Are we free to choose our religious beliefs?
As I read the recent publications and follow conversations in blogs and fora concerning the decision of the European Court for Human Rights to abolish crucifixes from the school rooms of Italy, I reflect on the difficulty of seeing the obvious: that the presence of religious symbols reflects partiality in favor of a particular religion, and what is more, it is a declaration of power, an indirect imposition, and therefore it limits the citizens’ freedom, regarding both the choice and the expression of their religious beliefs.
All of us know of people who have sworn in court with their hand placed on the bible, simply in order not to risk displeasing a possibly religious judge. How free can we feel to declare that we are not christian, in a country were christian symbols reign?
How can a child choose whether to join a religion or not, and if yes, which religion that would be, while the crucifix is still hanging over the blackboard? How easy do you think it is to take a posture against the prevalent belief of society? How can nobody realize that the symbols and rituals of a religion (crucifix, icons, prayers, etc), when displayed in places where all citizens must go in order to fulfill their obligations or claim their rights (schools, courts of justice, police, army, public services), represent an imposition of that religion?
Oh but of course, it is not forbidden to belong to another religion or to have no religion. Let someone please go tell this to my daughter, who makes the sign of the cross during the morning prayer in the school yard, because all children do so, in spite of the fact that we are not christians and she has not been taught christian customs and traditions. Apparently nobody has ever taught her to, neither has anybody imposed this on her. She could of course go to the empty classroom on her own and wait for the others to finish, or stand apart, alone, next to the others, without crossing herself. I ask you to imagine a six year old, on first grade, in a new place, among new people, with new responsibilities, trying to adapt to a new situation, and on top of that having to make a statement about her religious beliefs – let’s face it, failure to participate in a christian ritual such as the prayer is an ideological statement. How can we possibly demand of young children to take such a grave ideological decision and assume its weight, either crossing themselves or not?
I would like to tell those christians who feel that their faith is being threatened, that they ought to be glad at the prospect of symbol removal from schools. Will the display of religious symbols make good christians out of the children? Probably the opposite is true: it will teach them to pretend, like my daughter does now, in order to be integrated. The essence of faith can not be taught by pure formalism of ritual. Those who truly care for christian faith will want the abolition not only of symbols and prayer from the schools, but also of the christian catechism euphemistically called “religion class”.
And all us fools, citizens of this country, divide into “christians” and “others” and fight over the display or removal of “their” symbol, instead of realizing that this symbol is a Damocles’ sword hanging over the heads of us ALL.
Let us all together turn our home into a FREE country, where nobody will need to cross themselves unwittingly, nor swear hypocritically, in order to feel socially integrated.
UPDATE: Following the example of mrs. Lauci in Italy, eight parents in Greece have sent petitions to the Greek Ombudsman asking for the removal of religious symbols and the abolition of prayer from their children’s school. Also, the Humanist Union of Greece has sent an open letter to the prime minister on the subject of the removal of religious symbols.