Various atheist sites I visit comment about the curious fact that, while Christians in the US form the majority and dominate public discourse, many consider themselves to be persecuted. Often this “persecution” seems to be society not allowing them to impose their religious opinions on non-believers. Well, a friend shared an article with similar claims from a Hindu in India, including specific objections to those who eat beef. I think the parallels with Christianity are worth discussing.
Recently, at the 6th All India Hindu Summit, a speaker called for beef-eaters to be “hanged in public” (article here). This is part of a more general persecution speech: As the article notes, Hindus make up nearly 80% of India’s population, and yet the speaker saw them as “living under threat”, and encouraged stocking of arms to protect their families. There was also specific mention of dealing with “secular Hindus” first, similar to how outspoken former Christians can be viewed as particular enemies of Christians.
This particular speaker has been condemned by many and appears to express an extreme point of view. But in Hindu tradition, cows are considered sacred because they are believed to be the mother of all. And if a person sincerely believes cows are the mother of humanity, it makes sense that they think it wrong to kill and eat them. However, that leads to conflict with others who don’t believe that cows are the mother of humanity, but do believe they make good food. How can you expect someone else to change their behaviour based on something you think is wrong and they don’t?
This article discusses possible historical reasons for the ban on beef-eating. However, it also highlights the fact that beliefs have consequences. It’s not enough to say “don’t kill cows”: If you truly believe cows are the mother of all, you should consider how they are cared for and not just leave them to starve.
There are other consequences, too. Cow vigilantes have been known to kill people suspected of being involved with slaughter of cattle. Cows can be worth nearly twice as much as meat cows in neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, encouraging illegal trafficking operations. Supporters of the ban state:
For traffickers, nothing appears to be sacrilegious or illegal. They are apparently driven solely by greed.
But maybe it’s just the free market at work?
Personally, I eat beef, and don’t have a problem with it. I don’t remember eating it in my visits to India, though I’m sure there were times I was served a non-veg curry and didn’t ask what was in it. But I’ve certainly had beef in Indian curries here in Australia. And I don’t imagine I’d get a favourable response from beef farmers here if I told them they were “driven solely by greed”.
However, as my friend commented, many Westerners get upset that there are countries where cats and dogs are eaten, because they are animals we view as pets. Maybe we should remember that there are many people in other countries who are at least as upset that we eat beef or pork.
I think this example shows some of the difficulties inherent in trying to establish what belongs in a universal code of morality. Reading Indian newspapers suggests the common view there is that harming cows or eating beef is self-evidently wrong. I’m sure for many it is something that they have known from childhood, and it is something that all their friends agree with them on. And yet few Westerners would view this as a moral imperative. Those who do probably do so for different reasons: perhaps because they object to the sufferings of animals raised for meat, or because they think our meat production is increasing climate change.
Just because you grew up thinking something wrong and all your friends think it wrong doesn’t make it wrong. And if someone asks “Why?”, there has to be a reason for it, not just “Everyone knows that is wrong”. It can be difficult to distinguish between opinions that are widely and strongly held and opinions that are universally true.
I suspect the person who asks why is more likely to be persecuted than the silent majority who just accept the view of society. Many will assume that they are really just asking because they are deviants wanting an excuse to break these self-evident rules. But in fact they can be doing the community a favour. If there is a good reason for the rule, then knowing what that reason is can help with correctly applying the rule. And if there isn’t a good reason, then maybe it would be good to drop the rule and stop the vigilantes causing harm.
Parallels with Christian beliefs
For many Christians, there are practices that are self-evidently wrong: Common ones would be homosexuality, sex before marriage, and abortion. To some, these are so self-evidently wrong that they can’t understand how society accepts them. Particularly since the US (or Australia) is (or was) a “Christian nation”. Maybe it is yet another sign of the last days and that the world is corrupt and sinful (aren’t they lucky to have been saved from that corruption?)
When asked why these practices are wrong, sometimes reasons are given: statistics about problems with particular lifestyles, facts about when life begins, etc. And those reasons should be considered, though even if they turn out 100% true I’m not sure how much we should restrict others “for their own good”.
Sometimes, though, the reason boils down to “The Bible says it’s wrong”. Take for example this recent article, condemning the reasons I gave above as “pragmatism, not Christianity”. For things that just affect individual believers, I’m happy with them choosing to follow the Bible. But trying to impose a law on everyone based solely on the words of the Bible will affect many who don’t recognise its teachings as self-evidently true. As a society we try to uphold freedom of religion, but that does not necessarily mean freedom to discriminate against others in the name of religion.
Many of these beliefs have consequences, because believers have to co-exist with unbelievers who don’t accept the authority of the Bible, let alone that their actions are self-evidently wrong. When opposing these actions, believers can cause significant harm. For example, anti-abortion attackers have murdered doctors performing abortions, similar to how cow vigilantes have murdered suspected cow traffickers. In both these cases, the attackers have probably felt morally justified in preventing their victim from doing the wrong thing - even though those victims don’t believe they have done wrong. And in both cases it is a tiny minority who act on their beliefs that way - but clearly they are acting on their beliefs.
Finally, even if you have been brought up to believe the Bible condemns a particular practice, it’s worth considering how clear the message is. For just about every controversial topic, it is possible to find some groups of Christians that double down on “This is what the Bible says, and I’m sticking to it”. However, other groups of Christians conclude that some of the verses used have been misinterpreted, or that there are other principles or verses that should override them. Personally, I’m not convinced all those alternative interpretations are valid. But it is a reminder that in most cases the Bible does not speak directly and unambiguously to our current situation. It requires interpretation, and sometimes those interpretative steps are missed because everyone already knows what it says. That’s not applying Bible teaching: that’s imposing a particular Christian culture and assuming there’s a Biblical warrant for it.
Like certain Hindu groups, some Christian groups become known for making vocal objections to the beliefs and actions of non-believers. But I think there are plenty of people around who view these Christian talking points as just as crazy as hanging people for eating beef. Believers should think very carefully before trying to impose their view of what is right and wrong on non-believers.