Privilege: when turnabout isn’t fair play

There is an age-old adage when it comes to argument – “turnabout is fair play”. Basically, the idea is that if an argument is reasonable in one direction, then it’s entirely reasonable when turned around and used the other way. When a homeopath demands 100% positive proof that homeopathy doesn’t work, it is an entirely fair argument to ask them to provide 100% proof that gremlins and faeries don’t exist. Because neither argument is reasonable, they can be scrapped. Similarly, when religious people invoke scripture to prove that something or other is ordained or banned by God, it is reasonable to turn that same argument around and show where the scripture ordains or bans something that contradicts the believer’s position.

Turnabout is entirely fair play in most cases, save one – when privilege is in play. Regular readers of this blog will probably remember my previous discussions of how privilege manifests itself in religious people, in discussions of racism, and even in the atheist movement itself. Privilege, for those unfamiliar with the term, is what happens when belonging to a particular group gives you an automatic advantage over those who are not in that group. The characteristic of this advantage is that it is not inherent to real differences between the groups (it is not, for example, an example of “tall privilege” that tall people can reach high shelves easier than short people), but due to some undeserved social assumption or historical advantage (the fact that tall people are considered more trustworthy and attractive than short people would be perhaps an example of “tall privilege”).

Members of a privileged group are doubly-cursed (or blessed, depending on your perspective) since the usual kind of  advantages that accompany privilege are completely invisible to those inside the group. White folks will angrily rant until they are blue in the face (as only they can be) about how they earned everything they ever had, and how life wasn’t handed to them on a silver platter, and how the real racists are the ones who think that white people enjoy privilege at all! Men will insist that men are the truly oppressed sex, since they are no longer allowed to use sexual banter in the office, and that feminists are neutering their manful impulses. Meanwhile, those of us not in the in-group will patiently wait until they run out of steam and point out that the phrase “mighty white of you” exists for a reason, as does “crying like a little bitch.”

It is in cases like this, where privilege is in play, that turnabout doesn’t function as a reasonable argument. For example, imagine this (not so) fictitious exchange between two people:

Boy: I don’t understand why you’re mad
Girl: That guy just slapped my ass!
Boy: So?
Girl: So it’s degrading and basically sexual assault!
Boy: I would love it if girls came up to me and slapped my ass. I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of it – you should take it as a compliment.

I doubt that anyone would find this sample conversation bizarrely unrealistic. Boy is trying to set up a bit of “turnaround is fair play” to illustrate that Girl’s position is unreasonable – being sexually objectified is a compliment and Girl should not be offended. Boy is doing this by showing that when the situation is reversed, there is no offense felt by the objectified party – indeed there is a positive reaction to the same stimulus. Any feeling of offense must therefore be purely in Girl’s mind, and all she has to do is adjust her bad attitude.

And of course this would be a completely reasonable position to take but for the existence of male privilege. Boy exists in a world where women are not sexually aggressive in the way that men are. As a result, he has rarely (if not never) had cause to feel as though his merits are judged solely on his physical appearance. He is not constantly bombarded by messages that make his sexuality the sine qua non of his entire existence. He is not meant to feel stupid for simply being born a man. Perhaps most frustratingly (to Girl, at least), nobody ever condescendingly tries to “woman-splain” to him that his totally reasonable objection to being physically and sexually assaulted is just because of his bad attitude.

Boy is not necessarily a bad person, he has simply not taken the time to consider the real differences between his default position in any social situation and the position of Girl. There are a great number of other forces at work on Girl that Boy doesn’t even have to think about. By assuming that those forces, because he can’t see them, simply don’t exist, Boy is preserving the conditions that creates those forces in the first place.

This isn’t an abstract concept for me – I’ve been Boy more than my fair share of times. It’s a tempting trap to fall into, because then problems become everyone else’s fault and you can sit back and pass judgment on the rest of humanity. This type of thinking definitely runs outside of sexism, to be sure. Anyone who has ever said that black people need to just “get over” something are operating from that exact same position of privilege – racism is someone else’s problem! Anyone who has ever said “this is a Christian country, and if you don’t like it you can leave” is, in addition to being sorely deluded about their facts, operating from another position of majority privilege – civil rights are someone else’s problem!

This is why I harp on about privilege so much – failing to recognize its presence forces us to spend a lot of valuable time pointing it out. There will always be those who stalwartly refuse to recognize that it exists, being much happier to mischaracterize it as a device used by bleeding hearts to make white Christian men feel guilty (which is a crock), but there are others who are genuinely ignorant and are willing to put in the work to see how things might look from another perspective.

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Movie Friday: Show me a God

There’s never been a conscientious believer who has gone through life completely free of doubt. There is an interesting passage in Mark 9 in which Jesus is asked to heal a child with epilepsy, and the father is told that all he has to do is believe hard enough, and his son will be cured (Jesus was an early Deepak Chopra, apparently). The distraught father says “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief!” and his son is immediately cured.

The story is complete bullshit, to be sure, but that line “I believe, help me overcome my unbelief” has been uttered, in various permutations, by the lips of the faithful for as long as people have been told to believe in ridiculous stories and impossible propositions with no evidence.

Tech N9ne turned it into a song:

There is an entire branch of theology called “theodicy” that is devoted to trying to square the circle of things in the world that are evil with the idea of a benevolent creator. Guys like Ken Ham, Ray Comfort and Hugh Ross make the claim that suffering is intentionally introduced into the universe to test mankind’s resolve to turn away from sin. If mankind is able to bear up under the crushing weight of temptation and overcome evil, then he is rewarded with eternal bliss in heaven (citation needed). Of course this is a facile explanation that falls apart under even casual scrutiny. Why would a loving god make such a test? Why not make it easier to be good? Why not create mankind with an inner drive to be good? Why punish those who are innocent of any misdeeds, while rewarding those who sin? Why bother testing us at all if it knows who will pass and who will fail a priori?

The other explanations are that YahwAlladdha is not good at all, but a petty heartless trickster who delights in human suffering, or that it is completely indifferent to the suffering of its creation.

Or, more parsimoniously, that it doesn’t exist at all and you’re wasting your time asking stupid questions.

While there are a lot of reasons to hold onto religion in the black community (community organization has traditionally centred on church groups, the belief in ultimate justice helps you ignore many of the day-to-day injustice you see around you), I am glad to see/hear influential voices within the hip-hop community begin to broach the taboo around criticizing religion. Maybe none are so poignant as this track from The Roots:

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P.S. Sorry about the embedding. VEVO is… I have mixed feelings.

THIS

I’ve been looking for this comic forever, and I’m glad someone on one of the only tumblrs I can stand to read re-posted it.

I am re-posting it here so I never have to go hunting for it again.

If you’ve been directed to this page by me, it’s because you have repeatedly demonstrated your inability to grasp what is, in essence, a really fucking simple concept. So here you go. Feel free to go back to being wrong, just know that your argument is so stereotypical that there is a comic about it.

Another case study of cultural tolerance

This morning I explored the stupid side of one of my pet topics, the idea of cultural tolerance. Basically, the argument goes that since we have a variety of cultures all calling this great country of ours “home”, we are called to make reasonable accommodations for different cultural practices. The important word in that last sentence is reasonable. Moving the location of a health care facility because some people are scared little babies about death is not a reasonable accommodation. To the contrary – it flies in the face of reason.

However, this case perhaps bears a bit less contempt and a bit more thoughtful reflection:

An emotionally charged debate over multiculturalism that has raged in Quebec in recent years has landed on the national stage and it centres on a ceremonial dagger worn by Sikhs. MPs face a demand to ban the kirpan, which is worn at all times by at least one Ontario MP. The discussion is being spurred by the Bloc Québécois, which promised Wednesday to take up the issue with the House of Commons’ all-party decision-making body.

Setting aside the obvious fact that this a political move that is motivated primarily by the cultural equivalent of racism (when’s the last time someone in the legislature was attacked with a kirpan?), there are actually two perfectly reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue.

Against the measure: A reasonable accommodation can be made to allow MPs to wear religious items without interfering with the good order and work of the parliament

As I noted above, there have never been any attacks within parliament by a kirpan (or any other weapon). Banning people from wearing a kirpan is not a reaction to an incident of violence, nor is it a pre-emptive attempt to fight a trend of imminent violence. It is simply making an arbitrary rule that has the effect of saying that certain people are not welcome to run for office. For Sikhs who take their religion seriously, the kirpan is a mandatory accoutrement that must be worn at all times. It has the same religious force of compulsion as the burqua or similar head-coverings for conservative Jews.

Given that there is a compelling reason (at the individual level) for wearing a kirpan, and very little is accomplished by banning it (aside from broadcasting xenophobia), a strong case can be made that the measure should not be adopted.

For the measure: The accommodation to allow people to bring a weapon into the legislature is not reasonable

I’ve made this exact argument before (way in the distant past, likely before any of you now reading the blog were around):

In my mind, allowing anyone to carry a weapon of any kind is not a good idea. I don’t care how symbolic or ceremonial it it supposed to be. If my religious convictions require me to carry a rifle in my hands because Jesus could arrive at any moment and I have to help him fight off Satan’s zombie hordes, common sense (and the law) would dictate that the danger I pose to society in general outweighs my religious autonomy. Such is the case here.

The kirpan is not worn to commemorate a battle or to symbolize some kind of pillar of Sikh faith. It is explicitly a defensive weapon that is worn by Sikhs in case they have to prevent some act of evil from taking place. The same argument could be made for a non-religious knife, or a gun, or any other type of weapon. Given that we do not permit MPs (or anyone) to take a weapon into a government building unless they are a member of the security staff, making a special concession for this weapon because it is wrapped up in religious superstition is not a reasonable accommodation, despite whatever nonsense Michael Ignatieff says:

“The kirpan is not a weapon,” Ignatieff told reporters in Montreal. “It’s a religious symbol and we have to respect it.” When asked about the issue Thursday, Ignatieff said that it should be treated as a question of religious freedom rather than simply a security matter.

We have to respect it? With all due respect to your position, Mr. Ignatieff, we don’t have to respect religious symbols. We have to respect a person’s right to believe in their particular religious symbol, but we are under no consequent obligation to respect the symbol ourselves. Considering that the symbol itself, when divorced from its symbolism, is in fact a knife, it is entirely reasonable to ask why it should be allowed inside the legislature (or anywhere else, for that matter).

While I hate compromise (I really do… it usually means that both sides are giving up), I think one is appropriate in this case. While it would be a complete failure on our part to refuse to recognize the impact on the Sikh community (as a manifestation of privilege) of such a ban, we also must respect the fact that Canada is a secular nation, meaning that religious symbols are not to be given any kind of legal standing. The problem with the kirpan is not the kirpan itself – it is its potential to be used as a weapon. Kirpans can be purchased with locks, or made such that they cannot be drawn from their sheath. Passing a resolution that allows the kirpan to be worn but stripping it of its function as a knife is entirely possible, and involves a reasonable accommodation from both sides.

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P.S. Interestingly, as I was writing this piece, I found myself saying “this is absolutely my position” for both sides of the argument. I’m always interested to hear your opinions (even in those cases when I don’t post a reply), but I am particularly curious to know if you were swayed one way or the other on this issue.

“Cultural Sensitivity” meets clear stupidity

It’s been a while since I talked about one of my first pet topics, the burqa bans going on in various places in the world. The point I laboured to make in those early articles was that there may be some specific circumstances under which it is better for society to brook some contravention of its rules in the name of being tolerant of practices imported from other cultures. This is particularly true of Canada, with its wide variety of cultural groups. If we want Canada to remain a place where groups from all over the world can feel at home, then we have to occasionally put aside our discomfiture toward “the other”.

But other times, “the other” is stupid and there needn’t be any accommodation:

Plans for a hospice on the University of British Columbia campus have been put on hold after some neighbourhood residents said the proposed facility offended their cultural sensitivities around death and dying.

“It is all about cultural sensitivity,” said Ms. Fan, a Chinese-born immigrant who lives in a high-rise near the proposed hospice site. “We came here as new immigrants with our own belief system. And in our beliefs, it is impossible for us to have dying people in our backyard.”

The main gist of this argument is that many Chinese-born immigrants share a cultural taboo about death, feeling that it brings bad luck and will spoil marriages and businesses and all sorts of other pursuits. Building a hospice in a neighbourhood with many immigrants from this area lacks cultural sensitivity for such beliefs.

My response: fuck your superstition.

This proposed building is on the campus of the University of British Columbia. UBC has a right to build whatever legal structure they like on their grounds. UBC also has a hospital on its grounds. News flash: people die in hospitals every day. People also die in car accidents, stabbings, from heart attacks… the list goes on ad infinitum. Death is a part of life – in fact, death is the thing that makes life precious. If your beliefs are in conflict with biological fact, it is not the responsibility of the rest of the world to move in line with your beliefs; it’s your responsibility to figure out a way to deal with it.

I feel passionately about this issue, as someone who works in cancer research. The majority of people who pursue hospice care suffer from terminal cancer. At the end of the course of this disease, patients are often in near-constant pain that gets limited (or no) relief through the use of drugs and radiation. The idea behind hospice care is to allow the dying person to maintain a bit of dignity and comfort. It is the sign of a compassionate and caring people when the sick and dying are cared for. Adequate hospice care means that people are not languishing in long-term care facilities, at home, or worst of all in a hospital, unable to access sufficient relief from their symptoms as their bodies shut down.

A very good friend of mine worked in a hospice on a co-op term. She would be able to speak much more eloquently and passionately than I can about what a great job hospice care does of improving the quality of life of people who are lucky enough to have the opportunity to die there. I say ‘lucky’ in full awareness of the fact that it’s not exactly ‘lucky’ to get cancer, but since there are far fewer spaces than there is demand for those spaces, getting in is indeed a stroke of luck.

I hope nobody would accuse me of being a person who is not sensitive to the fact that not everyone sees the world the same way. I am aware that different groups have different ideas about life, and that some issues hit people more viscerally than others. However, in this case we’re talking about conflating superstition with the real suffering of real people. The proximity of death has zero effect on whether or not your business is lucky – the flourishing funeral home business is perhaps a counter-example. People who work in hospitals around dying people can maintain happy relationships, and in some cases the death of a close family member can bring people closer together. To suggest that dying people should put relief of their suffering on hold because you’re afraid of the dark is the height of childish arrogance.

We should make our decisions based on what is real, not what spares the delicate feelings of stupid people.

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This is horrible

I am in favour of a woman’s right to make her own sexual choices. This encapsulates her right to choose her sexual partner, her right to use contraception, and her right to choose whether or not she has a child. I am unmoved by the “logic” of the anti-choicers, which conflates the life of a developing embryo with the life of a fully-grown human person. I am similarly unmoved by their constant appeals to emotion, thrusting pictures of aborted fetuses in the faces of people who already have a difficult decision to make.

I am not, however, unmoved by this:

West Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell routinely delivered live babies in the third trimester of pregnancy, then murdered them by “sticking scissors into the back of the baby’s neck and cutting the spinal cord,” according to the Philadelphia district attorney. One newborn who weighed almost 6 pounds was so big “the doctor joked . . . this baby ‘could walk me to the bus stop.’”

Those are among the jaw-dropping details — complete with photographs — in a 260-page grand jury report released Wednesday that charges Gosnell, 69, with the murder of a patient and seven infants.

The article goes on to detail some of the abject depravity with which this “doctor” treated his victims patients. He hired unqualified people to perform medical procedures, gave inadequate care, and operated under nightmarish conditions:

What they found, according to the report, was “filthy, deplorable, and disgusting”: blood on the floor; the stench of urine; cat feces on the stairs; semiconscious women moaning in the waiting or recovery rooms, covered with bloodstained blankets; broken equipment; blocked or locked exits.

Whatever your feelings on abortion, you can’t help but be disgusted by not only the way in which this man conducted himself, but at the utter lack of humanity at his core. People pursuing medical care are at a fundamental disadvantage – they’re in severe need and are afraid for their safety. This is precisely the reason why all health care practitioners must undergo extensive medical ethics training (I myself have been the recipient of such training at least 7 times over the course of my short career). When someone provides medical care to another, they enter a position of both authority and trust. Those types of relationships are far too easy to abuse – one person is willing to sacrifice a great deal of their autonomy for the chance at relief from suffering. When you’re the person to whom autonomy is being given, you have a moral obligation to work for the best interests of that person, since that person would (under different circumstances) be operating for their own best interest.

Once again I find myself flummoxed by my inability to express sufficiently my utter horror and disgust at anyone who would systematically abuse this kind of trust. Most health care professionals I have had the pleasure of working with take the oaths and ethics of the caregiver-patient dynamic extremely seriously. I know that I do, even though I rarely have any contact with patients in my day-to-day work. To imagine that someone would not only dismiss that ethical responsibility, but outright contravene it in such an egregious and deleterious way for years shocks me. That this happened under the noses of the people who had a responsibility to regulate and inspect it depresses me beyond all belief.

PZ Myers says that this isn’t an argument about the morality of the practice of abortion, and for the most part I agree with him. He hits it squarely on the head when he says this:

Gosnell is precisely the kind of butcher the pro-choice movement opposes. No one endorses bad medicine and unrestricted, unregulated, cowboy surgery like Gosnell practiced — what he represents is the kind of back-alley deadly hackery that the anti-choice movement would have as the only possible recourse, if they had their way. If anything, the Gosnell case is an argument for legal abortion.

Outlawing abortion, as we have seen from international cases like Romania, and even within the United States, does not stop it from happening. All it does is reduce access to safe abortions, allowing monsters like Gosnell to maim more women who have no other options. Criminalizing abortion disproportionately affects the poor, particularly people of colour and immigrants who do not have the same access to resources and illicit medical services that their wealthier counterparts do.

I am deeply aggrieved and horrified that a remorseless killer like Kermit Gosnell exists and was allowed to continue hurting women for so long. I don’t know what the answer to this problem is, but I am confident that putting more women in the tender merciful hands of amoral ghouls like Kermit Gosnell is a step in the wrong direction.

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Cross-burning comes to a close

One of the very first stories I talked about when I started this site about a year ago was the cross burning incident in Nova Scotia, where an interracial couple woke to find a flaming cross on their lawn. That story has come to a close:

The second of two brothers who burned a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple in Windsor, N.S., has been sentenced to two months in jail.

Justin Rehberg, 20, was sentenced in a Windsor courtroom for criminal harassment and inciting racial hatred. He will be on probation for 30 months and is barred from owning firearms for 10 years. Rehberg was composed during the sentencing when Justice Claudine MacDonald asked if he had anything to say.

“I want to say I’m sorry,” Rehberg told the court. “I screwed up. It was a horrible mistake. It will never happen again.”

On Monday, Rehberg’s older brother, Nathan, was sentenced to four months in jail for inciting hatred and to six months in jail for criminal harassment. The sentences are to be served concurrently, and with credit for time already spent in custody, he will spend two more months in jail.

Well, I should say that the story has come to a close as far as the two brothers are concerned. The victims of this incident will have to live with the aftermath for years to come. That also doesn’t take into account the black community in Nova Scotia, having to deal with the constant spectre of fear of violence for the crime of having been born with a different skin colour.

I don’t have much to say about the sentence. It’s less than my sense of revenge would have liked to see, but as far as I’m concerned the damage has already been done. These kids are royal fuckups, will pull this kind of shit again, and will find hero worship among a small but fierce band of white supremacists. Putting them in jail for a longer period of time won’t do anything to change that fact. I’m almost tempted to say I wish they had been sentenced to do community outreach work in Africville, but I wouldn’t want to foist scumbags like the Rehbergs on the black community of Nova Scotia just to satisfy my perverted sense of justice.

[Crown prosecutor Darrell] Carmichael has said the cases were the first involving a cross-burning in Canada.

“I hope this will be the last, as well as the first,” he said.

Would you like to place a bet, Mr. Carmichael?

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I get spam e-mail

I get a lot of spam, to be sure, but I just delete most of it when I see it.

This one I thought was particularly fun though:

Dear Friends in Christ,

I greet you out there in Jesus Lovely (oh good, we finally have a surname for the guy) name. I am the way, the truth and the life, no man cometh to the Father but by me John 14:6. Jesus Christ is our salvation! I was searching for a study material when I came across your email and convinced you are a Christian (your Christian radar is either several years out of date or it’s pranking you).

Please do not be angry at this letter and undermine me (I wouldn’t dream of it) because I am reaching you through the internet (But not because you’re soliciting me for cash without even bothering to learn my name?). God led me to your email (He and I are Facebook friends too, you know) and I know I’m blessed having to know you (aww, shucks!). I am a member of Living Faith Church. By His grace I’m a believer born again and blood bought( blood of Jesus) (oh good, I thought it was something gross, like NOT the blood of a 2000 year-old Palestinian). I am married with six children. I have a great passion doing the work of the master (Ray Comfort? Splinter? Funkmaster Flex?) especially now I work on my own having not to be disturbed like when I was working 10 hours in the clerk office work.. I am not rich in this wordly riches but rich spiritually in Christ (That and $4.50 will buy you a latté). I came to know Christ in 1984 and since then serve Him with commitment. I live in an area where there is much hunger and crisis but the Lord keeps us from them all (citation needed). Our church is a small church with about thirty people. I am the church secretary as well as Adult Sunday school teacher (my church never had Adult Sunday; where do I sign up?). As you can see I can speak and understand English well as we are British colonised country (it’s at least no worse than people write here in North America).

I am writing you because I need your help for bibles. Bibles are costly here and many Christians do not have bibles (how do they know who to hate?). Most get theirs from people in other countries when they can reach to other Christians there. My friend told me to go internet where I can get some to help and I know God has directed me to you (“God, can you help us with our bible shortage?” “Ugh, you again? Go bother an atheist!”). My wife and I needs the super giant print bibles which has very large print and we need this due to reading difficulty. Please kindly send us two copies (Certainly sir, anything else?). Also I’m using this medium to request for additional 6 super giant print bibles for the aged ones in the Sunday school class. king James Version would be preferable as we mostly use this during service. If other version is what you have we would appreciate them. The bibles could also be used bibles as long as the pages are correct we would use them (So the Jefferson Bible is out then? Good to know). All bibles are needed in English and please you can send them through registered or insured air-mail through post office. Post office EMS post is also very fast and safe. Please kindly help us and sow this seed to our lives here. Where a seed is sown, harvest will surely come and it will come to you (so I give you Bibles, and then you’re going to show up at my house? No deal). I would prayerfully wait to hear from you (I will answer it the way God supposedly answers prayers – you’ll have no idea when those Bibles are coming, but don’t worry, just have faith and some day they will arrive).

The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

In His service
Ikponmwen izekor

My address is
No. 27 Asaliya Road, NIPST-IPOB 3023,
BENIN CITY, EDO STATE,
NIGERIA.

If I actually cared enough, I’d send him a copy of the God Delusion, but I’m currently using it as a beer coaster (I’m just kidding – I downloaded the audiobook from a torrent).

Religion is bad; that’s why I have FAITH

Maybe this has happened to you before. For the past 2 or 3 weeks, I’ve found myself using the phrase “distinction without a difference” in conversation over and over again. It hadn’t previously been part of my usual lexicon, although I know the phrase well. It describes a circumstance in which two concepts are contrasted, despite the fact that they are similar in every way that is relevant to the discussion. If, for example, you were about to be devoured by a great white shark, and a helpful passer-by (or swimmer-by?) pointed out that it was actually a hammerhead shark, in what way would that information be useful to you? While such a distinction would certainly be relevant in discussions of ecology or evolution or taxonomy, for your purposes as the soon-to-be devouree, it’s a fuckin’ shark!

So for some idiosyncratic reason, I’d caught myself using the phrase more often than usual. So when I watched this video, it really seemed to fit. Dr. John Lennox, a Cambridge-educated professor of mathematics, responds to Richard Dawkins’ claim that religion encourages us to embrace nonsensical claims by saying “maybe religion does do that, but not true Bible-based Christian faith!” Dr. Lennox doesn’t have a great white, it’s a hammerhead! Distinction without difference.

This is a common reply when atheists and religious folk discuss. Many believers will happily agree with atheists that religion is bad. While atheists list ad nauseum the list of atrocities committed by religious people, such believers will sagely nod their heads in agreement and say “what a shame” at the appropriate moments. At the end of such diatribes, however, such believers will smugly assert “you’re right: religions ARE bad. That’s why I think it’s better to have faith.” The argument such people are trying to make is that the organized religious authority is the problem, and if only people followed their individual beliefs then there would be no problem.

Distinction without difference.

There are several problems with this argument, chief among which is the fact that it is simply the “No True Scotsman” fallacy turned on its side. A straw man is created of religious people as adherent automatons who believe and behave as they are told, which is then contrasted with the idea of “true” faith, in which individuals are free to question and discover the “true” answers within whatever religious text they choose. It’s a pretty picture, but it’s ultimately false. Within any group of religious people there is a diversity of belief and adherence, none of which fails to qualify as “faith”. To be sure, specific dogma exists within strict religious traditions, but it is rarely so overwhelming that it fuels the kind of violence and vitriol that is the hallmark of religious conflict.

The predictable rejoinder to this argument is that it is the religious trappings – the ritual, the chants, and particularly the clergy – that fuel the real conflict. In Rwanda, we saw church leaders directing state genocide forces to massacre Tutsis. In the Inquisition, we saw the bishops and cardinals directing the Inquisitors to burn heretics. In modern Iran we see mullahs and ayatollahs issuing fatwas and directing jihads. It is the religion, say the “faith” proponents, that leads to these problems; not the beliefs of their followers. If only the followers had found their own “faith” rather than following religion, they would know better and would refuse to follow such monstrous orders.

This counterargument is simply another straw man, in which the cart is put well in front of the horse. What constitutes a “religion” is simply a group of people who share a certain number of articles of “faith” with each other. The trappings of organization are a consequence of that process, not the antecedent. To contrast “faith” with “religion” is like saying ‘let us come together as a group and decide who will be responsible for certain leadership tasks; that’s a better system than having “a government”‘. Once again, distinction without difference. In every way that is germane to the discussion, the two things are identical and it contributes nothing to the discussion to try and forge some kind of contrast between them.

The second major problem with this argument is that it presumes the possibility of a “correct” interpretation of something like religion (or maybe it doesn’t – more on this later). “What I believe is right,” says the argument “and if people simply read the Bible/Qur’an/Bhagavad Gita the way that I do, they’d see that these things are right and those things are wrong.” This is either conceit leagues beyond anything that we arrogant atheists could possibly aspire to, or (more likely) a failure to recognize that scripture works the same way as a Rorschach ink blot – you see what you want to see. If you believe that it is permissible to seek revenge on those who wrong you, then you can explain away the whole “turn the other cheek” thing; vice versa for pacifists who ignore the Mark of Cain or Jesus’ wrath against the money-changers in the temple (to use Christianity as my most familiar example, though Islam is subject to the exact same process, perhaps even more so).

All “faith” is simply interpretation of stories, and as such flies in the face of any claim of the “correct” interpretation. The mind is made up first, and then the evidence is found to support it. A person may not be aware that they are doing this, just as we are not aware of the way that subtle cues and organization patterns in the supermarket influence us to do things without us being conscious of making a decision. Afterward, if we are confronted, we back-fill our reasons and find a way to make it look rational. Watch a kid explain why she/he did a random action – she/he will hunt for a reason and often make up a convoluted and fanciful explanation for an arbitrary act. We adults aren’t much better – we’re just less likely to shug and say “I dunno”. Faith is the same way – we find justifications for our beliefs after we already hold them (and yes, I include myself in this “we”. Although I try my best not to, I am only human).

The only way for this argument to possibly work is to say “everyone should hold their private beliefs, and not share them with each other.” After all, since religion is simply the sharing of  faith-based ideas, the only way to have faith and not be religious is to hold those ideas in your own head and make group decisions on a non-faith basis. Under such an arrangement, we immediately divest ourselves of churches, clergy, religious heirarchy and dogma, leaving only the content of people’s conscience left in which faith could possibly operate. If that’s what you mean when you say “no religion; only faith”, then congratulations! While you might not be an atheist, you’re most definitely a secularist.

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