18 October 2011

Religion: identity or idea?

Non-religious folks like me admittedly find it hard to understand how religious believers can get so emotionally invested in their beliefs. Any criticism or ridicule aimed at what is (to non-believers) obviously just a set of ideas no more sacred than any other set of ideas – whether political, cultural, philosophical – can often be taken as highly personal attacks by holders of those ideas. This conflation of ideas with identity allows believers to accuse religion’s critics of prejudice, even racism, when this is certainly not the case.

Greta Christina tackles this issue with her usual clarity and frankness. The following two paragraphs from her post describe both the nature of religious privilege and the outcome of denying religion that privilege.

A big part of what makes religion flourish is the special treatment it gets. The idea that religion is special and should be treated differently from other human ideas and activities is a ridiculously common one. It’s common to think that its leaders deserve special deference, that its holy places and relics should be treated with reverence, that people who are unusually religious must also be unusually virtuous, that it’s inherently rude or bigoted to criticize it. In the marketplace of ideas, religion gets a free ride. In an armored tank.

So criticizing religion doesn’t just have the effect of sometimes persuading people out of it. It also has the effect of repositioning religion as just another idea. It has the effect of treating religion the same way we treat ideas about politics, science, art, philosophy, medicine, ethics, social policy, etc. — namely, as fair game. Ideas that have to stand up on their own. Ideas that are only as good as the evidence and reason supporting them. Ideas that can be questioned and challenged and made fun of and blasted into shrapnel, just like any other. Criticizing religion doesn’t just expose religion as a singularly bad, entirely indefensible idea. It reframes it as an idea, period.

Christina also has a few words of caution for ardent critics of sky-fairyism:

I think that when we do hammer on the idea [of religion], we need to be very careful, and very rigorous, about hammering the idea without insulting the people.

We need to be very careful to say, “That idea makes no rational sense” — and not say, “You’re irrational.” We need to be very careful to say, “That idea is entirely divorced from reality” — and not say, “You are entirely divorced from reality.” We need to be very careful to say, “That’s a ridiculous and stupid idea” — and not say, “You are ridiculous and stupid.”

It may be trite advice, but if we critics of religion want to uphold the moral and intellectual integrity of our position, we would do well to bear these words in mind as we go about shooting down one lousy idea after another.

Happy hunting!


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