Religious Law and Literalist Legalism

Source: CartoonStock

What does it mean to have a religion or follow a religion? Part of the answer would be that one’s behavior would conform to the teachings and proscriptions of that religion. One’s beliefs would generally match the teachings of a religion as well. Religions give guidance and laws, and followers of a particular religion partly base their religious identification on the degree to which they conform to the teachings and laws of their religion.

Yet, religions have many teachings, and many laws. Do followers of a particular religion obey all the laws and follow all the teachings? Should they be expected to? What if they fall short, or ignore some laws and teachings? Does that make them hypocrites? Also, the laws seem to have varying importance. Laws forbidding murder, incest, theft, and dishonesty seem extremely important. We don’t admire religions that allow adherents to ignore rules against murder and robbery. But what about rules about washing feet, cutting one’s fingernails, the sort of coffin one should use at burial, and so forth? What about teachings that seem to contradict one another? Most religions teach the values of kindness, tact, wisdom, and benevolence. Yet, most religions warn believers to beware of certain types of people (e.g., false prophets, non-believers, apostates, evil-doers, atheists, “enemies of the religion,” and so forth). What about dietary restrictions? What about exhortations to “take care of the poor” and “look after orphans and widows,” and so forth? Many religious rules are like this, general directives to do particular types of acts, like serving humanity. When has one done enough to address one’s obligations to others? When can one in good conscience turn from serving humanity or serving one’s faith and give attention to one’s own family or interests quite apart from altruistic or religious work?

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