What does it mean to be a conscientious objector?


There is a movie currently in release that describes the life and actions of the only conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  This individual felt that he needed to serve in the military during World War II but he also felt that his beliefs would not allow him to carry a gun or kill anyone.  After some difficulty, the Army allowed him to serve as a combat medic and it was in that role while on Iwo Jima in 1945 that he repeatedly risked his life to save the men of his unit.

When I was in college and faced with the possibility that I would be drafted into the Army, I contemplated seeking conscientious objector status.  But merely being opposed to the war and the draft was not sufficient conditions for such a status and I had to consider other options.

In the end, the effects of acne on my back was sufficient for me to be exempted from the draft and I went on to teach high school chemistry.

Now, before going on, let me point out that as the son and grandson of military officers, I was not, at that time nor am I now opposed to military service.  I am opposed to the draft because of its inherent inequality and the use of military power to solve a world problem should always be the last option and never the first.  Unfortunately, I do not believe that many people feel that way today, thinking that we should just bomb our enemies first and then seek a peaceful solution.

But more to the point, what does it mean today to object to something because it goes against one’s religious beliefs, what I believe to be the major point in considering conscientious objection.

When I was teaching college chemistry a few years ago, I had a Muslim woman in my class.  And as an article of faith, she wore the hijab.  I will be honest; this did not bother me but I was worried about the safety issue of having the fabric of the covering being close to any open flames.  But rather than make a big deal out of this, I simply conferred with her about being careful in the lab.  And that was the end of the discussion.

Later in the course, the question of ½-life and radiometric dating came up.  This was, for a few students, a problem because it was an article of faith that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.  And again, you have the problem of dealing with an article of faith and a matter of scientific fact.

In the end, my counsel to the students was because this topic was highly unlikely to play a factor in what they were going to do.  I simply suggested that they understand the mathematics behind the problem so they could solve the one or two questions I was likely to answer and any discussion about the meaning of physical evidence with relationship to issues of faith should be discussed within their faith community.

But there are situations where the article of faith is, in my judgement, faulty.  And to use faith as a reason for holding onto a false belief is wrong and a discredit to the faith in question.

There is in this country and around this planet a crisis of faith.  There is a need for faith in these times as there is a need for reason.  And the need for faith requires more than just blind acceptance but an examination of the reasons.  There are those who say that you can never question the articles of faith for it will destroy your faith.

But if you say to me that I must accept a statement of faith, then you must also show me why.  And you must allow me to decide.

Understand, there are some articles of faith that I do not question.  I trust that I understand what I believe and I know that I must work to make sure that is true.

But there are also articles of faith that I have discarded because it is clear to me that they were false in their basis and run counter to the basic tenets of faith.

In the end, you may claim that you cannot do something because it runs counter to what you believe.  But if what you believe is based on false assumptions or false teachings, then you will have a problem.

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