A reminder to do better: the EP on persecution of minorities | Christian Colombo

Humans are not inherently evil, just inherently human. Yet we we remain capable of the horrendous atrocities that were carried out in the past. We must remain vigilant and strive to act, and urge our governments to act, morally

Rationally, we might be convinced that as a society we need to respect the vulnerable, care for the environment, and keep future generations in mind. But when it comes to decisions which affect us closely, even a discomfort or concern for ourselves can be given higher priority over the severe distress of others (migrants on the high seas and in detention centres come to mind).

Traditionally, religion has told people what they should and shouldn’t do, mostly relying on the promise of punishment and reward. However, this no longer seems to work in our modern age. Even the local and global Church now seems to focus more on the love of God than on heaven and hell.

Indeed, it is not always easy to convince someone, or a society, to behave ethically, especially at their own short-term cost. Of course empathy and the underlying imagination required to put ourselves in the others’ shoes are key. But it’s not that simple: We find it hard even putting ourselves in our future selves’ shoes, let alone in other human beings’, not to mention other creatures’.

This is quite clear in the endless list of inhumane stories we hear in Malta on the treatment of migrants, people suffering from mental ill-health, etc. It’s good therefore that from time to time, we look at ourselves in the mirror and ask important questions about our attitudes and behaviours, and about those worldwide.

The recent European Parliament (EP) resolution on the persecution of minorities is a good reminder. It condemns the inhumane persecution of minorities on the grounds of belief or religion, or gender or sexual orientation and highlights the necessity for inclusion, tolerance and respect – the quality of humanity.

The EP reports that freedom of religion or belief is violated in many countries for religious minorities such as Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims; non-religious minorities such as secular, Humanist, or civil society organisations; and other vulnerable groups including women and girls, those of different ethnicities or castes, the elderly and disabled, migrants, refugees and the internally displaced, and LGBTIQ people.

Violations include killings; mental and physical abuse and hate speech; mass incarceration; arbitrary arrest; ‘disappearances’; forced conversions; early and forced marriages; genital mutilation; restricted access to education and health services; denial of sexual and reproductive rights; criminalisation of abortion; exclusion; destruction of places of worship and cultural heritage; and discriminatory treatment, including on access to citizenship, elected office and employment.

In more than 70 countries, authorities seek to punish blasphemy, heresy, apostasy, defamation of or insults against religions, and conversion, sometimes via the death sentence.

A damning story but, ultimately, it’s unlikely that people today are more or less moral than our ancestors, or (especially given the evidence in the EP resolution) that atheists are less moral than theists or vice versa. A recent study[*] by Tomas Stahl, a social psychologist at the University of Illinois, suggested that, contrary to the stereotype thinking that it’s necessary to believe in a god to be moral, those who believe, and those who don’t, have similarly strong moral compasses, albeit that believers place more value on group cohesion, and atheists are more likely to judge actions case-by-case rather than on the basis of rules.

While humans are not inherently evil, just inherently human, we are still, for a multitude of reasons, capable of the horrendous atrocities that have been carried out in the past. Therefore, we need to continue being vigilant and strive to act, and urge our governments to act, morally.

Despite our many differences, there is considerable agreement, regardless of any religious belief, about what most of us value; the desire to be happy and avoid misery, and to be loved, free to make independent choices, and treated with respect; recognition of the virtues of fairness, justice, honesty and truth. It is sad to see so many instances of that humanitarian agreement being side-lined in the name of self-interest and intolerance.