Tuesday, October 14, 2014

It's not all of us! - or - Everybody does it!

Whenever anyone criticizes a religion these days, many liberals start calling such critics bigots or even racists (Does religion = race?  I think not!).  Recently a brouhaha on the Bill Maher show prompted one participant to add further "explanation" of his position (note:  Sam Harris linked this essay from his own blog page).  Bill Maher and Sam Harris were taking the position that islam itself bears responsibility for the violent behavior of some islamic adherents.  Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristoff considered that position to be biased and even bigoted.

My friend, RJ Evans, recently put up this essay that describes the situation as he sees it:  if you're willing to believe in a supernatural deity, you can be convinced to commit atrocities.  I came to this realization several years ago about "moderate" believers:  it's likely that if religious fanatics assume control over a government, moderates will be forced to go along with those violent events, or be killed.  They'll be confronted with the inevitable challenge to choose a side, and most of them will cave under that sort of pressure.  Perhaps they're fearful for their lives (and those of their family and friends).  Perhaps they just can't give up their faith, no matter how evil are the deeds committed in its name.  Of course, some might resist a call for atrocities by the fanatics.  But history reveals that few will do so when religion and government become one and the same.

We critics of religion argue that this tendency is an inevitable consequence of belief in a supernatural deity.  Moderates say, "It's not all of us!  They're just a minority of crazies!"  That might well be the case at present, but in the past and perhaps again in the future, it could be the law of the land.  If you believe that can't happen, I can call that belief into question.  What prevents it from happening here and now, as it has in other times and places?  In some nations, it's already happening.  It's not the "holy" scriptures (the foundation of all religions) that will prevent it.  Those writings are the source of the fanaticism that could be inflicted on us all!  You can justify nearly anything with quotes from those "sacred" documents, which to my mind renders them useless in a rational discussion.  In all such scriptures,  the supernatural deity demands complete and total submission, and is willing to kill anyone who doesn't believe as s/he/it commands.  Believers are followers, not leaders!  For each such religion, then, their deity is the ultimate authority figure, and if you accept that ultimate authority as legitimate, you must be willing to do as commanded.  It's inherent in all religions with a super-everything deity.  You can pick and choose those parts of the documents you like with your modern, moderate morality, and ignore the parts that make you uncomfortable, but the religion you cling to is precisely the source for evil deeds done in its name.  Everyone who commits such deeds also believe they, and they alone, know the true religion of their choice.

"But that's not the true ____ (choose your favorite religion)!  My religion is one of peace.  And love."  So your interpretation of your religion is the only true one, then?  What a coincidence that it's your religion that's the true one!  Isn't that the reason for the evolution of religions into many, many different subspecies?  "It's only we who are the true believers!  The rest are abominations, heretics, fanatics!"  Can you not see where such a belief leads?  Anyone who convinces themselves that they, and only they, are the sole possessors of absolute truth is likely to be a willing soldier on behalf of that truth.  When their faith is tested by the fanatics, will they be ready to sign up, or will they refuse, possibly at the cost of their lives?  History suggests the answer.

"But everybody does it!"  By a curious bit of irony, some moderates also argue that both sides of a religious divide have done evil.  They're using the fact that all religions have at one time/place or another,  been in control and committed awful deeds.  Followers of each religious denomination like to think of themselves as being persecuted - typically by some other religion, but any form of unbelief (including atheism, naturally) will serve their needs.   Some claim that religious persecution by atheist regimes is identical to that of theocracies.   I maintain there are important differences, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this blog.  Religious persecution can be, and has been, cited as justification for violent actions at some point.  No matter the reality of a situation, if someone perceives themselves to be victims of persecution, it becomes easy to rationalize violent responses.  The fact that one side has committed atrocities is no justification for the other side to do likewise - especially if that other side makes the claim they are adhering to a doctrine of peace and love.  Violence always results in more violence, not peace and harmonious co-existence.

Today's moderates evidently are blind to the dangers invariably associated with an absolute authority figure they must follow that wields a sword in defense of absolute truth and seeks to convert all others to the one true religion.  The potential for evil deeds flows from such a source in a fearful torrent, whether or not the moderates actually are participating at the moment.  If they see any criticism of religion as bigotry or racism, they're being misled by a modern sense of morality that doesn't arise from "sacred" religious documents but is, rather, a humanist morality.  A morality not imposed by some mythical supernatural all-everything authority figure who commands obedience on pain of death and rewards the faithful, but rather is based on our sense of shared humanity and empathy for others.

Criticism of religion is not equivalent to bigotry or racism.  It's absurd to equate religion with race, for one thing.  Race is a myth, for another, and modern religions generally accept believers of any "racial" character.  And it's not bigotry to criticize religion - religion is an idea, not a person.  A dangerous idea that needs to remain separated from government.


Just read an essay by Reza Aslan that seems to take a rather elitist stance when it comes to criticizing religion:  apparently, Aslan thinks that only dedicated religious scholars are qualified even to discuss religion.  He says that "Sam Harris, to me, gives atheism a bad name because he comes from a tradition of atheism that is really disconnected from the titans of intellectual, philosophical atheism who gave birth to the modern world. These were experts in religion who, from a position of expertise, criticized religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience."

So being a neuroscientist is a strike against his point of view?  This seems rather a self-serving interpretation of religious criticism.  Aslan is a religious scholar, so his views automatically trump those of anyone not a religious scholar?

We critics of religion may not have studied ancient scriptures in their original language or delved into ancient history, but neither have most of the followers of those religions.  In fact, many of the followers have never even read those documents!  There are passages in those scriptures that promote barbaric behavior of all sorts, and those passages are cited frequently to support that behavior.  Yes, we non-religious scholar atheists echo the "fundamentalists" (in part) because at least the fundamentalists take a mostly consistent position regarding those scriptures.  They don't cry "out of context" every time someone cites a scriptural passage that seems to contradict the myth of a peaceful, loving religion - rather, they embrace it, word for word. 

I'm most definitely not in favor of prejudice against islam - I dislike all religions that follow an absolute, all-powerful deity, for reasons I've given in this blog. It just happens that islam is the current world "poster child" for evil deeds done in the name of religion.