Religions provide ultimate visions of reality and values. They have different views about the reality of the divine, and about what is sacred, but for life on earth, what counts most is religious ideas about the reality of human beings and the value of human life.
The two basic concepts about human life are equality and supremacy. Either one believes that all human life is equally worthy, sacred, and important, or else one believes that the members and followers of one’s religion have supremacy over other human beings. Either one values all human beings as equally human, with equal rights to life and property, or else one values the members of one’s religion as superior, with superior rights to life and property.
Almost everyone believes that one’s own religion is the correct one. Some people may have doubts, but few believe that other religions are more true, otherwise they would convert, unless forbidden to do so. Religious egalitarians believe that even though their faith is the true one and the best of all religions, nevertheless the people of other faiths have an equal moral worth, and so their lives, property, and freedom are to be respected.
Religious supremacists believe that not only are their beliefs true, and their values correct, but also that holding their beliefs, or being descended from believers, entitles them to superiority in human worth, so that they are authorized, and even required, to forcibly convert others and, at the most extreme, take their property and lives.
The divide between egalitarians and supremacists cuts across all the major religions. People of all faiths have attacked, enslaved, killed, looted, and conquered those of other religions. Even when supremacy is not an explicit religious belief, when one group conquers and enslaves another, their members at least implicitly believe that they are superior, even if only because of their power.
There are also members of all faiths who believe that, however superior, true, and sacred are their own beliefs and values, those of other faiths are equally entitled to live according to their creeds. Whatever else their religion may say about others, they believe that all people are equally human and of equal human value.
This, then, is the great religious divide, which affects every person. Atheists too are part of this divide. The atheists chiefs of Communist parties believed in the superiority of their creed, and they conquered lands, killed opponents, and imposed their control over others. Extreme nationalists have had a supremacist nationalist belief in addition to other ideas, which formed their overall religion. Supremacism may be personal, ideological, and otherwise not associated with a theistic belief, but as a view of ultimate reality and values, it is a religion that is mixed in with other ideas.
Human beings live in a mental as well as physical universe. In our mental universe, either we believe in human equality, or not. Egalitarianism and supremacism are, however, matters of degree. Some may be more mildly supremacist, letting those of other beliefs live, but subjecting them to higher taxes, tighter restrictions, and lacking the privileges of those of superior beliefs. In the relatively tolerant societies, people are allowed to practice their religions to some extent, but there are beliefs and values, even if not in a theistic creed, that are imposed on everyone. This is why throughout the world, governments have victimless crimes. They prohibit activities such as drug use and gambling, and they censor some words, ideas, and depictions.
One supremacist idea shared by most people is the moral worth of majorities relative to minorities. Most people in today’s world believe in the superiority of majorities. If a majority of voters believe that everyone should be taxed, restricted, and forced, this is, in their view, proper, because the majority has moral supremacy. Majoritarianism is a religion, as a belief and value.
Another supremacist view is that persons who have conquered land, and their heirs, when there are no other documented claimants or survivors, have a superior status. The egalitarian position is that all human beings have an equal right to the benefits of the land that nature provided. Equality does not require equality in possession, which is not possible, but an equal share of the economic benefit, as measured by what people are willing to pay to use land.
If we take human equality to its ultimate logical conclusion, each person has an equal natural right to live, work, own property, and completely direct his life, with no restriction or imposed cost on his peaceful and honest actions. Liberty and equality are complementary.
Very few people believe in complete human equality. But we should at least strive to achieve equal rights for life and equal rules for property. Whatever else our creeds may say, we should have a minimal egalitarianism in law and policy, so that innocent people may live, own property, and be able to live, to a great extent, in accordance to their beliefs and values. If we can achieve minimal global egalitarianism, that would be a great achievement.
Note: this article also appears in http://www.progress.org