April 23, 2006

A Call for Conversational Intolerance

Despite all the talk about a “war on Christianity”, our society actually suffers from the opposite ailment: a deference to religious believers that is an abdication of our responsibility as citizens in a democracy. In Sam Harris’s scathing critique of the irrationality and danger of religion, The End of Faith, Harris calls for “conversational intolerance” as a way to break out of this passive acceptance of religious dogma; I would like to expand on what this entails.

There are many (including some of my friends) who believe that challenging religious people is somehow impolite. Sadly, generations ago, these people might have been the ones who did not speak out against statements that blacks were inferior or that Jews were evil.

I heard a perfect example of this new form of political correctness on a recent broadcast of On Point on NPR (which is one of my favorite shows and usually top-notch). The show highlighted an interview with three college seniors at Patrick Henry College, a Christian college whose explicit mission is to create the next crop of America’s political leaders. The college attracts some of America’s most academically gifted students (their average SAT score is over 1300). Many of the students work directly with GOP officials in Washington, including the White House. A quick visit to the college’s website reveals, however, that Patrick Henry subscribes to an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism. Its “statement of faith” declares that every word in the Bible is the literal word of God, that Satan is physically present on Earth, and that all people who don’t believe in Jesus will burn in hell for eternity, among other equally extreme views (take a look and see for yourself).

On the NPR program, when asked about their personal views, all three mild-mannered and articulate students made statements such as: they know the ultimate truth, the Bible’s view of creation is the best work of science we have, evolution is a theory that will soon be invalidated, their version of truth is better than honoring a diversity of views, and threats to “traditional family values” (i.e. gays) are the biggest threat to America. They also made statements implying that only “true” Christians are ethical people, that we should adopt the Ten Commandments as the law of the U.S., and that abortion should be criminalized. The interviewer had opportunity after opportunity to press them on the extremism and irrationality of these beliefs, and to note that even within the Christian community there is serious disagreement on all of these issues; instead he offered platitude after platitude. (I emailed On Point radio to voice my complaint. The senior producer responded that he thought the interviewer did a fine job; listen and judge for yourself.) As a side note, every single photo on the Patrick Henry College website is of white men and women, and their list of social activities includes a “liberty ball” in which students get to take “leisurely strolls about the scenic grounds of the historic Selma Plantation”! (I’m not making this up.)

Sam Harris makes another important point in his book: that moderates are actually part of the problem because they provide cover for the extremists. I think this NPR show was a perfect example. If one didn’t take the time to peruse the Patrick Henry website and look closely at what these people, who aim to be the future leaders of our country, espouse, one would’ve come away thinking they were nice kids who might get a little carried away (instead of committed ideologues with dangerous views, in addition to being nice kids).

Let me make clear: they are fully entitled to believe what they want, and I am glad to that they are invited to participate in public forums like NPR. It is only when the public gets a chance to fully appreciate the religious fundamentalist agenda, which is trying to incrementally change America into a quasi-theocracy (if not a full-blown one), that it will be defeated as a political force.

If the interviewer had asked the tough questions and pressed the students to back up their claims and explain more precisely the laws and public policies they would like to see enacted in a “Christian” America, NPR’s listeners might have gotten a fuller account of how detached from reality the Christian right is (and how it does not represent the viewpoints of the majority of Americans, who are committed to science, facts, and less intrusive government). The Patrick Henry students expressed confidence that they will ultimately win the war of ideas if they get to make their case. While the entire history of the U.S. is a testament to how wrong they are (after all, the Constitution does not have a single reference to God, Jesus, church, or the Bible), we can only ultimately win this battle of ideas if we actually engage in it. Whenever we talk with religious fundamentalists, we must insist that they articulate the specifics of their vision for America, instead of allowing them to hide behind code words such as “traditional family values”, “pro-life”, “moral majority”, “creation science”, etc.

One of the signature claims of the religious right (and Patrick Henry College) is that great societies owe their greatness to religion. In fact virtually all of the empirical evidence, including the most recent, points to the opposite conclusion. The post-1960s, when America supposedly slipped into secular chaos, has included America’s most prosperous decades: longevity and standards of living have skyrocketed while crime rates have hit record lows. If one were to look at a map of the world, the places that are the most backwards and the most oppressive are almost exclusively those where religious dogma and fundamentalism reign, while the most successful countries in the world are the least religious. Even within America, the most prosperous areas are those where religion is least practiced (the “liberal” metropolitan areas) and those areas where religion is most dominant suffer from a greater degree of society’s ills.

Whereas religious fundamentalists (including the students at Patrick Henry) believe that the breakup of the nuclear family is the gravest threat to American society, the threat to our economic dominance is actually of greatest concern. And it is religious extremism, with its war on scientific inquiry, which may pose the single greatest threat to continued American dominance. If during this century America loses its place as the number one power, it will not be because gays married, terrorists struck, or people didn’t go to church; it will be because we lost our edge in innovation.

Unfortunately, many of us who cherish Enlightenment principles (which the Founding Fathers enshrined in the Constitution that forged the United States) and assume that we will always remain committed to the separation of church and state, have grown complacent. We kid ourselves that religious fundamentalists don’t have as much power as they do (and strive for), lull ourselves into believing it will naturally wane, or are too timid to risk being viewed as antagonistic to religion.

If you think I am nitpicking or over-reacting, you’re not paying attention. The religious right’s activities are causing serious harm to many Americans: from the extreme anti-gay measures that have banned even civil unions (which means gay partners don’t get basic legal protections) to the proposed measures to ban gay adoption (including taking away a child from a gay parent and putting them in the custody of strangers if the biological parent dies) to the complete criminalization of reproductive rights in South Dakota, even in cases of rape and incest. In addition, there is no doubt that some of the brutal hate crimes against gays are the product of the climate of bigotry and hatred stoked by religious extremists.

In summary, if you are a person who understands that it is the power of human reason to which we owe our prosperity, who realizes that truth is more than claiming divine origins for books written thousands of years ago by men, who recognizes that the Constitution both guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from religion, who can see that the scientific method is the best path to knowledge and truth about the world, I urge you to stand up and fight for these principles wherever they are under attack: whether at home, in the workplace, on blogs, in the media, at parties, in school, even on a checkout line at the grocery. Always be respectful, but don’t let claims based on religious superstition and dogma go unchallenged. Stand up for reason at every opportunity.


P.S. f you’re in the mood to be controversial, here are a few questions you might pose to religious fundamentalists:

- How are your religious rationales any different than those employed by Islamic extremists such as Osama bin Laden who also claim absolute truth from “holy” books?

- If God made us in his image, and we are still evolving (which we are), does that mean God is still evolving?

- Did it ever occur to you that people may have made up religious texts (like the Bible and the Koran) simply to usurp power?

- How can you claim to know the “truth” of the Bible when the text has been translated from many languages hundreds of times? When the Bible itself is based on hearsay of events that happened decades or even centuries before they were written about?

- If God made us exactly as he wanted, doesn’t that mean he is evil since he made us with a strong inclination to kill and steal? Isn’t the god of the Bible evil for routinely massacring humans at will? And why would you want to revere a genocidal god anyway?

- If you think abortion is murder, do you also believe that women who have abortions should be arrested and thrown in jail?

- If the Bible is the literal word of God, do you stone your children when they disobey you (as the Bible recommends)?

- If you had to decide between saving an embryo in a Petri-dish or a three-year old child, would you be indifferent and have to flip a coin?

- Since you believe gays are immoral and should not enjoy the same legal rights as heterosexuals, do you believe they should officially be considered second-class citizens?

- Since there is no mention of democracy anywhere in the Bible and God rules as a strict authoritarian, how is democracy consistent with your view of religion?

Jason Scorse