Sunday, April 01, 2007

We are all the products of our history!

It is a well established fact that religion plays a major role in American society. Not only are most Americans believers in God (90% say most polls) but they are also quite “religious” (in the sense of “member of a religion”) - 87% say they identify with a specific religion (here).

It is interesting to keep in mind that this is a distinct American feature in the Western world - the U.S. population showed a greater interest in religion than any of its Western counterparts (source here).

63% of those polled saying religion was important in their lives against only 23% of the British or 24% of the Germans (although it remains high in Italy with 51%) and guess who’s at the bottom: well, the French of course with only 17% who say that religion is important to them.

In our democratic societies, the real question is whether by their “lives” people mean their private or their public lives. Is there a line to be drawn and if so, where should it be drawn?

Most American Christians will tell you that there can be no distinction can be made between “public” and “private” because you cannot put your faith aside when you’re in public as it is a part of who you are. The French on the other hand will tell you that faith should remain entirely private and that too much public display of religious beliefs can threaten civil unity by setting people apart, causing potential discrimination, inequity, and prejudice.

Both view are obviously the products of different historical processes of course, the French gained their freedom by opposing religious tyranny (the powerful Catholic Church which supported the absolute monarchy) when the Americans gained freedom by establishing religious freedom. So of course, no wonder that religion should be associated with tyranny in one case and with freedom in the other.

Yet, you might think that by now, both peoples would have come to terms with their histories and have had a middle-of-the-line approach. But no, we are definitely the products of our histories, and it contaminates our every action in the public and political fields.

The French have banned conspicuous religious symbols in French public in primary and secondary schools because they perceive it as a threat to their unity. A majority of the population favors the ban (69%).

On the other hand, a majority of Americans (62%) say that they would not vote for a candidate who is an atheist, even though a vast majority (68%) said they believed someone could be moral and an atheist (only 26% said they did not).

So the French can tread on the principle of personal freedom ( even though “liberté” is one of the cherished national mottos) because of their negative perception of religion while the Americans can use religion as a tool for public discrimination, the exact opposite of what the Founding Fathers are said to have wished for. In both case, it is perception of religion as a direct result of history which has led both countries astray.

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