If you’ve recently walked through the Diag around midday, you may have seen a particularly verbose evangelist in front of the Hatcher Graduate Library. He’s there regularly, and I usually ignore him. But the other day he was arguing with a little boy in a yarmulke, so I couldn’t help but pass by extra slowly to eavesdrop. Evidently, I wasn’t sly enough. The man quickly turned to me and asked if I was Jewish, too. By saying yes, I unintentionally piqued his interest, and by stopping, I obliged myself to listen to his predictable rants about abortion and homosexuality. After ten minutes of outlining a set of beliefs entirely opposite to my own, he said, “I bet you say ‘God damn it,’ too.”

“Sometimes it slips out,” I answered, truthfully. “But you know what, I don’t think that’s taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Out of boldness, I continued. “No, I think taking the Lord’s name in vain is more like standing out in a crowd, telling everyone that they’re going to Hell unless they believe exactly what you believe because somehow, you and you alone know exactly what God is looking for.” With that, I got up to leave in a huff. As I left, I turned to the boy, said, “Kid, keep your yarmulke on,” and walked away.

And as I walked, I thought there might be something more to what I had just said than merely an adrenalized, theatrical response to the evangelist’s proselytizing. After all, it’s pretty literal thinking that “God damn it” is the consummate use of the Lord’s name in vain, and I’ve never been one for literal Biblical discussion. On one hand, it’s a safe bet to take the words “Thou shalt not kill” literally, but what does “to take the Lord’s name in vain” really mean, anyway? Is it a matter of actually saying the word “God” in conversation? Does it refer to insincere prayer or empty good deeds?

Clearly, it’s more than a petty matter of semantics. For me, taking God’s name “in vain” refers to the occasionally arrogant attitudes of those who discuss the Lord. Obviously, no mortal has any pure knowledge of the Creator. Religions are called “faiths” because in order to believe, people must have confidence in what they can’t see. Having some sort of faith — even faith that there is no god at all — is important. But to condemn others for alternate beliefs on a subject about which no mortal can know anything absolutely is idiotic. And it’s a historical habit (think the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition) that society needs to kick in these modern times.

In some academic seminars, liberal dinner parties and hipster café conversations, it’s posh to suggest that religion is the cause of more bad than good. Surely, much of history’s hatred has arisen out of blind religious differences. Even today, around the globe, the vast majority of conflicts are instigated by religious fanaticism. But the problem does not inherently lie with organized religion. It’s sort of like how guns don’t kill people, people kill people — religion can be a positive tool, but in the hands of those who neither respect nor understand it, religion can also be deadly.

What ought to change is not the teachings of Christ or Mohammed or other brilliant, holy visionaries. It seems that across the board, those principles are more or less kosher. The real problem lies with unintelligent interpretation of those teachings, and the heinous actions of unthinking sanctimony. Hate crimes are committed and wars are started by obstinate people who refuse to believe that they could possibly be wrong. But everyone needs to understand that no one knows the truth on this issue. The only reasonable thing to do is to have a discussion about faith, rather than a lecture.

As students at the University, we’re taught to question accepted norms and implored to push the envelope and reach new conclusions. Our personal faiths and philosophies build us into people who have something to say. So say it. But don’t imperiously push your beliefs on anybody else as if your way is the only way of God. Because that is really taking the Lord’s name in vain.

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