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Dec 18 2008

No more benefit of clergy

In England in the Middle Ages, clergymen, monks, and nuns were exempt from the jurisdiction of secular courts and could be tried for offenses only in ecclesiastical courts, a practice known as giving them the ‘benefit of clergy’. While that legal exemption has ceased to exist, it seems like we still grant religious people a similar benefit, the exemption now being from the ‘laws’ of logic and reason.

In Tuesday’s post, I described the highly intricate rules that observant Jews have to follow if they are not to contravene what they are told to be god’s dictates, as interpreted for them by their priests or rabbis, and risk being struck down by a thunderbolt if they should so much as turn on a stove without first checking to see if a current was already flowing. What is interesting is that people who don’t give a passing thought to the nitpicking rules of their own religion are often incredulous about the nitpicking rules of other religions.

For anyone outside that belief system it seems incredible that people could take such rules and prohibitions seriously. It is undoubtedly true that many people, who in other areas of their lives would be highly skeptical of arbitrary rules laid down by authority figures based on old documents of uncertain origins, swallow without question the claims of their own religious authorities. Why is this? Why do such people not apply the same critical thinking and the same appeals to reason and evidence to these rules that they would apply elsewhere?

I think it is a consequence of an over-expansive interpretation of the ‘respect for religion’ trope. All that ‘respect for religion’ should mean is that people are perfectly free to believe whatever they want and to practice their beliefs as long as they do not harm others. If they want to tie themselves up in all kinds of knots about when and how they are allowed to turn their stoves on and off, they are perfectly entitled to do so.

But ‘respect for religion’ as commonly understood has become much more than that. It has come to mean that the rest of us must treat these beliefs and practices as reasonable. As a result, such beliefs are never questioned because all the others who think such rules silly, when confronted with believers who follow them, nod our heads and act like their behavior is perfectly rational. We keep our incredulity to ourselves. We have allowed the words ‘religion’ and ‘god’ to give the most absurd ideas and practices a veneer of intellectual respectability.

It is bad enough that we treat the evidence-free idea of god as something reasonable to believe in, we are also expected to hide our amazement that any 21st-century person would even want to worship a god who views lighting a fire on the Sabbath or taking a communion wafer out of a church or the transgressions of similarly petty and arcane Muslim and Hindu and other religious rules as worthy of punishment.

As a contrast, if someone we knew suddenly adopted the practice of, every hour on the hour, spinning around in a circle shouting “Wubba! Wubba!” and explained to us that a space alien had visited him and told him to do that, we would view him with concern as having become unhinged. But label that practice with the word ‘religion’ and the space alien with the word ‘god’ and suddenly the act is transformed into something that requires respect and deference and the person even becomes admirable for being so devout and faithfully observant. If left unchallenged, over time that ‘religion’ might acquire a mass following, the way all other religions did.

Journalist H. L. Mencken had the correct attitude. Writing a couple of months after the Scopes monkey trial ended in July 1925, he strongly defended Clarence Darrow against those ‘moderate’ religionists who had criticized his questioning of William Jennings Bryan, because Darrow had made all religious beliefs look silly.

Mencken wrote:

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act. Bryan went there in a hero’s shining armor, bent deliberately upon a gross crime against sense. He came out a wrecked and preposterous charlatan, his tail between his legs. Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours.

People should be perfectly free to practice their religious beliefs as they wish. And common courtesy demands that we should not actively seek out such people and pour scorn on their beliefs and practices. But if people make absurd and unsubstantiated statements in public as religious leaders and their followers routinely do, they should not expect to be immune from challenge or contradiction, any more than a person who makes any other statement on any other topic that is unsupported by evidence or reason.

Merely because a statement springs from religious beliefs should not give it any immunity from the normal rules of discourse. It should not have the benefit of clergy.

POST SCRIPT: The best Christmas movie

Forget It’s a Wonderful Life. You need to watch The Ref (1994) with Denis Leary, Judy Davis, and Kevin Spacey. It’s hilarious.

In this clip, the first four minutes are the opening credits containing seasonal schmaltz that leads you to expect the usual fare, before the film suddenly veers off. (Language advisory.)

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