Friday, May 21, 2010


My students tell me that Judeo-Christian ethics are at the root of our legal system, but are they really? I can convert to Hinduism, on Sunday, lie to my parents about, and then say, “Goddamn, I covet my neighbor’s wife – and his ass, for that matter,” and the police don’t care, even though seven or eight of the Ten Commandments have just dropped before me like so many bowling pins.

The process by which religious precepts gradually become private rather than public observances is called secularization, and even highly observant followers of most faiths would probably agree that, up to a point, at least, it’s a good thing. Imagine, if you will, a society where it was a criminal offense to dishonour one’s parents. The courts would be teeming with teenagers. Conservatives would howl that we need to get tough to deter future dishonouring; liberals would whine that we need to get at the root cause of the tendency to dishonour; and lawyers would clean up, as usual. We needn't imagine the horror of societies where "thou shalt have no other Gods before me" is enforced by the power of the state, because religious fascism has existed throughout human history, and still does.

Yesterday, thousands of people took part in “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”. Measure of Doubt did not. I’m not Muslim and therefore Islamic moral and ethical precepts do not apply to me except where they overlap coincidentally with laws and moral and ethical codes that do. But I chose not to participate in the day anyway. There are millions and millions of non-violent Muslims who consider the depiction of their prophet to be offensive, and I see no reason to offend people who are doing me no harm. Deliberately offending others is a weapon of second-last resort.

Having said that, I would very much like to digitally thumb my nose at the minority within every faith who believes that blasphemy ought to be punishable by law and perhaps even by death. Get a grip, people: you’re not the ones going to Hell. As I’ve said to religious friends many times over the years, it’s not the atheists you need to worry about. They just think you’re wrong. It’s the fanatically devout of other faiths who should concern you. They’re think you’re wrong and that you’re going to Hell for it. Some of them are even willing to expedite the process.

We need to get past all this. Our societal discourse on matters of religion is positively infantile, worse even than the dreary and depressing state of public discussion of electoral politics. It doesn’t help that books by nonbelievers tend to take the form of shrill diatribes, but there is little opportunity for sensible discussion when so many of the faithful themselves argue that religious beliefs ought to be exempt from criticism.

Sarah Palin was almost certainly the least impressive of major political candidates to come along in recent memory. But she had one quality that the Senator from Illinois did not have: she was consistent on the matter of religion. She was unapologetically evangelical and said that, you betchya, her faith would influence her decision making in office. For this, secularists and liberal Christians jumped all over her. But why? What did they want? For a ridiculous woman to be a hypocrite on top of it all? It is absurd to suggest that a politician should “keep her faith a private matter” when in political office. Either her faith has meaning to her, or it does not. If it does not, she should abandon it. If it does, we should expect it to influence her decision making. But our political culture practically demands religious hypocrisy, and in all sorts of ways. I trust everyone saw Laura Bush, very recently, confessing that she’s pro-choice and a supporter of same-sex marriage?

So I had a small flicker of admiration for Palin for a moment or two, for at least having the consistency of her beliefs (that’s how the low the bar was set). But it passed. Because when some of the weirder aspects of her belief hit the fan, and some people started to ask whether, for instance, a woman who believes that the world is 6,000 years old should be involved in policy making on scientific and educational issues, Palin and her supporters ran for the customary but hypocritical defense that religion was a private matter and therefore off limits.

No, no, no. A thousand times no. Politicians can do one of two things. They can do what the liberal secularists demand of them, and keep their faith to themselves and out of their politics, or they bring their faith into the public sphere and accept the fact that it’s going to be subject to criticism, just like every other aspect of their decision making.

The same goes for everybody. You don’t get to use your religion to adjudicate on all matters of truth and morality, up to and including speculating upon the disposition of the immortal soul of others, and then demand immunity from criticism in return. In short, if you tell me I’m going to Hell, I get to tell you to precede me there.

From the very beginning, this blog has been a defense of the principle that people should be free to do and say and think and read whatever they want, provided they’re not stopping other people from the doing the same, and provided that they’re not harming other people in the process. Blasphemy does not, can not, and never will fall into that category. No prophets were harmed in the making of this picture.

1 comment:

Ryan (took classes you taught in the past) said...

I remember taking your course and reading a book on the US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens, who thoroughly demonstrated that Jefferson was a deistic Christian who rejected the supernatural components of Christianity while respecting those moral components of Christianity that were reconcilable with reason. And that is from the founder of what became the leading Judeo-Christian culture superpower after 1945.

A big problem in Western societies is the gulf between so-called "devout believers" (literalists, a.k.a. fundamentalists) versus complete unbelievers (atheists). There often appears to be no room for understanding between these extremes.

I admire the analysis of famous mythologist Joseph Campbell on religion that transends the literalist vs. atheist antagonism by demonstrating that there are parts of religion that must be understood as metaphors - and truths in the sense of philosophical description of the metaphor - or else they will not be understood if taken literally. Take the dragon slayed by Saint George in Christian culture. The dragon represents the monster of greed - the dragon in the metaphor steals all the gold from villages for himself for no other reason other than to feel satisfied. Saint George slaying the dragon represents the slaying of greed - a monster in all of us. But Campbell notes, that a literalist Christian would be unable to understand this, as the dragon would be taken literally and not as a manifestation of a part of human nature.