Eighty-one years ago Franklin Roosevelt remarked during his second inaugural address that the test of our progress “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Though he was speaking, at the time, of the challenges facing the United States, we would do well to consider Roosevelt’s words when casting an eye over our own society.
This topic — progress — is admittedly one that I consider often, yet I have rarely considered it in the context of religion today. In conversation with a friend last week, I was alerted to a concern of his: that the St Andrews Christian Union was actively working to convert students. While never particularly concerned by this myself, I found it an intriguing question: is active conversion on campus a problem?
Many would argue, I am sure, that living in a free, and secular society as we do, it seems out of place to be submitted to attempts, however subtle, at religious conversion. Indeed, recognizing others’ right to worship, or perhaps in this case, to not worship, appears to be incompatible with such attempts.
There are many further charges that could be levelled at this behaviour. For one, it could be said that active attempts at conversion infringe on people’s liberties — such propositions are in breach of people’s privacy, and possibly, their comfort. Secondly, the individuals involved in these attempts could be accused of preying on people’s vulnerabilities, an especially relevant point in an isolated university town whose student population is comprised primarily of young and impressionable outsiders, far from their families, and far from home.
In a way, the fact that we can even envisage concerning ourselves with this issue, is a testament to the social progress we have achieved; yet in itself this reveals a significant deficiency in the way we think: we collectively lack a broader historical, cultural, and ethical consciousness.
Curiously, it seems as though progress has made us blind to itself; the more we better our society, the more we take this change for granted. We are in a time of incredible religious freedom in the West, and it is surprising that in St Andrews, of all places, we fail to be reminded of this. Less than five hundred years ago, and but a few streets from where, week after week, students sit flippantly waiting for their 50p toasties while facing the ‘threat’ of religious conversion, a twenty-four year-old was burned alive for holding beliefs that were in contradiction of the regnant worldview. In the Western societies of today, such sanctioned persecution is simply unimaginable, and we would do well to recognise the value in this.
But our concern with active attempts at conversion constitutes a problem beyond a lacking appreciation for our tremendous freedoms: it shows a dangerous absence of awareness of the world at large. As I am writing this, and as you are reading it, there are countries that retain millennium-old blasphemy laws which see ‘heretics’ lashed (Sudan), and even put to death for their views (Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen). Each moment that we spend discussing the propriety of our University’s Christian Union is a moment that we spend ignoring issues that are of vastly greater importance, perhaps not directly to us as imdividuals, but to the ideals that we would like to see pervade any world we call modern: the freedom of expression, of worship, and of thought, in other words the personal liberties that underpin the ideological basis of Western society.
Of course, this is not to deny the importance of issues within our own society, or to dismiss them as ‘first world’ problems; there are still countless problems that should receive our undivided attention — socioeconomic and gender inequalities and discrimination on the basis of race and sexual orientation, to name a few. But we should also focus on expanding the reach of rights that we already take for granted to areas in which they are not present.
I began this article with some words from Franklin Roosevelt, and I will, albeit in a circuitous way, end on them. It should be absurd to concern ourselves with religious activity that, at worst, will result in some minor inconvenience or discomfort when there are individuals similar to us in every way who live in fear of persecution and violence; in short, it should be absurd to concern ourselves with ever-so-slightly increasing the liberties that we possess in abundance when there are those who lack them in their most basic of forms.