Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Treating Religious Affiliation as Ethnicity

We have a tendency to frequently treat someone's religious affiliation as a sort of ethnic origin. We say that they are from a Christian family or a Jewish family. Particularly when we identify children as one or the other, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, we are treating their religious affiliation as something inherited. They got it from their parents, like they got their blue eyes, or Italian ancestry. Someone says, "I was raised Catholic," or "My family is Baptist," and these claims could easily be substituted with claims like "I am from an Irish family," or "My father is Persian." And we tend to think of the resulting connection to that religion as something they are stuck with; it's in their blood. People will often offer explanations of religious beliefs by saying that so and so was "raised Anglican," as if their upbringing inflicted or caused them to be a certain way, and nothing can change that now.

The problem with thinking of religion this way is that we get fundamentally confused about what a person's freedoms are and what their responsibilities to the rest of society are. People can't help what ethnicity they are. And that's part of the reason that we think it is unfair to criticize them or discriminate against them because they are Italian, or Persian, or Kurdish. That was the point behind the civil rights movement. African Americans were being discriminated against for something that 1) made no difference at all, and 2) they couldn't help; their skin color.

And we often get mixed up about religion in just this way. We are concerned to have respect and tolerance for other people's religious views, just like we try to have respect and tolerance for their ethnic and cultural origins. People talk and act like they have a right to possess whatever religious views they want, and that they shouldn't be criticized, or discriminated against on the basis of them. And criticism of a person's religion has become almost as taboo in our culture as making an off color racial remark to them. We would no more say something like, "Catholics are nut jobs, they think that the wine and crackers literally turn into flesh and blood," than we would make a crack about blacks and watermelon.

But it's a serious mistake to treat religion this way. For one thing, people aren't just bestowed with a religion and that's the end of it. They have a choice. They don't have to be Catholic, or Muslim, or Pentecostal. They can change their minds. And by treating people's religious affiliation with so much reverence and political correctness, we've effectively given them a blank check to form whatever crazy ideas they want, and pursue those ideas, foster them in each other, encourage their kids to believe them, and pass them on to the next generation. And they can demand--because freedom of religion is a right after all--that no one say anything critical about it because that would be intolerant and bigoted. People will say, "I have a right to my opinion," and "Well, that's just the way I was raised," as if they ends all rational inquiry into the matter. Can you imagine a serial killer saying (truthfully), "Well, I was just raised so that from time to time you went out, picked up a stranger, and brutally murdered them."

But then as long as religious believers have a free pass from any kind of critical scrutiny, they, like all of us, are prone to get crazier and crazier. There are currently millions and millions of Americans who think that Armageddon and the second coming of Jesus is coming very, very soon. And they are going to vote on the basis of those religious views, they are going to get on the school board, they are going to teach in the classroom, they are going to make moral decisions, they are going to get married, they are going to fight wars, they are going to blow themselves up on a bus crowded with school children, and so on, all based on what their religion told them.

Religious institutions and religious beliefs are pernicious and warp into ever more dangerous forms in a way that skin color does not. Certainly we should be tolerant of people when they look different. We should always be tolerant of the free and open exchange of ideas. That was the point of freedom of speech, after all. We all need to be able to get those ideas, including the radical, unorthodox, and anti-establishment ones, out there. And we need to have an open, intelligent, critical discussion about them to sort them out. But that's the irony. For the sake of freedom of religion, we have made it possible for people be protected from the open exchange of ideas that might keep them in check. We've given them a pass to secret themselves away and cultivate the most outrageous worldviews. And we have allowed them to inject those ideas back into the society all while bypassing the most important part--the critical vetting. So they get to tell their kids that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, that angels exist, and that the wine and crackers turn into flesh and blood. And they also tell their kids that they have an absolute right to their religious beliefs. And the cycle starts over again.


Anonymous said...

You are right. I am an atheist. Proudly excommunicated from the catholic sect by the bishop of Sacramento himself. I felt segregated against in the biggot USA, so I have left that country for good. The horrible combination of US military force + nukes + religious extremism in the US really scares me. Thanks a million for you blog.

Anonymous said...

I liked this blog so much that I put it on my myspace page. I have heard over and over again from my mom that, "When you deny your religion, you deny your culture." I drove me crazy because I'm very proud to be Portuguese and very proud not to be a follower of the Catholic faith. I'm glad that someone else created a good rebuttal to her claim.

-Carla Isabel
AGASA secretary 2005-2006

Anonymous said...

I agree that other people's beliefs should not be off-limits for public conversation, especially when they're going to do things based on those beliefs that affect others.

Speaking of which, I think it's both fallacious and tasteless to suggest that someone who believes in transsubstantiation is going to strap bombs to herself, and it's part of the reason the public at large believes people like you are idiots.

Religion can command fanatical devotion and override people's consciences. So can other loyalties. Treating the problem as an inherently religious one is being selectively blind.