28 November 2008

A tragic courage

Critics of religion have got guts. Forget about stereotypical (often masculine) ideas of courage; the reckless disregard for physical danger and the courting of death by maniacally enthusiastic yahoos. No, real courage is demonstrated each time an atheist, secularist, humanist or naturalist speaks frankly against the phenomenon of uncritical belief and blind faith.

But such courage is a tragic one, because of its very necessity. You don’t need much courage to voice your conviction that little purple people from Neptune are conspiring to take over the world, since the worst you’ll suffer is (well-deserved) mockery. But each time a non-believer dares to speak out against unreason, she risks physical harm, even death, at the hands of the extreme elements of the Belief Brigade. That she needs to be brave to stand for truth, reason and knowledge is in itself a terrible indictment of religion and its vassals. For all the passionate polemics of ardent non-believers, not one of them would ever suggest that believers be killed, maimed or tortured as a warning to other believers. Yet we have the current situation prevalent in many parts of the world where violent, often murderous, intolerance towards heathens, infidels and the godless is encouraged, even celebrated, by self-appointed dispensers of God’s justice.

Religion breeds fear in its adherents. When your main value- and meaning-producing system depicts the moral world in absolute, unequivocal terms of good and evil and equates the system’s insiders as the former and its outsiders as the latter, you will necessarily view those outsiders as a threat to the ‘good’. When this perception of outsiders as hostiles is married to an unreflective, pugnacious sense of self-righteousness, the union’s offspring is that tendency towards violent suppression of those hostiles. And the terrible, gruesome means employed is justified on the grounds that the murderers were simply acting in self-defense. It does not occur to them that their actions are obscenely disproportionate to the apparent threat posed by the outsider. But religion has that alchemical effect of transforming common humanistic sentiments – empathy, compassion, tolerance – into bitterly partisan ideology that transcends – that is, abandons – the human condition.

With this fear lodged in that primitive part of their brain which processes emotions and reflexes, religious believers are primed to overreact to any criticism of their beliefs, for all criticism is construed as an outright attack on their validity as a person. To criticize a believer’s faith is, from his perspective, to attack his personhood. And should his frontal cortex be less influential than his amygdala, that kernel of fear will sprout into anger and hate, and his body will be commanded to remove that object which is causing him fear; the critic of his beliefs.

The atheist, secularist, humanist or naturalist who calls religion to task demonstrates the courage that the religious believer lacks. For a people who supposedly venerate truth and are dedicated to its promulgation, believers are positively terrified of the stuff when it is presented to them naked, uncovered by dogma and unadorned with superstition. In their terror they show just how gutless they really are.


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