My sincere apologies if this post comes across a bit scatter-brained and rushed. I’ve had a rather weird and scary night. One of my roommates fell off the wagon. Hard. He’d almost undoubtedly been on a bit of a crack binge (I’m not joking) and was pacing around the house slamming cupboards, tossing things around, and snarling “Fucking cunt! Fucking goddamn cunt! Cunts and assholes!”… with a few semi-jubilant cries of “I’m back!” thrown in… which later progressed to “Fucking freak! Fucking goddamn freak cunt!”
I did NOT want to take the chance of sticking around to find out whether I was the freak / cunt he was angry about. I have absolutely no idea why, and it’s almost pointless trying to hazard a guess about the motives of someone in that frame of mind. Maybe because I turned him down for sex seven months ago, when he slipped an extremely creepy note under my door?
Saddest part is that this is not by any means the first time I’ve dealt with something like this. I lead a charmed life, don’t I?
Anyway, like I said, I didn’t want to stick around to find out how the episode would play out. Fortunately, there was a Cafe-Sci happening downtown amongst the Vancouver skeptics, where a climate scientist was giving an awesome lecture on massive coral bleaching events. And The Crommunist ended up offering to put me up for the night. I’m posting this from his apartment!
I have very, very awesome friends.
Now, for the article I had intended to write for the morning:
Accommodationists and religious apologetics alike draw considerable fuel from the fact that not all religious individuals are the bigoted, dangerous figures we point to as emblematic of what is to be feared from religion. And they’re right. It’s true. Many people who hold religious beliefs, even literal religious beliefs, even fundamentalist beliefs, are compassionate, reasonable, ethical people.
We’ve heard it a million times: “The version of religion you criticize is a fringe minority. It’s not representative of the whole. Christianity is not the Westboro Baptist Church, Judaism is not the orthodox hassidim who insist that women sit at the back of their buses in Brooklyn, and Islam is not the terrorists and the men who stone women to death for daring to regard themselves as anything other than a shameful second class citizen/object whose only desire should be to please the man who owns her.”
And sure, not all religious people would be happy to see me dead. Fucking freak cunt that I am.
And like I said, they’re right. That’s true.
But does it really mean that religious belief and thought is any less dangerous? Does this in any way address the substance of the argument?
I know this conversation has gone around and around the atheist community for ages, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw my own half-baked, unqualified, frazzle-brained opinions into the blogo-potpourri. So there are many good, kind, compassionate, tolerant, accepting people with religious beliefs. So what?
So say I’ve got myself a machine gun. Don’t laugh. Canadian transsexual women can have imaginary machine guns too. Now let’s say I fire my imaginary machine gun into a small cluster of lizardmen. Let’s say out of the two dozen imaginary bullets I fire, fourteen miss. Were those bullets any less lethal than the ones that hit their mark?
Ridiculous and violent metaphor? You bet! But bear with me. Sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes religious beliefs end up manifesting amongst people who are kind and decent. But the kindness and decency is not necessarily resultant from the religion, and while it mitigates the danger of the religious belief it doesn’t necessarily make that belief any less dangerous in and of itself. The fact that religion often fails to manifest as violence does not in any way detract from the underlying potential it carries for violence.
As Greta Christina once articulated very, very well, the primary danger of religious thought is that it uniquely armors itself against criticism and doubt. It relies on faith which positions itself fundamentally above being questioned or challenged, and beyond hesitation and ethical checks. The intellectual and ethical brake lines have been cut. The ethics of this world and the consequences that occur within it are within religious thought quintessentially secondary to the spiritual principles in which the faith is invested.
That many individuals may exercise the intellectual, ethical brake lines anyway doesn’t mean religious thinking doesn’t carry that essential danger, especially when it occurs in people who aren’t so inclined to check themselves.
Religious belief also does not occur in a vacuum. The presence of ethical considerations against which the religious tenets are weighed does not defintively mean those ethical considerations emerged from the religion itself. They could have emerged from cultural values, from legal principles, from rationality and understanding of real-world consequence, and from basic human compassion and empathy.
But when religious principles occur in an individual without those external checks to hold back the darker and more dangerous, more lethal aspects of a religion, it gives them a justification and a reason to indulge every harsh, tribalistic, patronizing, judgmental, hateful, bigoted, self-righteous or murderous impulse they’re carrying around as luggage. And gives them a great reason to not bother worrying about the consequences or the ethics: The Will Of God. The next life is more important. I am their shepherd, freeing them of their sin. This world of dust is mere illusion.
Religion doesn’t necessarily make a good person any more good, but it can make a dangerous person a lot more dangerous.
So let’s say in our desire for allies we happily embrace those with religious beliefs who share our values and causes. We extend our olive branch and work alongside various believers in order to work towards non-violence, towards human rights, LGBTQ acceptance, women’s reproductive choices, the election of a given lesser evil, the abolition of a needlessly harsh law, the care of the homeless and impoverished, etc. This is an entirely reasonable decision to make, and one I would not hold any negative attitudes toward.
But if we go ahead and start saying that the existence of such alliances means religious thinking can be a good thing, well…. There we have a problem. I don’t think it’s the religious thinking that’s doing the good. Clearly our own existence and participation in these causes is indicative of religion not being a necessity for a charitable or compassionate mindset. Religion’s presence in the push in the right direction is incidental, not an element of the right direction. The friend of my friend is not necessarily my friend.
I find that the trap of giving special deference, and limiting the degree to which one is able to question and critique, to those with whom one happens to agree is a worryingly common cognitive distortion. I would like to be able to remain skeptical and critical, even when the people in question are my friends and allies.
If our allies are engaging with our causes only on the basis that that is their interpretation of the religious creed to which they adhere, there’s something rather dangerous lurking in that. It can be summed up pretty easily: what if they change their minds?
The mentality that leads a person to believe The Will of God is to feed the poor and shelter the homeless and treat the sick is functionally identical to the mentality that leads others to believe that The Will Of God is to stone the adulterers and beat the sodomites and mutilate the genitals of infants and sing Christmas carols door-to-door (off key). When we’ve condoned and supported the mentality when it incidentally coincided with our values on what grounds can we oppose the mentality when it does not?
This is not to say that we should go around disagreeing and arguing with every theist or believer at every opportunity, or cast aside mutually beneficial cooperation, but simply that we need to remember that the fact that a religious individual or sect’s values may coincide with our own does not in any way detract from the underlying dangers of religious thought.
It’s also worth considering the degree to which moderate believers, however kind and decent and intelligent they may be, create an insulating normalization for the extremists they enfold. This argument also isn’t new, and I don’t for a moment suppose I’m the first to say it. But this is my first time saying it, and I’d like to see where it leads.
To help illustrate the concept of normalization, I usually like to touch upon the ubiquity of sexist and homophobic jokes in the workplace. While each of these jokes may appear superficially harmless, what they do is contribute to a social climate in which the sexist and homophobic attitudes on which they are based are treated as acceptable, understandable, “normal”. For most people, the lines between humour and reality, between a concept of identity you’re mocking and a human being you’re belittling, are able to be maintained. While that certainly doesn’t make everything a-okay and lovely, it does mean that making a joke about violence against women doesn’t mean the individual making the joke actually ethically condones violence against women. But the tiny nudges in the direction of believing sexism and homophobia to be a non-issue, a simple background condition of life, increasingly makes more extreme and more directly harmful acts of discrimination against women and gays and lesbians seem more permissible. And not everyone can so readily draw those lines.
Out of ten work buddies who are told a joke about fixing a broken dishwasher by slapping her and telling her to get back in the kitchen, all it takes is one of them to walk away from that feeling a little more validated and bolstered in his negative, hostile attitudes towards women for the joke to have become dangerous. Let’s say this same worker hears similar jokes again and again at his job, over and over his misogyny is being bolstered, normalized, subtly encouraged. One day, after a particularly bad day at work, he does indeed beat his wife. Each of those jokes, independently “harmless”, helped create the conditions in which the man was able to allow himself to commit that act.
So to apply this back to religion… let’s say we have 100 believers, and 99 of them are people with enough compassion, empathy, common sense, and understanding of consequences to not take the passages in their spiritual texts about stoning adulterers seriously. One of them has genuinely hostile misogynist attitudes, and extremely violent feelings towards his ex-wife who cheated on him. He himself may not necessarily act on those attitudes, but this holy book of his tells him it’s okay, and his faith in God, armored from criticism, in which the intellectual brake lines have been cut, gives him all the rationalizations he could ever need. Meanwhile, his congregation, the 99 fellow believers who would never dream of capital punishment for adultery, egg him on in his faith and his belief and his adherence to the holy book. They thereby maintain the mentalities that though for them (luckily, incidentally) are not dangerous are for him a ticking time bomb. They not only maintain it, they fuel and celebrate it. Spurned on by his faith, which he uses to excuse his hatred of his ex, he one day murders her, permitting and forgiving himself by believing it had been the will of his God.
The 99 believers say “it wasn’t us! It’s not our fault! We’re not ALL like that!”
But it was them, too. They collectively participated in the conditions that allowed the crime to occur.
There is harm in the absence of critical thought, though it doesn’t always manifest everywhere this absence occurs. There is harm in ideology. There is a dangerous potential for violence in every religion… which is often only a potential, except when it’s not.
Sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes we don’t.