May 09, 2007
Respect for religion-3: Challenging the privileged status of religion
It used to be that when religious people said something about their beliefs that you disagreed with, the polite thing to do was to keep quiet, even if you thought it wrong or baseless or just plain silly. What is happening now is that religious-based statements are being seen more and more as on a par with any other statements and suffer the same scrutiny. Why the new atheists are causing a stir is because of their willingness to say openly what many have thought but previously kept to themselves: that the basic ideas underlying religions are no different from beliefs in a flat-Earth or fairies or magic unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Even comparing, as I have just done, mainstream religious beliefs with these other so-called 'fringe' beliefs is sometimes taken as insulting. But this increased willingness to say just such things has resulted in them being called 'shrill' or having 'no respect for religion.'
The way the word respect is used in this context is curious. I am a believer in respect for people. I also have respect for ideas that have merit in the sense that they are backed by evidence and reason. But the phrase 'respect for religion' seems to be demanding something more: that everyone must collude in maintaining the idea that god and an afterlife is a reasonable thing for adults to believe in and that to point out the flaws in those beliefs is to be somehow gauche.
At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.
Rushdie admires this approach but it is good to remind oneself that not all people enjoy this kind of argumentation on a personal level. But I do agree with Rushdie on the basic premise that no ideas should be immune from criticism and that no one has the right to expect to be shielded from ideas that they might find repugnant. In fact it is essential that people's ideas be challenged if they are ever to learn. But how one scrutinizes ideas depends a lot on the situation.
While Rushdie is perfectly right in saying that no ideas should be shielded from criticism, in the private sphere there is no point in upsetting people when it can be avoided by more careful use of language and by showing some consideration for their sensibilities, even while not avoiding saying what one believes.
But in the public world of ideas, there should be no sacred cows and no idea should be immune from close scrutiny. But the common idea of 'respect for religion' seems to expect more. It seems to demand an acceptance of the following premise: that religious beliefs, at least of mainstream religions, be seen as fundamentally good and reasonable, and that any evil committed in its name be characterized as aberrations. Anyone who challenges this and asserts that the problem may not be that between good and bad religion, but that religious beliefs themselves are a problem is seen as stepping over some line that should not be crossed. So when Sam Harris author of The End of Faith says: "We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man's inhumanity to man," he is seen as being disrespectful to religion, because he is not distinguishing between 'good' and 'bad' religion.
'Respect for religion' is sometimes taken to suggest that if someone says that they oppose equal rights for gays because their religious doctrines assert that homosexuality is immoral, we are supposed to take that as a serious argument. If someone says that he opposes giving equal rights to gays, we would ask them to provide some justification. But if he says that his religion opposes homosexuality, then that is supposed to be a serious argument, exempt from challenge. Recently I was on a panel that discussed religion and sexuality. The Muslim panel member said that his religion required him to oppose granting homosexuals the same rights as enjoyed by heterosexuals. I said that while I understood his motives for opposing the gay lifestyle, a motive is not an argument. Saying that Islam or Christianity thought homosexuality wrong is as irrelevant to a discussion of public policy as the views of Satanists or any other religious group.
The basic point is that when discussing issues of public policy, there is no reason to provide beliefs based on religion with any special standing. The basic premise of the new atheists is that religious people, when engaged in the public sphere, should conform to the same rules of evidence, logic, and reason that all arguments must follow. If we use that yardstick, then we see that there is no reason to listen to people like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell because they rarely have any arguments, and simply quote Biblical verses to support their prejudices.
It is not an insignificant detail that the idea of 'respect for religion' also plays an important role in shielding religious beliefs from public skepticism. This is partly why people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger, are causing such a stir. They are challenging the idea that religious beliefs have some kind of special status in the public sphere that exempts them from scrutiny using the normal requirements of evidence and reason that we accept as applying to everything else.
POST SCRIPT: The power of tornados
I have never lived through a tornado but this video gives a glimpse of their terrifying power.