Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Deconstructing the "belief" free pass

Question: what is the one context in which you can hurl insult, display excessive anger, and even employ quasi-threatening language and advocate harm against people who have done you and yours no personal harm or injury, and largely get a free pass in our (and many other) culture(s)?

When it's wrapped up in religion, of course.

Think about it.

Tell someone that they have to believe something you believe, or else deserve to be (and eventually will be) brutally, horrifically tortured, and you might just find yourself getting a visit from the police; you certainly would impress people as an unstable, violent psycho. Tell a person that they have to believe in your god or else they deserve to (and will) be tortured brutally and horrifically, and, well, that's just religion.

Declare that a woman's womb and body is subject to “public” will and should be governed by the state, and you will provoke outrage. Declare that God insists on it, and you will lead a multi-million dollar ministry.

Declare that a person's skills, dreams, hopes and abilities do not matter, that the only thing that matters is the most basic biological function, reproduction, and see where that gets you. Then wrap it in the language of God: motherhood is God's greatest calling for a woman; it is the will of God that a woman sacrifice her worldly ambitions, her selfish and vain desires, to devote herself to the birthing and rearing of children, just as Jesus himself sacrificed himself for our sakes...suddenly, you're no longer a weirdo. If anything, you're praiseworthy for your “traditional values” and your “old fashioned outlook”.

Declare that an entire gender is incapable of self control, that its members are violent, rampaging beasts who seek only to seize, brutalize and sate their lusts on whomever they can, and you will rightly be called out for your sexism. Couch your sexist rhetoric in the language of God, and you are a holy man, preaching virtue: it's man's nature to lust after women; women need to embrace chastity and modesty, so that they are not leading men astray; etc.

Incite violence against people who don't share your ideas, work angry mobs up to that violence, and you will find yourself in some serious legal trouble. Do it in God's name, and in many parts of the world, you will either be ignored (since you're going after a minority) or “tolerated” due to a desire to be sensitive to cultural and religious differences.

Teach that one race is superior to others, and you will find your list of friends very short indeed. Declare God made it so, and you've invented a portion of Mormon theology.
There are, of course, many more examples that I could give, but I'm sure you get the idea. The fact is, we allow the open embrace of extraordinary bigotry and cruelty without so much as an “I beg your pardon,” if it's sheltered under the umbrella of religion, while similar sentiments, bereft of that sheltering religiosity, would be met with unequivocal condemnation.


Now, I'm not asking why we don't take legal action against it. As long as this hateful rhetoric is only rhetoric, and not action that harms others, it should be protected free speech as much as that spewed by the KKK or neo-Nazis. But why should it not be recognized as belonging to the same malignant strain of bigotry as its intellectual siblings? Why should we see use of the word “f*ggot” in a different light, or, remarkably, worse than telling someone that they deserve to be brutally tortured, forever, for being gay? Adding, “it's not that I hate you; it's just who you are and what you represent” (or some more duplicitous variant of “hate the sin, love the sinner”) does not change the sheer depravity of it. You're suggesting that someone deserves to be burnt, tortured, mutilated, for all eternity, because they love or had sex with a consenting adult – or a hundred, for that matter. When we're talking about hurting people for doing things we don't like, particularly on such an astronomical scale as eternity, the “how much” is really irrelevant. The fact is, the punishment is in no way proportional to the crime. And yet many religious people are confident in the belief, happy, even, to believe, that this will happen to gay people. To women who have abortions. To atheists. To people of other faiths. To people of other denominations. To anyone who isn't sufficiently like them.

And we're OK with this, because it's a belief. “We have freedom of religion in this country.” Of course. We also have freedom of speech. With limited exceptions, you can say what you like; but you will be judged accordingly, and it will impact your life. People will choose to associate, or not; to befriend, or not; to like, or not, based on things you say. Why does this principle not apply to expressed religious beliefs? Why do we fear to say, “You know, I find your belief that I should be brutally tortured because I don't share belief x repugnant,” when we would surely say it if someone embraced the same ideas outside the god framework? Beyond the question of its impact (demolition, one might say) of the wall between church and state, why do we consider laws that, without an appeal to religious belief, would be abhorrent to our democratic principles – that are, when considered without the fawning approach we take toward religion, abhorrent to those principles – as justifiable on those grounds? Some people believe that birth control causes abortions; they have every right to believe that, or any other absurdity they like, but it doesn't change reality; and laws should be based on reality, not belief. So when these nonsense items end up being thrown into the political arena, why is there so much hesitance, so much respect for ideas that, objectively, deserve none? Individuals have every right to dismiss science and reality based on an unproven, unprovable belief, foolish though we might deem that; but we have every right, and more reason, to dismiss such nonsense in the face of good evidence. Whence, then, comes the hesitation to do so?

Now, I'm not advocating being adversarial for the sake of it, or picking fights with people's beliefs as sport, or bullying or intimidating people simply because you don't share their particular brand of faith. But surely, when those beliefs enter the public arena, when those beliefs pick fights with all of us by trying to control our lives, and the lives of our friends and families...surely that is the time to stand up and evaluate the merits of what, exactly, it is that is attempting to control us? People have the right to say and believe any hateful thing they like; but when they say it to us, when they try to govern our and our fellow Americans' lives based on it, I suggest that is the right – and duty – of fair-minded Americans to stand up for what is right, particularly in the political arena, without deference to “religious belief”: if it enters the public arena, it's fair game. If you would criticize someone for espousing the same viewpoint sans god, what is to stop you from criticizing it inside the god framework? Any belief publicized and used to further an argument is open to scrutiny. What difference does a supernatural element make?

I submit, none whatever.


  1. I can say , with all honesty, that I could not have said it better myself. I've tried...

    1. Thanks Alex, it seems a very unwarranted privilege we afford to heinous "beliefs". Glad you enjoyed it.