Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why are people picking on religion?

We're having quite a debate in the comments to my war on science post, and I thought this cartoon fit well with that. There's no reason why religion should get our automatic respect, nor why it should be protected from criticism. After all, nothing else is. And criticism is not persecution.

Our world has had a long, sad history of religious persecution, true. The vast majority of that was by other religious believers - that was the experience that led our forefathers to the separation of church and state - but I believe it's led us to tiptoe too carefully around religion in general. Our intentions were good, but I think we've missed the point.

In America, people are free to believe anything they want. That's absolute. And most of us believe that people shouldn't suffer discrimination because of their religious beliefs. (In practice, we don't always live up to those ideals, but we generally do try.) Your neighbor's religion, if any, is his own business, not yours. You may disagree with him, but you'd fight for his right to believe what he wants.

All of this is quite admirable. But it doesn't mean that religion should get a free pass. It doesn't mean that religion should automatically get our respect or that it should be immune to criticism. You can support your neighbor's religious rights while still criticizing what he believes. Yes, he has the right to believe it, but you have rights, too. Freedom of religion does not limit freedom of speech.

Our experience with religious wars - wars within Christianity, for the most part, though we're seeing the same thing with Islam today - has led us to be respectful of diverse beliefs. That's a good thing, at least when it comes to tolerance. Many of my friends disagree with me on the subject of religion, and it's really not a problem. That's probably the greatest gift America has given the world.

But although you have the right to believe whatever you want, you don't have the right to tell other people they can't criticize those beliefs. You have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of your religion, but you don't have the right not to get your feelings hurt.

I disagree with you. So what? You disagree with me. It doesn't have to be a problem, even when we don't censor ourselves. I strongly support your right to believe whatever you want, but that doesn't mean I think your beliefs make any sense. (Note that acting on those beliefs might be a different story, depending on what those actions are. You can believe whatever you want, but you can't necessarily do whatever you want, since other people have rights, too.)

Of course, as a matter of polite social discourse, I'm not going to be disrupting your church services. You certainly have the right to attend your church, synagogue, mosque, or whatever you wish, without hassle. And we can spend time together without getting into a religious argument. I enjoy a good debate, but there's a time and a place for everything.

But if you expect me to always keep my opinions to myself, especially when you express yours, you'd better think again. And if you think that religion automatically deserves my respect, well, you'll need to convince me of that, if you can. Religious violence doesn't happen because people disagree. It happens because one side or the other - or both - can't accept that fact.

Open debate in the marketplace of ideas is actually a good thing, a very good thing. You may be used to that debate always being one-sided, with religion and religious leaders being treated with kid gloves. Well, sorry, but I don't think that's right. I think that faith-based thinking is the wrong way to determine the truth, and I think that the truth matters.

I'm an atheist. I have good reasons for my atheism, and I have no intention of staying in the closet. If you don't like that, don't read this blog. Don't worry, I don't plan to go door to door as an atheist missionary, handing out atheist pamphlets and urging you to convert. Yes, I have the right to do that if I wish, but I'm either too polite or too lazy.  :)


Chimeradave said...

Great article Bill. Religion is a hot-button issue for sure. The church I work for sometimes sends postcards to certain key zip-codes through a coupon magazine. Every once in a while we'll get an openly hostile phone call from someone that feels it's unfair that the church is thrusting our religion into their mailbox. I tell them we pay our money for the advertisement just like the pizza places offering coupons, but religion angers them in a way buy-one-get-one-free pizza pies don't.

Jim Harris said...

Good post Bill, and that cartoon is perfect for our discussion. I agree completely with what you say...

I guess I'm a big softie. I do feel sorry for the faithful. Most religious people are quiet, salt of the earth types. They are incapable of understanding what we're talking about. They are like aborigines invaded by Western culture, confused by ideas given to them by people they think are probably superior. People like the Tea Party folk are no different from the native Americans that pursued the Ghost Dance in the 19th century.

WCG said...

Yes, John. Religion and politics were always two things to avoid discussing in polite company, if you didn't want an angry fight. And that's still the case.

But perhaps we've gone too far in trying to avoid controversy. These are important issues. I certainly don't want to force an argument on anyone else, but I've come to believe that I need to be open about my own opinions. If you disagree with me, no problem. But I'm not going to censor myself, and I'm sure that might seem... impolite, in our society.

Jim, in person, I don't breathe fire. Some of the nicest people I've ever known have been religious - and some of the nastiest, too. Either way, I do think that they have the right to believe whatever they want, no matter how ridiculous it seems to me.

But maybe I respect them more than you do. They're not children. We don't need to humor them, to assure them that, yes, Santa Claus really does exist. They're adults who, at the very minimum, should be well aware that other people think differently.

Aborigines weren't children, either, and they could have adapted. They weren't stupid. They might have been superstitious, but no more so than the Europeans at the time. They could have learned - indeed, they did learn - from Western culture.

The disaster for native peoples was not primarily because of a clash of cultures. If that had been the only matter, then yes, there would have been problems, but contact would have ultimately enriched both sides. The problem was force, military force, combined with disease epidemics that wiped out people who had no resistances. You can't adapt when most of your people are dying.

The Christian missionaries who went among the native Americans were no less superstitious than the natives. This isn't a matter of rational adults versus credulous children. Any clash of cultures does cause problems, of course, but not unmanageable ones. And as I say, it's beneficial to have your assumptions questioned. (Note that white colonists learned a great deal from Indian tribes, knowledge that not only helped them survive but also influenced their thinking about government. By no means was cultural change one-way only.)

The disaster for native peoples was that they didn't have time to adapt. Waves of disease epidemics swept through their communities - generation after generation - and they were also killed or pushed from their land by force. That was why they suffered so. It was not the invasion of foreign culture, but an actual invasion.

Brown people don't need to be coddled and humored by the rest of us, and neither do religious believers. I respect them too much for that. I may tell children that there's still a Santa Claus, but not adults. If they don't want to believe me, that's their choice. But I don't believe they need to be humored like little kids.

I understand your sympathy, Jim. But I think you need to show them some respect, too. They're not children and they're not mentally-deficient. They've been brought up to think a certain way, and most of them will never question that. Most don't want to question that.

But some do change. They don't want to change. They don't intend to change. But when they learn a little more, some are too honest to close their minds. It happens. They are not "incapable of understanding what we're talking about." I have too much respect for them to think that.