On Tuesday, March 16, a 21-year-old gunman shot and killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent, at various massage spas across Atlanta, Ga. The shooter claimed he was simultaneously a devout Christian and a sex addict and that he aimed to rid his environment of temptation — a vile claim. Indeed, his own church condemned his actions in the name of Christianity. But religious beliefs have been used many times to justify various crimes.
In a recent political example, there have been multiple instances of wedding providers discriminating against LGBTQ+ couples in the name of religion, many of which have been considered justified, as “people are entitled to their beliefs.” If religion can be used to justify some actions but not others, where is the line? Which actions are appropriate if they are justified by religious beliefs but not if they are justified by individual beliefs, and why?
In accordance with the tenets in most major religions that call for equality and peace, no action directly harmful to others can be justified by religious beliefs.
The major world religions have many differences, yes, but one of the tenets they all share is some form of the Golden Rule: “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” This general principle can be found in religious texts, including those Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, among others. My understanding is that most of us would prefer not to be harmed, so, if one subscribes to a major religion, they should, accordingly, aim not to harm others. In belonging to a religion with the overarching commandment to “treat others the way you want to be treated,” one cannot use their religious beliefs to rationalize directly hurting others.
Sometimes, though, religious texts are perceived to command followers to not live their lives in certain ways. In the case of discrimination against LGBTQ+ couples, Christian wedding providers have justified discriminatory actions because of their religious beliefs, claiming the Christian Bible names homosexuality as a sin. However, as followers of our individual religions, it is not our job to impose those commandments on others. All we can do is follow the guidelines of our respective religious texts to the best of our abilities; we cannot control others’ actions, only our own.
Harming another on the basis of them not obeying a commandment is not justified by most religions because, in doing so, you fail to abide by the Golden Rule, while also enforcing your own rules in a situation in which they may not apply. The best thing for religious individuals to do is to follow the rules they, personally, can follow, while others must make that decision for themselves. Obeying the Golden Rule ourselves has to supersede imposing guidelines on others, causing harm in the process.
If religion is never a justifiable excuse for harmful actions, why, at the present, can it be used to justify some actions and not others? Where is the line between discrimination in an economic setting and murder?
I think the difference between which actions are and are not historically justifiable by religious beliefs lies in what kinds of harm we think of as acceptable. Societally, it seems as though we find physical harm more unjustifiable than emotional or psychological harm, as physical harm is more visually apparent. For example, a violent physical act creates corporeal harm with material consequences. We can identify with the physical pain and feel empathy, so we find it harder to justify. Conversely, an act like refusing someone service does not directly cause physical harm. We cannot see the pain such an act causes as clearly, and we may not be able to empathize, so we find it more easily justifiable.
Harm, though, is harm, regardless of its tangibility. I wouldn’t want someone to punch me in the face, and I also wouldn’t want someone to call me an offensive name or deny me a service on religious grounds, so why would I find it appropriate to do either to someone else? To treat others the way you want to be treated, with kindness and empathy, is to be a good follower of religion.
To hurt others in the name of your religion, though, is to contradict the very rules you claim to follow. No direct harm to another can be ethically rationalized with religious beliefs, for religion cannot become a breeding ground for hate.
Ilana Mermelstein is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.