believe my dead grandmother is smiling down from heaven, guiding my destiny — it sours if you try to force it upon others, if I try to get the constitution of the state of Illinois to reflect the wishes of my dead grandmother, smiling down from heaven, guiding our destinies.

Churches attempt to gloss over this free will/compulsion gap. Consider church outrage following the government trying to require Catholic organizations to buy their workers health insurance that pays for contraception. Even though no one morally opposed to contraception will be forced to use it, even the offer insults church leaders. It implies they don’t live in a Catholic world, which — stop the presses — they don’t.

Most Catholics of reproductive age use contraception banned by their church. So why should the government conspire with official Catholicism to thwart them? Is that government’s job? If the church can’t inspire its own adherents to follow its rules, how can it imagine that the government should?

So that is today’s question. Is religion voluntary? Should some faiths have their quirks encoded into law, a favor to those who aspire to see their beliefs reflected everywhere they look? Many Christians, maybe because their experience beyond their communities is so limited, seem to believe they will eventually force society — through their faith, plus the aid of God, of course, and the authority of law — to bow to their beliefs.

How long will they harbor that aspiration? Can they ever let it go? And must the rest of the country indulge them?

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