Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Why are the Religious Entitled to Special Treatment?

It is a longstanding custom of American culture to defer to the religious. We are supposed to respect the fact that they have “beliefs” (regardless of what they might be) and avoid confronting them with criticism or even sincere questions about their theology. And we are supposed to naively assume that the religious mean well even when they demonstrably do not. It’s the belief-in-belief syndrome. And it’s time we recognized it as the pernicious force that it is.
Nonbelievers especially are expected to tiptoe around the fragile feelings of the religious. Meanwhile, while claiming that their beliefs imbue them with feelings of peace, love and tolerance, even the most allegedly well-meaning Christian has no problem making statements such as “One cannot be good without God” or “The Ten Commandments are the basis of all morality” ― not caring at all that he has just demeaned the billions of non-Judeo-Christians around the world.
Yet these very same people ― from the consummately self-righteous to the casual churchgoer ― not only do not want to suffer direct personal insults themselves (such as “How can you believe such nonsense?”), they don’t want to hear straightforward statements of fact (such as “There is no evidence for a god” or “Evolution made the flowers and trees” or “Doctors, not God, saved your baby.”).
As Sam Harris phrased it in Letter to a Christian Nation:
Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.
Further, fundamental questions that one would think believers would want to be able to answer (such as “What will you be doing in Heaven all day ... forever?”) are regarded as insults as well ― because people have not taken the time to critically examine the very theology they say they follow.
According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the average believer’s knowledge of his own professed doctrine is perfunctory. Pew researchers asked 32 questions about world religions:
On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. ... Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education. (My italics)
According to a recent Gallup poll, the number of Americans who think the Bible is the literal word of God has dropped to 24 percent. Before we revel in this finding, we must remember that that leaves one-fourth of Americans who still believe that Noah built an ark and that brides discovered to have had premarital carnal knowledge and homosexuals should be stoned to death. Despite this decrease, belief in the “literal word of God” still has to be considered an intellectual and moral crisis of the highest order.
So, it’s difficult to see why any believer, fundamentalist or “moderate,” should receive special treatment ― especially when even the most moderate and “progressive” Christians are nurturing the xenophobic, racist, uncharitable and decidedly “un-Christian” America we are finding ourselves in today.
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Two utterances following the incomprehensible election of a lunatic as president of the most powerful country in the world continue to resonate: “How could this happen?” and “This is not who we are.” Well, this is how it happened, and this is who we are:
1. Christian moderates and “progressives” don’t seem to have a problem with (to name a few) these violations of the establishment clause of the First Amendment:
The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, established by George W. Bush in 2001 and expanded by Barack Obama
Religious monuments, including the Ten Commandments and veterans memorials with Christian crosses, on public land
Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance including the words “under God” (added during the McCarthy era) and reciting Christian prayers before public meetings
Politicians’ public piety ― such as citing their favorite Bible verses, or praying for rain on the statehouse steps
Not taxing churches that use public services
Preaching politics from the pulpit
For a religious moderate, what’s the harm in going a step or two further toward a theocracy? After all, these people mean well, don’t they?
2. The religiosity of the denizens of the red states ― and the attendant ethnocentrism, xenophobia, racism, anti-scientism, and gullibility that their religious beliefs foster ― largely accounts for Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton.
In the Alternet column “An Insider’s View: The Dark Rigidity of Fundamentalist Rural America,” Forsetti’s Justice writes:
As the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump is being sorted out, a common theme keeps cropping up from all sides: “Democrats failed to understand white, working-class, fly-over America.”...
The real problem isn’t East Coast elites who don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is that rural Americans don’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. ...
In deep-red America, the white Christian god is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism has shaped most of their belief systems. Systems built on a fundamentalist framework are not conducive to introspection, questioning, learning, or change.
This red-state mentality goes a long way in explaining how the GOP has been able to manipulate people into electing politicians without a modicum of concern about their well-being ― unless, of course, their major priorities are which bathrooms people use, or stopping ”angry atheists” from taking down their Christian monuments.
3. Let’s face it: If you believe the silly stories in the Bible, you’ll believe just about anything. Religion gives belief precedence over reason. It substitutes myth for rational explanations of everyday phenomena. It discourages independent thinking in favor of taking things on authority. It dictates a morality that not even the most fundamentalist Christian would actually practice. And yet belief in belief regards the abdication of human reason as not only acceptable but laudable.
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So are the religious entitled to special treatment? Only if we are happy with the fact that the majority of Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage, women’s access to contraception and abortion, affordable healthcare for all ― and that the people who are being elected to public office are delivering just the opposite.
And make no mistake: there is no dichotomy between religious fanatics, fundamentalists, and evangelicals on the one hand and moderate, “progressive” Christians on the other. Any difference is a matter of degree, not kind.
Everyone is entitled to entertain his or her beliefs, no matter how implausible. But Americans’ deference to the delicate sensibilities of the religious is affecting public policy. It is abetting the reversal of decades of social progress and the systematic rejection of science and reason. Clearly, it is time to start thinking about the mess that belief in belief has gotten us into.