Monday, May 16, 2011

Religious people aren't stupid, but religion is another story...

I have often been told that my tone when discussing religion is derogatory. That I am deliberately condescending or inflammatory towards religious people. By nature, my vitriolic attitude puts religious people on the defensive.

This is something of a misunderstanding, that is largely due to a critical difference in perspective. First let me say plainly that religious people are not inherently stupid or bigoted or sexist or any of the things that I often accuse religion itself of being. Sure, you've got your Fred Phelps and your Zach Chesser and all sorts of religious crazies out there demanding that the world change to suit their extremist views...but for the most part people like that represent an especially crazy and vocal minority. Most religious followers are average people that are predominantly rational and usually try to do the right thing.

The thing is, many religious people feel like because they believe in something that somehow makes it 'special'. It becomes traditional. Accepted. Protected. Those beliefs become part of their identity, in otherwise intelligent and rational people, to the point that someone criticizing those beliefs feels very personal. It feels like they are criticizing you as opposed to some of the ideas you have or some of the things you happen to believe.

As a skeptic, I put a lot of effort into critically analyzing my own values and beliefs. I'm not personally attached to them in such a way that criticism of my stance on gay rights or evolution feels like a personal attack. When I encounter other beliefs and ideas, I apply the same critical analysis to them. For example, when I read about the Hasidic newspaper that edited Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason out of the Situation Room photo, I was upset. I found the deliberate act of removing the images of these women to be sexist and intellectually dishonest. The justification for doing so, that publishing images of women violated modesty laws, was insulting to both men and women (I'm sure you all know how I feel about modesty).

You see, all of the tradition and spiritual context doesn't mean anything to me....and that's the root of the misunderstanding I mentioned. I treat people's beliefs like any other idea. In the case of the edited newspaper photo, I am evaluating the idea on its own, under its own merit, and find it severely lacking. Frankly, if an idea can't support itself than I don't see why it's worth anyone's time. Just because an idea has persisted through the ages or is culturally acceptable does not mean it's a good idea.

Again, I'm talking about ideas. Not people. Ideas should be questioned and criticized and refined, because that is how they become stronger. And we become better thinkers by participating in the process. The tolerance of bad ideas because of political correctness or cultural sensitivity, or the dismissal of superstitious beliefs as silly and therefore harmless, are all things I feel strongly about because these bad ideas affect people.

So if you tell me that you're Christian or Jewish or Muslim or whatever, I'm not going to think that you are stupid. Honestly it wont affect my opinion of you much in any way, because I don't think that the religion you follow has much of anything to do with who you are as a person. However...

If you tell me you believe in the idea that the Earth was created in seven days about 6000 years ago? I'm going to seriously question your critical thinking skills and scientific awareness.

If you tell me you believe in the idea that women should be removed from photos or held to certain standards of dress or behavior for the sake of modesty? I'm going to think you are sexist for enforcing a double standard and ignoring the importance and contributions of half the population.

If you tell me you believe in the idea that the world is going to end on May 21st? I'm going to roll my eyes and resist the urge to call you on May 22nd to see how you're doing.

These are bad ideas. I wont pretend that they are good ideas because some people believe them, or affirm them in any way by tacitly accepting or accommodating them. They don't get a pass because they stem from religious or cultural traditions.

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