Respect for religion-2: What are the limits?

If one wants to see how much privilege is granted to religion in the public sphere, consider what happened last week. The Congress decided to expand the provisions of so-called ‘hate crimes’ legislation. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 1592), would “provide federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes” involving “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.”

Some Christian groups, such as the Traditional Values Coalition objected to the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the list because they feared that this would prevent them from speaking out against homosexuals, cross dressers, and transgendered people.

Leaving aside for the moment the whole problematic issue of hate crimes, what is relevant to this post is that these Christian groups took particular offense that this vote was scheduled (and passed) on the same day as the ‘National Day of Prayer.’ They said that it was a ‘slap in the face’ to Christians, that it was disrespectful to bring up the inclusion of hate crimes against gays on their day of prayer.

Follow me closely here. The first step in the argument seems to be that some Christians feel that they have the right to oppose homosexuality because of their religious beliefs. Fair enough. In a free country people should be able to believe what they want as long as they do not obstruct the rights of others. The next step seems to be that the National Day of Prayer is a day that privileges their particular interpretation of Christianity and thus a discouraging word should never be heard on that day and passing any legislation that offends the sensibilities of those groups on that day is being ‘rude’ to them.

On one level, this argument is problematic because there are also many religious groups who oppose discrimination against gays and might see this as a perfectly appropriate day to pass such legislation.

The real problem lies in the whole idea of privileging religious beliefs in the public sphere at all. Even designating such a thing as a National Day of Prayer is questionable. Passed in 1952, it resulted from pandering to religious groups in general, not to any particular sect, and it dangerously treads on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Not to mention that it seems a little silly for the government to be getting into the business of exhorting people to pray on a particular day.

I bring up this somewhat trivial blip on the political landscape to illustrate what happens when we let the trope of ‘respect for religion’ become a rule that is raised to a higher level than others. Why should religious beliefs be granted any special privileges denied to other beliefs?

This is not to say that we should go out of our way to offend religious people by throwing the cold water of reason on their beliefs whenever the topic of religion arises. For example, a close friend of mine, who is very religious, had an adult daughter who died a few years ago. My friend is still grief-stricken and even now will burst into tears when talking about her loss. She consoles herself by saying that she looks forward to the day when she joins her daughter in heaven. I never dispute this when I am with her because we all need some means of coping with life’s tragedies and this is hers. The reason for my silence is because of my respect for her as a person and the desire to help her deal with her sorrow.

It is for the same reason that I bow my head when at some function someone starts to pray for something, or why I take off my shoes when entering a Hindu or Buddhist temple or a Mosque or wear a yarmulke when attending a synagogue that requires it. It is out of respect for the people there, not for their beliefs. The idea that I am entering a ‘holy’ space that requires this level of deference makes no sense to me, but I go along with these practices out of a sense of social obligation to not needlessly offend. It means nothing to me either way, so why not accommodate others when entering places that are special to them?

In a non-religious context, it is exactly the same reasoning for why I dress up formally (or as formally as will be acceptable) when I attend a wedding or observe the social niceties expected of me when I am the guest of someone else, such as not putting my feet up on their coffee table or lying down on their living room couch, even though I do these things in my own home.

But when we are discussing public ideas in a public forum, there is no reason to privilege religious beliefs in any way or to cushion religious believers from any arguments against their beliefs. I think Henry Louis “H.L.” Mencken, American editor and critic got it right when he said: “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the same sense and to the same extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”
But respect for religion has been extended well beyond this reasonable accommodation that acts as a social lubricant, and seems to seek exemption from public criticism of the beliefs themselves. And it is this applecart that the new atheists are upsetting.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Rowan Atkinson on Jesus’s miracles

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