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An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

Civility

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Civility:

Religious oppression and persecution are one aspect of a larger, more pervasive problem. The trend towards an uncivil “civil society.”

Most simply civility means politeness, courtesy. From my old Thorndike/Barnhart High School dictionary.

“Civility is/are those unwritten rules of polite behavior that allow ALL of us, regardless of our race, creed, gender, sexual preference, 1 ethnicity, age, religious preference or lack there of, to live in some sort of harmony for the benefit of all.”

From my book, “Searching for Enlightenment, Gnosticism for a New Millennium.” 2

Civility is about showing consideration, respect, tolerance for others, their feelings and needs. Not just in the area of religious beliefs but in all aspects of social interaction with others. I am reminded of some of the old sayings from my childhood: “children should be seen and not heard”, “respect your elders”, “if you don’t have anything good to say about someone else keep your mouth shut and say nothing.”! All admonitions about what was once considered appropriate civil behavior.

Civil behavior isn’t just about the words you use, what you say to others either in person, in writing or in cyberspace, it also includes polite actions towards others; returning shopping carts to the cart corral at the mega mall rather than leaving them loose in the parking lot, turning off cell phones in theatres and at concerts and while eating lunch with a friend, holding a door open for the person behind you rather than letting it slam in their face, driving safely, not littering, not annoying neighbors with loud music…..

A “Google” search of “Civility” turned up a Christian website, “Probe Ministries” and an article by  Kerby Anderson  entitled “Civility”*. He states:

“While there have been many philosophical discussions on what civility is and how it should be practiced, I believe Jesus simply expressed the goal of civility when he taught that, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself' (Matthew 22:39). If we truly love our neighbors, then we should be governed by moral standards that express concern for others and limit our own freedom.” 3

There are several problems with Mr. Anderson’s premise. I don’t think we have to “love” others in order to realize that it is better to be civil towards others than uncivil towards them. Quite frankly I think the call to “love” your neighbor has become a cliché. Many are just plain turned off  by the whole “love” thing because they know how shallow and false it can be. The word “love” has been so overused that it has become meaningless and a rude joke for many. I am reminded of a comment one Christian woman made to me, “I will love you but only because God says I have to.” There isn’t any “love” in that comment and everyone knows it!

Mr. Anderson also says (emphasis is mine) “IF we truly love….then we SHOULD be governed by….” That is recognition that he realizes that “love” is often faked, that people say it but don’t really mean it. And recognition that what we “should” do doesn’t always mean that we “will” do it.

One final issue I have with Mr. Anderson’s comment above is I don’t think that we have to view civil behavior as a limit to our own freedom. Unless that is you consider as one of your freedoms the right to insult, injure, defame, bully, persecute, discriminate, denigrate, belittle, ‘put down’, abuse (physically or verbally)…. the “other” those that are different from you. That discussion about what is and is not religious freedom and freedom of speech appears in another essay I wrote.

There is much about Mr. Anderson’s comments that I agree with. We are suffering from a lack of civility in this country. I published my book in 2007. In the opening of Part Four: Problems Facing Our Planet, I mention four major issues; over population, environmental degradation, the rise of fanaticism and lack of civility. Five years later the problems are getting worse not better.  

As the popularity of Internet chat rooms rose I could see they created the perfect forum for uncivil discourse. If people think they can not be identified with their comments they will uninhibitedly say anything. They have for decades, anonymous letters were once sent by mail and are now posted on Facebook pages and sent by email. People still scribble nasty comments (graffiti) on buildings and railroad cars but now with the rise of global communications, Twitter,You tube and Facebook such comments are spread around the globe in minutes.

My local newspaper still insists that Letters to the Editor that are published in the daily printed edition show the writer's name and the town they are from. BUT on their website's comments section posters can say just about anything under what used to be called pseudonyms and now are called Avatars! One of the outcomes of the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision is that now many are donating funds to “Super Pacs” with complete anonymity.  I think part of the problem is with anonymity, as it has always been.  That is because the greatest deterrence to uncivil behavior is when your friends, neighbors and parents, customers and business associates let you know they don’t approve of your comments or actions.

By the way the argument that many use that anonymity on the internet is for their safety, there are a lot of crackpots out there, doesn’t hold when the newspaper publishes name and town of each letter writer. As a letter writer if I have the courage to have my name published and stand behind my words why should internet users be any different? Consequently I use my own name when I log on to the online discussions.

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What has caused the decline in civility? Mr. Anderson thinks it is that “An increasing majority in our society no longer believes in moral absolutes.” A belief in “moral absolutes:”

  • My God is better than your God,
  • He is all knowing, seeing, wise, powerful and perfect
  • What he says in his book must be obeyed

leads to uncivil behavior not civil behavior towards those that don’t believe in “your God”.  I think the decline in a belief in “moral absolutes” is a good thing. It is recognition that other religious and ethnic traditions may view the world differently than we do and they may have wisdom, experience and suggestions that we should pay attention to.

It is also recognition that concepts about moral and civil behavior change over time as societies grow and diversify, as they must. Slavery was once morally and religiously sanctioned. There were accepted standards to use in speaking to your servants and “inferiors”. What is a “moral absolute”? Is it a “moral absolute” that homosexuality be condemned or is the “moral absolute” that the rights of ALL people must be respected? I don’t think people can really list moral absolutes.

Many would say “thou shalt not kill” is a moral absolute. YET, we allow military personnel and police officers to kill “in the line of duty”. Many that call themselves believers in “right to life” in the abortion debate still support the death penalty.

An absolute (moral or otherwise) would be something with no “if”, “ands”, or “buts”. No exceptions to the rule.

Mr. Anderson offers several Biblical passages that support the concept of civility. They are wise words of guidance. One of the purposes of Probe Ministries is to spread the Christian message to non-Christians.  Unfortunately when I read an article like his I get the impression that for many Christians “civility” and “morality” are purely Christian concepts.

One aspect of learning civil behavior is teaching yourself to see how the other guy views things, walking a mile in the other person's shoes. I wonder if some Christians ever stop to think how others, the people they are reaching out to, view their writings and comments? Sometimes their comments are counterproductive to their intent.

The Bible isn’t the only book that offers wise advise about civil behavior. The world’s sacred and secular literature is full of great wisdom, good thoughts to contemplate and live by. From the Tao teh Ching I read:

  • #36 “Herein is the subtle wisdom of life: The soft and weak overcomes the hard and strong.”
  • #43 “Few things under heaven are as instructive as the lessons in Silence.”

Sometimes civil behavior requires that we ‘hold our tongue’!  There are so many passages I had trouble deciding what to mention . #29 is a passage very similar to Ecclesiastes.

From an address he made to the General Assembly at the United Nations , Tadodaho Chief Leon Shenandoah Haudenosaunee of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy said:

“It is no longer good enough to cry for peace. We must act peace, live peace, and march in peace in alliance with the people of the world.” 4 

I can transfer this message to one about civility. We can’t just talk about civility and bemoan its loss. We must practice it.

One Christian woman I talked to implied that she felt it was uncivil of me to voice any disagreement or difference of opinion with hers. Is it? I don’t think so. I know how hearing that people disagree with you or hearing different opinions from your own can make you uncomfortable. Isn’t it uncivil to NOT say anything when people voice words of hate or call for the oppression and/or persecution of others? If someone tells me I have to accept Jesus as my savior or go to Hell don’t I have the right to disagree and explain, in a civil tone, why I believe differently? Isn’t she being uncivil by telling me I am a sinner and will go to hell if I don’t believe what she believes?

Here we aren’t talking about having the right to say something, but whether it is right (civil) to say it. I think one factor to consider when we decide to speak up is whether we are speaking for more than ourselves. Are we speaking about rights that affect others or are we just defending our own Ego?

How do we respond to something rude or offensive without being ruder or more offensive? For one thing we can avoid name calling and derogatory comments about character, intelligence, patriotism etc. We can stick to the facts, to the issue at hand.  I admit it is never easy!

What do we do about bullies? Bullying in schools and online has become a major issue of the civility crises. I have run across many bullies in my online discussions. When I meet someone for the first time I give them the benefit of the doubt, I “bend over backwards” to be polite, to try not to belittle or be condescending. BUT I don’t put up with bullies for long. When I see someone else being bullied I speak up and object. The BEST way to stop a bully is when everyone speaks up and censures them. Note that is censure not censor.

If I am attacked over and over I will, after a warning, attack back (verbally, never physically and always directly to them, never behind their backs or anonymously). Sometimes the only way to deal with a cyber bully is to out bully him or her. I do admit it usually leads to an escalating cycle of tit for tat. At some point I will draw the line and call a truce, point out what is happening (try to turn the exchange into a teaching point for others) and tell them that I will ignore any other comments they make until they learn to make responsible comments about the topic at hand. I don’t recommend this tactic for children or anyone that doesn’t have a tough hide. Children should always report a bully to the nearest teacher or other nearby adult and to their parents.

Incivility is pervasive in our society. The prime time television sitcoms are rude and crude, in my opinion, they make fun of people, the person with the best put down gets the most laughs, the main characters are often totally self-centered, anything but good role models…. Then there are the “reality shows” that award the person who is the most devious. Team sports are more about winning at any cost than about teaching good sportsmanship and fair play.

What’s a society to do? In the Analects of Confucius we read:

“Tzu-kung asked saying, 'Is there any single saying that one can act upon all day and every day?' The Master said, 'Perhaps the saying about consideration: 'Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you'.”

A similar concept appears in the writings of many religions and secular philosophers. There are articles about “The Golden Rule” on this website.

Perhaps if we could teach our children and ourselves to live by this one, universally accepted axiom we could create a more civil “civil society”!

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The term "sexual preference" is now a largely obsolete term, now mainly replaced by "sexual orientation." Only persons with a bisexual orientation can truly have a "sexual preference." The vast majority of people have sexual attraction only to one gender: heterosexuals to the opposite gender, or gays and lesbians to the same gender.
  2. book cover image  Susan Humphreys, "Searching for Enlightenment: Gnosticism for a New Millennium," Page 85, iUniverse, Inc, (2007). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  3. Kerby Anderson, "Civility," Probe Ministries, at: www.leaderu.com/
  4. book cover image Steve Wall and Harvey Arden, "Wisdomkeepers, meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders," (2006). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Originally posted: 2012-OCT-21
Author: Susan Humphreys

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