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HEARTS of the CITY | Navigating the Real World

A rotating panel of experts from the worlds of philosophy, psychology and religion offer their perspective on the dilemmas that come with living in Southern California.

May 14, 1997

Today's Question: As long as no laws are broken, the 1st Amendment of the Constitution allows free religious expression, giving groups the right to espouse what scoffers might call dumb, misguided or mean-spirited beliefs. But couldn't it be said that there are ethical and unethical ways of promulgating beliefs about supernatural things?

Shabbir Mansuri

Founding director, Council on Islamic Education, Fountain Valley

Certainly, our country's freedom of religion is to be cherished. At the same time, the ethical character of diverse religious expressions can be evaluated. Islam calls for humankind to "enjoin the good and forbid the evil." When religious leaders of any tradition begin advocating actions or beliefs, such as suicide, that go against reasonable universal injunctions (like those of all three Abrahamic faiths--Judaism, Christianity and Islam--and others as well) about the sanctity of life, one could argue that the ethical boundary has been crossed. Islam also reminds believers not to confuse "the creation" (including human leaders) and the Creator, and his divine commands.

Leonard Peikoff

Chairman emeritus, Ayn Rand Institute; author of "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand"

An ethical man reaches beliefs, including even his errors, by a process of reason. This process keeps him honest. An unethical man reaches beliefs apart from reason, by means of whim. Either he accepts ideas on faith without evidence or he contradicts known evidence. Honest men have often tried to prove the supernatural using reason. These people, though their attempt is futile, are moral and they have every right to criticize notions they reject. But this does not apply to people whose basis is merely "I want God to be so." To these types, I say, "You have a legal, but no moral or logical, right to criticize anyone for anything." The old saw applies to glass churches, too.

The Rev. Ignacio Castuera

Pastor, North Glendale United Methodist Church

Ethical considerations are indeed appropriate when evaluating the way in which religious beliefs are transmitted. For instance, it would be unethical to make exaggerated promises of success and happiness to vulnerable people under duress. However, it should be emphasized that these ethical judgments must not be enforced by democratic governments. Even a casual glance at history will demonstrate how disastrous it is to let governmental forces determine how religious and spiritual values are passed on. Education, not legislation, is the best safeguard against the purveyors of religious snake oil.

Compiled by JOHN DART, Times staff writer

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