In today’s America, anyone looking for a domestic issue to get passionate about has a lot to choose from: how to save a desperately anemic economy, global climate change, the burgeoning national debt, the seemingly endless Iraq War, and on and on. Why then, with so many grave matters facing this nation, why would I personally choose religion versus secularism as the most important topic of our times? Many of the other current major issues certainly seem more critical. However, all of the issues cited above, and many more, are (relatively speaking) narrow topics unto themselves. Though most are complex in nature, essentially each of them is a single problem to be solved. A greater concern is our general ability to formulate solutions, because it impacts all of the potential responses to these. Stated succinctly, how people go about making decisions is invariably more important than any one single decision itself.
The influence of religious beliefs on people’s decision-making processes must therefore be carefully examined, for two reasons: (1) religious belief is pervasive in American culture; and (2), it is very common among those professing religious faith to use that philosophy as a compass through which they view and judge all aspects of their own lives, and the actions of others. Personally, I contend that religious belief is little more than an intellectual pathology, but the obvious fact is that the majority of Americans belong to some sort of organization whose purpose is religious in nature. Commonly, they gain a prepackaged set of prejudices in their thinking as a result.
Obviously the degree to which any one person allows their faith to influence their thinking can vary widely, and we must not generalize. However, it is a dangerous topic to ignore. The problem is that most religious faith systems foment absolute standards of right and wrong, and discourage the challenging of accepted tenets, regardless of how indefensible they may be. These are practices which run contrary to a healthy democracy.
Please don’t mistake my intent. Even ardent believers have just as much right to participate in the democratic process as we do. However, we must be wary of allowing the belief in absolute standards to become institutionalized in our government, which is often a goal of politically active religious groups. The standards for what we’re willing to accept as true and correct, and more importantly, how tolerant we are on the whole of the ideas and beliefs of others, must be more inclusive in the public sector than what those of faith typically allow.
I have no desire to institute policy governing an individual’s private world view. I do not claim, and should not have the right, to impose my will on how you choose to decide between truth and fiction, nor you on me. For the most part, we have the privilege in this country of making up our own minds. Therefore, if you wish to believe:
• that what we see as the sun is actually a superman driving a flaming chariot of horses across the sky every day,
• or that a fat man in a red suit zooms around in a sleigh pulled by flying caribou and delivers loads of presents to all the people of the world simultaneously precisely at midnight every December 25th,
• or that two thousand years ago there was a rabbi/preacher who was brutally murdered by the Roman state, only to pop up again magically after three days for a six week revival tour which somehow resulted in everyone’s life being made more rewarding forever after, but only if you believe in him,
•or that an undersea earthquake resulting in a tsunami that kills hundreds of thousands of innocent, religiously faithful people is actually the punishment of a vengeful deity, which means those people must have been wicked in some way and deserved what they got,
—that’s your business. (The list could be much longer, but you get the point.) Anyone is entitled to place any of these beliefs on a high pedestal if they so choose. But please, don’t look down on me if I choose not to join you.
The problem is, most people do look down on those of us who refuse to kneel at their altar. In August, 1987, at a Chicago news conference, then vice-president George H. W. Bush was asked by an atheist reporter how he planned to win the atheist vote in his presidential bid, and during the course of the exchange, Bush stated “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under god.” Over the intervening years, some have questioned whether this exchange really took place, but I distinctly remember viewing those remarks on television myself at the time (feeling incensed, of course) and the reporter involved recently unearthed two letters from the Bush I presidential library that confirm it happened.
This was a man in the midst of a successful bid to become President of the United States, not two centuries past, but less than twenty-five years ago, stating publicly that atheists should not even be considered citizens. Replace the word “atheists” with “Jews,” or “Muslims,” or “Blacks.” Can you imagine the outcry and the reprisals? Remember the 2006 Virginia Senate race, and George Allen’s infamous “macaca” remark? It ended his career. But when Daddy Bush pointedly and unabashedly attacked atheists, nothing. I won’t even begin to discuss what chance an outspoken atheist would have to win public office in this country. In a handful of states, it is actually illegal for an atheist to hold public office, a flagrant violation of civil rights. (The status of those laws is a topic for another paper.) For what other demographic would such blatant discrimination be tolerated? Racial discrimination is openly condemned. Gay rights activists have advocates in government. Does anyone in a position of influence in government openly support nonbelief? From an institutionalized standpoint, atheists hold the lowest rung in modern American society. It’s no surprise that an utterly overwhelming majority of our leadership publicly declare strong religious faith. It’s an unwritten prerequisite.
Quite clearly, religious individuals are running our country. Why should this concern us? Because so many people allow their belief systems to creep beyond the boundaries of the existential, and into their (and our) practical daily lives. It was a deliberate act on my part in listing common fantasies earlier to mix childhood fairy tales, ancient myths, archaic belief systems, and modern mythologies with a sampling of the more prevalent belief systems of today. They all possess the same level of (non) legitimacy by the standards of critical thinking. They are hardly suitable as a foundation for public policy making.
Given the overwhelming majority people of faith have in holding positions of leadership in this country, we must not fear to ask: what role does the willingness to treat unsubstantiated and even absurd suppositions that haven’t a shred of evidence to support them as unassailable facts play in their decision-making process? What percentage of them are legislating or executing their official duties using their religious codes and organizational peer pressure as their primary guide? This is the driving factor behind my point that our societal views on religion are the most important issue of the day. The basic thought process itself is often flawed, and while it is certainly possible that the flawed process is limited to religious beliefs, it is dangerous to assume this is typically the case. The demarcation may not be as clear as one might hope. Nor is the challenge limited to direct controversies, such as the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in taxpayer-supported public schools. The influence can be far more subtle. A commonality can be discerned between religious rationalization and public discourse if one looks carefully.
Take the assertion commonly put forth by many religious apologists that atheists are simply wrong because they cannot “prove” that god does not exist. I have often heard fellow atheists respond by retreating to the position that this is unfair, because “you can’t prove a negative.” Regardless of the fact that our mathematician friends would disagree, the retort misses the point entirely, and unnecessarily puts us on the defensive.
Substitute the term “Loch Ness monster” or “sasquatch” for “god” in the apologists’ statement. If I state that the Loch Ness monster does not exist, am I compelled to spend the rest of my days combing Scottish waterways to gather overwhelming evidence that this supposed creature is myth? Drain all the water out of the lake and take people on tours to demonstrate that no carcass appeared? Of course not; that would be absurd. The burden of proof would not and should not be on me the skeptic; it belongs on the individuals who are making the as yet unsubstantiated claim that such a creature does exist. I should not be required to scurry about disproving it. Now substitute the term “global warming.” The discussion becomes one of critical public policy. Imagine if the tables were turned, and scientists merely claimed that man-made global warming exists because opponents can’t prove it doesn’t. Would detractors (the fossil fuel industry, say) be content with being forced to prove that it does not? What sort of hue and cry about the injustice of that methodology do you think would arise? More than a little, I’d bet.
A second penchant common among religious apologists is responding to a challenge to the truth of a passage in the bible by quoting another passage in the bible, ignoring the fact that none of the text has ever been proven to be true in the first place. Compare that to the common ploy that studies supporting the relaxing of environmental regulations or justifications for hardening the penalties on people who are forced to declare bankruptcy (both of which happened during the Bush II years) are produced by lobbyists funded by the corporations who directly benefit from those policies. In debates on faith the tactic is referred to as circular reasoning, in government it’s called “conflict of interest” or “influence peddling.” I contend if you’re comfortable with circular reasoning in your private life, you’re more susceptible to it in matters of public concern. It’s wrong in either case.
What about the question of religion as a moral compass, though? Isn’t mutual respect and just treatment of our neighbors critical in our public policy-making? So many believe that it is the word of “god” alone or the ultimate punishment/reward system of heaven and hell that prevents man from descending into animalistic barbarity. (For the moment, let’s ignore the numerous examples in the bible that describe god as a source of animalistic barbarity.) Historically, the opposite actually has been true more often. The Inquisition is a case in point. People often times interpret their faith in whatever manner supports their goals and justifies their means. Baseless assertions of miraculous capabilities and deeds that require no proof are well suited to that purpose, particularly when those who dare to question them are made to suffer. Religious oppression may not have been at the heart of every single campaign of human cruelty, but even when it wasn’t the prime cause it was often along for the ride. Suffice to say there’s a reason that the centuries when the church ran everything in the western world are known as “the Dark Ages.” This is why Jefferson’s “wall of separation” is so vital.
Unfortunately, religious zeal being turned to atrocities is not limited to the ancient past. Religious apologists are quick to forget that Hitler’s Nazis were a Christian culture, even to the extent of outright lying (or prejudicial ignorance), and ascribing his monstrous behavior to his being an atheist, which he was not. Many instances of Hitler claiming his actions are supported by, and were being done for the glory of, almighty god can be found in his signature book Mein Kampf, and in a number of his public speeches.
The events of 9/11 are recent enough that I don’t need to rehash the motives of the Saudi terrorists, or of Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban. Christians apologists may assert that Islam is simply a wrong and false religion practiced by murderous fanatics, but the Muslim fundamentalists committing those acts use the identical arguments. They are just as devout as their Christian counterparts, and just as absolutely certain of their correctness and virtue. The exclusionary rhetoric is the same in either case. Neither can tolerate the inherent contradictions with the other, and neither has an intellectual mechanism in place to prove one assertion or the other correct as science does, so the resolution ends up being mass murder. If you can’t agree with them, kill them.
I believe that radical organizations, and even many governments, are quick to embrace the prospect of life after death and glorious posthumous rewards of heaven as a carrot to help them raise armies. It’s an effective tool, whether the leaders really believe the concepts themselves or not. Neither is it hard to figure out why. Most people are predisposed to be reluctant to die. If they also thought that this life is the only existence they will ever get, it might be a good deal more difficult to motivate large numbers of them to put their lives at significant risk. Diplomacy might be more popular. (On a tangential topic, please do not sink into the abyss of the “no atheists in foxholes” lie—I find that assumption of hypocrisy and intellectual cowardice particularly grating.) It’s not my intention to demean the sacrifice our veterans have made throughout our history, but who wouldn’t be more willing to defend an honored principle if sacrificing themselves meant that not only would they still continue to exist, but they would immediately reap an eternal reward in paradise?
That’s not the only way religion can make the sales job for military action (or terrorist attacks) easier. Absolute faith is a strong catalyst for the vilification of others, and a rallying point for action when oppressive demands that others’ behavior conform to your own standards aren’t met. Infidels! Attack! Historically, this has often been among the key excuses for a powerful culture subjugating a weaker one, and stealing its resources. Prayers and scripture, therefore, have proven themselves time and again to have a very mixed track record as a guide for human wisdom and morality. The bottom line is, sorry, religious types, but you have no more claim to the moral high ground than we do, and typically, the more devout and fervent you get the more the opposite is true.
Are all religious people deluded, monsters and fanatics? Of course not. It is well known there are many charitable organizations run by religious groups, for one thing. It’s certainly true that some of those charities are used as vehicles for proselytizing their faith, but not all have ulterior motives or hidden agendas. Also, I’m certainly not trying to imply that those professing religious beliefs are incapable of good decision-making. I have friends and colleagues, scientists and engineers, who are firm believers, though thus far they have yet to adequately defend their thought process in abandoning the intellectual toolset that works so well for them in their professional lives. It’s also true that people of strong faith have sometimes exhibited courage and good judgment in publicly stating the need to keep religion out of politics (former President Jimmy Carter and Senator John Glenn come to mind). The problem is that many others don’t, and push their religious agendas hard from their positions of public trust.
This is far more dangerous in the present day, when so many complex issues that have critical consequences for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren, are technical and scientific in nature. When a person on a street corner rants that the Rapture is coming and we must all prepare for hell and damnation to come raining down on us, many of us might laugh. When a cult of such people perish in flames in a compound in Texas along with their children, we might be dumbfounded and saddened. When fanatics wantonly destroy iconic structures in our largest city and murder thousands of innocent people in the process, we become enraged. When our own government commits heinous acts of torture and wages a highly dubious war based on manufactured evidence and hidden religious agendas, we are confused and perhaps prone to rationalization ourselves. But when this country seriously considered making the vice-president of the United States, the immediate heir to the responsibility for ordering nuclear strikes or setting policies to mitigate global warming, a woman who believes that the “end times” will come in our lifetime, we should be trembling indeed—particularly when the presidential candidate was an elderly man with multiple serious health issues. Fortunately, this scenario did not come to pass. It may be difficult to recall one year later, but there was great joy expressed when our first African-American president was elected instead. It is telling that the fact that his skin color did not prevent his being elected was considered historic, yet if he had not professed strong religious faith, his candidacy would have been a joke, and few would have questioned it.
Where does this leave us? Whatever your faith, you must admit that our daily lives are dominated by technical concerns. Even people in underdeveloped Third World countries suffer from the policies and practices of their more affluent and technically advanced neighbors. No approach or philosophy is better suited to addressing these challenges than rational thinking with scientifically sound analytical techniques. It is long past due for reason to come out of the closet and become the philosophy of choice for forging our way ahead. Unfortunately, the trend in recent years has been in the opposite direction. I have yet to see evidence of a dramatic shift in the immediate future.
There is some hope. Look at the big picture. For all their faults, our modern cities are technological wonders that serve the needs of their populations very well. This is because when push came to shove we didn’t kid or delude ourselves. Building plans, for example, don’t get blessed, they must adhere to codes and get approved by boards of civil engineers. And even if the engineers themselves are religious, they know that to do their job and determine whether the design of a building is adequate so that its walls won’t come tumbling down, they need to consult books on tensor calculus, not the book of Joshua. The populace, too, has at times inspired hope. Several years ago, local courts in Pennsylvania bravely declared that Intelligent Design is religious belief clothed in scientific marketing, and cannot be taught as a science in public schools. From what I recall reading, the judge in the case, and others involved, were themselves people of faith. Their actions lead me to believe that I can have faith in them. The significance of that decision cannot be overstated.
Throughout nearly all of human history, the people making the decisions how to exploit new technologies, for constructive or destructive purposes, have been people of faith. Nearly all who chose negative courses were claiming god’s (or the gods’) favor as they did it. With so much power in our hands today, a gift of our scientific achievements, and so many potentially desperate concerns to address, a consequence of their misuse of over centuries and our own flawed nature, it is vital that we relieve our public decision making of the yoke of religious arrogance and indefensible certainty. Faith must be placed in our own inherent capacity to reason and feel compassion for our fellow man, independent of several thousand-year-old collections of ambiguous, mean-spirited and contradictory metaphors and myths. Let religious belief remain a strictly private matter, as the framers of our Constitution wisely intended.
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