This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Why should religion, alone among all other kinds of ideas, be free from attempts to persuade people out of it?
We try to persuade people out of ideas all the time. We try to persuade people that their ideas about science, politics, philosophy, art, medicine, and more, are wrong: that they’re harmful, ridiculous, repulsive, or simply mistaken. But when it comes to religion, trying to persuade people out of their ideas is somehow seen as horribly rude at best, invasive and bigoted and intolerant at worst. Why? Why should religion be the exception?
I’ve been writing about atheism for about six years now. In those six years, I’ve asked this question more times, and of more different believers, than I could possibly remember. And not once have I gotten a satisfying answer. In fact, only once in my career do I recall getting any answer at all. I’ve asked this question more times than I can remember… and with one exception, what I’ve gotten in response has been crickets chirping and tumbleweeds blowing by. I’ve been ignored, I’ve had the subject changed, I’ve had people get personally nasty, I’ve had people abandon the conversation altogether. But only once have I ever gotten any kind of actual answer. And that answer sucked. (I’ll get to it in a bit.) I’ve heard lots of people tell me, at length and with great passion, that trying to persuade people out of their religion is bad and wrong and mean… but I haven’t seen a single real argument explaining why this is such a terrible thing to do with religion, and yet is somehow perfectly okay to do with all other ideas.
So I want to get to the heart of this matter. I don’t want to bring it up as a side point in another discussion: I want to focus on this question alone. Why should religion be treated differently from all other kinds of ideas? Why shouldn’t we criticize it, and make fun of it, and try to persuade people out of it… the way we do with every other kind of idea?
In a free society, in the marketplace of ideas, we try to persuade people out of ideas all the time. We criticize ideas we disagree with; we question ideas we find puzzling; we excoriate ideas we find repugnant; we make fun of ideas we think are silly. And we think this is acceptable. In fact, we think it’s positively good. We think this is how good ideas rise to the surface, and bad ideas get filtered out. We might have issues with exactly how this persuasion is carried out: is it done politely or rudely, reasonably or hysterically, did you really have to bring it up at Thanksgiving dinner, etc. But the basic idea of trying to convince other people that your ideas are right and theirs are wrong… this is not controversial.
Except when it comes to religion.
Religion is an idea about the world. Thousands of different ideas, really, but with one basic idea at the core of them all: the idea of the supernatural. Religion is the hypothesis that the world is the way that it is, entirely or in part, because of supernatural beings or forces acting on the natural world. It’s an idea about how the world works — every bit as much as the germ theory of disease, or the theory that matter is made up of atoms, or the wacky notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
And religion is a very specific kind of idea about the world. Religion is a truth claim. It’s not a subjective matter of personal experience or opinion, like, “I’m a one-woman man,” or “Harry Potter is better than Lord of the Rings.” It is a statement about what is and is not literally true in the non-subjective world.
So if we think it’s a mistaken idea, why shouldn’t we try to convince other people of that?
We do this with every other kind of truth claim. If people think that disease is caused by demonic possession, or that global climate change is a hoax, or that deregulating the financial industry will lead to a robustly healthy economy for all levels of society — and we think these people are wrong — we try to change their minds. Why should religion be any different?
Now, of course, religion is more than just an idea. People build communities, personal identities, support systems, coping mechanisms, entire life philosophies, around their religious beliefs.
But people build identities around other ideas, too. People have intense political identities, for instance: people are often deeply attached to their identity as a progressive, or a Republican, or a libertarian. People build communities around these ideas, and support systems, and coping mechanisms, and life philosophies. And we still think it’s entirely valid, and even positively worthwhile, to try to change people’s minds about these ideas if we think they’re wrong.
Why should religion be any different?
It’s also the case that letting go of religious beliefs can be upsetting, even traumatic. In the short term anyway. Most atheists say that they’re happy to have let go of their religion… but many do go through a short period of trauma while they’re letting go.
But it can be upsetting, and even traumatic, to let go of all kinds of ideas. It can be upsetting and traumatic to learn that the clothes and chocolate and electronics you’re buying are made by slave labor; that the food you’re feeding your children is bad for them; that you have unconscious racist or sexist attitudes; that driving your car is contributing to global climate change and the possible permanent destruction of the environment.
And yet we still think it’s valid, and even positively worthwhile, to try to change people’s minds about these ideas if we think they’re wrong.
Why should religion be any different?
Yes, there’s a tremendous diversity of religious ideas — a diversity that makes up a large part of our complex cultural tapestry. But we have a tremendous diversity of ideas about politics, too… and about science, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and more. When we look at our history, our complex cultural tapestry has included alchemy, and Jim Crow laws, and preventing women from voting, and curing the “disease” of masturbation, and treating yellow fever epidemics by shooting cannonballs into the air. The world is better off without those ideas. We still have a rich cultural tapestry of diverse lifestyles and worldviews without them. And we still think it was entirely valid, and even positively worthwhile, to try to change people’s minds about these ideas when we thought they were wrong.
Why should religion be any different?
It’s also true that persuading people out of their religion is often seen as proselytizing or evangelizing. Proselytizing or evangelizing about religion has a bad reputation. And there are good reasons for that. Religious evangelists have an ugly history of fearmongering, deception, outright lying, applying economic pressure, using law or force or even violence, to “persuade” people out of their religious beliefs. Not to mention the little matter of knocking on people’s doors at eight o’clock on Saturday morning. It’s no wonder people are resistant to it.
But if that’s not what atheists are advocating? If we’re not advocating any sort of force or coercion, or even any sort of pressure apart from the mild social pressure created by people not wanting to look foolish by hanging onto bad ideas? If what we’re advocating is writing blog posts, writing magazine articles, writing books, wearing T-shirts, putting up billboards, getting into conversations with our friends and families, getting into debates on Facebook? If what we’re advocating is getting our atheist ideas more widely disseminated and understood, and creating atheist communities so people who share our ideas feel safer expressing them? If what we’re advocating is essentially standing up and saying, “The Emperor has no clothes” — and offering the best evidence and arguments we can for the Emperor’s nakedness?
What is so terrible about that? We do that with every other kind of idea. Why shouldn’t we do it with religion?
Why should religion be any different?
And it’s certainly true that, throughout history, many attempts to “persuade” people out of their religion have resulted in persecution — or have provided the rationalization for it. Human beings have an ugly, bloody, terrible history of persecuting each other over religious differences: anti-Catholic hostility in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anti-Muslim hostility in much of Europe today, the Crusades, the Holocaust… the list goes on And religious persecution often goes hand-in-hand with classism, jingoistic nationalism, ethnic hatreds, and racism — rendering it even uglier. A lot of people can only see persuading people out of religion in this context of persecution, and are horrified by it. And while I disagree with their ultimate analysis, I can certainly understand their horror.
But religion isn’t the only idea whose adherents have historically been targeted with persecution. Political ideas certainly have been. To take an obvious example: Look at Communism. People who thought Communism was a good idea had their lives utterly destroyed. Even if they weren’t actually trying to overthrow the government. Even if all they were doing was writing, or creating art, or gassing on in cafes with their friends. Even if they weren’t really Communists. McCarthyism and other Red scares destroyed the lives of countless people who were simply suspected of being Communists. And like religious persecution, anti-Communist fervor has often been closely tied with nationalism, ethnic hostilities, and more. Immigrants from Eastern Europe, for instance, were often feared and despised as “dirty Commies,” with the political hostility becoming inextricably tangled with the xenophobic nationalism, and each form of hostility feeding the other.
Does that mean we shouldn’t criticize Communism? Does that mean that, if we think Communism isn’t a particularly good system for structuring an economy, we should just keep our mouths shut?
When we criticize religion — just as when we criticize any other kind of idea — we do need to make sure that criticism of the idea doesn’t turn into persecution of its adherents. We need to draw a careful line between criticizing ideas and marginalizing people. We need to remember that people who disagree with us are still people, deserving of basic compassion and respect.
But we need to draw that line with every kind of idea. Political, scientific, artistic ideas — all of them. And we don’t exempt any other kind of idea from criticism, just because that kind of idea has often been targeted with persecution.
Why should religion be any different?
Why should religion be treated any differently from any other kind of idea about the world? Why, alone among all other ideas, should it be protected from criticism, questions, mockery when it’s ridiculous, excoriation when it’s appalling? Why, alone among all other ideas, should we not try to persuade people out of it if we think it’s mistaken?
Why should religion be the exception?
I’ve asked this question more times than I can remember. And I’ve only ever gotten one straight answer. In one argument on Facebook (which was ages ago, so unfortunately I can’t find it and link to it), the person I was debating argued that religious debates and disagreements have a bad history. All too often, they’ve led to hostility, hatred, tribalism, bigotry, even violence and wars. Therefore, he argued, it was best to just avoid debates about the topic altogether.
You know what? He’s right. When it comes to the divisiveness of religion, he’s totally right.
And that’s an argument for my side — not his.
I completely agree with his basic assessment. Religion does tend to be more divisive than other topics. It’s a point Daniel Dennet made in his book, Breaking the Spell: In a weird but very real psychological paradox, people tend to defend ideas more ferociously when we don’t have very good evidence supporting them.
Look at it this way. If people come over the hill and tell us that the sky is orange, we can clearly see that the sky is blue… so we can easily shrug off their ridiculous idea, and we don’t feel a powerful need to defend our own perception. But if people come over the hill and tell us that God comes in three parts, one of whom is named Jesus, and this three-in-one god really wants us not to eat meat on Fridays — and we think there is no god but Allah, and he really wants us to never eat pork or draw pictures of real things — we don’t have any way to settle the disagreement. The only evidence supporting our belief is, “My parents tell me,” My religious leader tells me,” “My holy book tells me,” or “I feel it in my heart.” And if we care about our belief — if it’s not some random trivial opinion, if it’s central to our personal and social identity — we have a powerful tendency to double down, to entrench ourselves more deeply and more passionately in our belief. We can’t have a rational, evidence-based debate about the matter. The only way to defend our own belief is with bigotry, tribalism, and violence.
But if religious differences really are more likely to lead to bigotry, tribalism, violence, etc…. doesn’t that show what a bad idea it is? If the ideas of religion are so poorly rooted in reality that there’s no way to resolve differences other than forming battle lines and screaming or shooting across them… doesn’t that strongly suggest that this is a truly crappy idea, and humanity should let go of it? Doesn’t that suggest that persuading people out of it is a really good thing to do?
So yeah. This wasn’t such a great answer. But at least it was an answer. At least it wasn’t a changing of the topic, a moving of the goalposts, a deterioration into personal insult, a complete abandonment of the conversation altogether. Every other time that I’ve asked, “Why should religion, alone among all other kinds of ideas, be free from attempts to persuade people out of it?”, I’ve been met with what was essentially silence.
I’ve gotten tremendous hostility over the years for my attempts to persuade people out of religion. I’ve been called a racist and a cultural imperialist, trying to stamp out the beautiful tapestry of human diversity and make everyone in the world exactly like me. I’ve been called a fascist, have been compared to Stalin and Glenn Beck. My atheist activism has been compared to the genocide of the Native Americans. I’ve even been called “evil in one of its purest forms.” As have many other atheist writers — I’m hardly the only target of this. All this, for trying to persuade people that their idea is mistaken, and our idea is correct. The atheism itself gets hostile opposition as well, of course: it gets called immoral, amoral, hopeless, meaningless, joyless, and more. But the very idea of presuming to engage in this debate — the very idea of putting religion on one side of a chessboard and atheism on the other, and seeing which one gets check-mated — is regularly treated as a bigoted and intolerant violation of the basic principles of human discourse.
And yet when I ask why — why it’s okay to persuade people out of other ideas but not this one, why religion alone should be exempt from the vigorous criticism that every other idea is expected to stand up to, why religion alone should get a free ride in the marketplace of ideas (and a free ride in an armored car at that), why religion should be the sole exception — I’ve only ever gotten one crappy answer, one time.
Does anyone have a better answer?
Or any answer at all?