Today, Jan. 16, is Religious Freedom Day, commemorating the day in 1786 that the Virginia General Assembly adopted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson. That statute became the basis for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
I encourage readers to read the entire statute; available from multiple sources online. It is a scathing commentary on the problems with organized religion and religious leaders. =Even then, they were a thorn in people's sides.
The statute makes it clear that the Founding Fathers meant religious freedom to be freedom from any coerced form of religion.
The statute begins, "Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;" a free mind and a free will being integral to our free choice of a relationship with God, however we understand him. Surely we have to come to God willingly; we can only have a relationship that is entered into by choice; a forced choice in this relationship would be no more ethical than a forced marriage.
But if God had wanted to force us to believe and worship, he could have created us with inborn beliefs and bowed heads. I have never understood the logic of evangelization either through law, fear or force.
Clearly we are meant to make a free choice. So why have some appointed themselves as God's arm twisters? As the statute says, "all attempts to influence it [the free mind] by temporal punishment or burthens ,... tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness."
If you have faith in the goodness of your religion, then have faith in its ability to survive and even thrive without your bashing anyone with your holy book, literally or figuratively. Haranguing against people will only cause them to avoid you. On the other hand, people who are kindly invited and who feel understood may give your religion a try.
Narrow-mindedness, unquestioning obedience to authority and phobias about differences are counterproductive. Jesus' commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" means love your neighbor just as he or she is; communicate, listen, and do your best to understand.
It does not mean love your neighbor only inasmuch as he or she is exactly like yourself. It does not mean you have to change your neighbor. Leave your neighbor's perceived faults alone; be open and respectful of others' points of view.
As the statute says, "Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself."
A good friend of mine was raised in a traditional church. She was also educated as an anthropologist. She grew to be so repulsed by the narrow-mindedness and hateful xenophobia of her church that she left religion altogether, declared herself agnostic, and did not raise her son in any religious tradition.
When the son was five years old, she took him with her while she went to vote. In line immediately in front of them, a man started talking to her son, asking, "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, little boy?" to which her son of course replied, "no," since he had no idea what the man was talking about.
The man was instantly offended and demanded that her son get on his knees and pray for forgiveness. Her son's response was to run and hide behind his mother's legs.
She told the man, "Stop that! You're scaring him!" The man denied it: "No, I'm not." Even with a trembling wide-eyed five-year-old peeking at him, this man could not see what a monster he appeared. As Jesus said, "cast the beam out of thine own eye."
Thus the statute reads: "Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever."
Celebrate Religious Freedom Day by giving others space to follow their own paths.