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{from July 2007}

An interesting though struck me at Mass this Sunday. Practicing Roman Catholicism, I hold the belief that the bread and wine becomes the Christ in its very essence. I have a more specific, personal belief that the shared cup cannot transmit disease. This is not only because there has been no record of such a thing occurring, but is simply a point of faith.

So why didn’t I take a sip?

I still have a bad cough and may be contagious. Is this a contradiction to my belief? The answer is “no” and I will explain why. By drinking with the belief no one would catch my cold (or whatever it is that laid me up over a week) I would be imposing my belief on other people. They have a right not to share that belief and that would be a disrespect.

But more importantly, I cannot assume I am correct simply because I wholeheartedly believe. I am not the final authority. I am not God. Belief is not reality, but a choice of perception that you can accept as fickle or as absolute as you choose. But it is your choice, not a judgment to pass onto others.

Mind you I am not talking about discerning the reality of everyday situations and acting according to your conscience and common sense. We all can agree that thieves must be caught and walking in front of moving trucks is bad for your well-being. I am talking about those things that are not commonly held as true, such as a religious belief. And those things cannot be any more sincerely and loudly sworn as infallible as the next person over in the next church or temple holding onto some completely different idea.

This is the great and prudent limitation of belief. It is the thing that hinders the idea of conversion by the sword. But it has a more immediately pertinent value. It protects people from false persuasion by deception, as a means to the end of making our lives better or “saved” whether we want it or not.

It is the miracle-cure salesman who truly believes in his product, and will make claims that apart from his circle of associates is scientifically unfounded, or at least much more ambiguous than their roster of testimonials. It is the friend who cons you into doing something they think is for your own good using false information or rumors, when you are of enough sound mind to have weighed options on your own. After all, they are not your parent and you are not a child. But it is also the cultist who insists they found the ultimate purpose in life and truly believe that hiding their secret teachings from you is for your own good so you wont run screaming before slowly boiling in that pot of water.

The examples are endless, but the lesson is the same. You can avoid imposing your beliefs by: acknowledging that opposing beliefs may be just as reasonable and dear to others that hold them; not insisting they should use your judgment and frame of reference for evaluating beliefs (theirs or yours); and truthfulness about the limitations of your beliefs, not hiding information about them that would allow them to judge for themselves. In this way, you will not be disrespectful, bullying or unknowingly conning anyone into your own beliefs, which is the ultimate breach of one’s rights.

But you may ask a very pertinent and personal question of me at the end of this: How do I know this isn’t an over-rationalized cop-out for my own lack of faith? Simple. If the person in front of me was sick and I was not, I would have drank from the cup.