I would like to thank everyone who sent in responses to my questions about religion; I learned a lot. So much, in fact, that it has sent me down a path I didn’t expect to go. The purpose of the questionnaire was to find a way to establish common ground between the religious and the non-religious, which in many ways tracks the difference between the Left and the Right, or Democrats and Republicans. Although the relatively small sample of VOR readers who answered the survey is by no way representative of the U.S., their rational, open-minded, and humble answers prompted me to think about why it is that many secular-minded people are so disdainful of religion. The answer is relatively simple; it is not religion per se that is troubling (since religion can be a valid means to try to make sense of the unknown), but the fanatical elements of religion.
According to Webster’s, fanaticism is “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.”
Fanatics exist in many stripes and there are many who are not religious (more on this below), but religious fanatics can be some of the most dangerous. A recent case-in-point is the crusade against gay rights. Many people who call themselves religious (such as Tim Graham of the Media Research Center whom I discussed last week) have decided to cherry-pick a few quotes from the Bible, a book written by men thousands of years ago and translated dozens of times, and use them to make the case that a large class of citizens who don’t share their sexual orientation should not enjoy basic human rights. They dress up their bigotry in all types of rhetoric about “saving people’s souls,” but the Bible contains so many prohibitions against things that are so commonplace and accepted everywhere that applying the text strictly to modern society is absurd.
Although religion does not in and of itself cause fanaticism, it provides easy cover for fanatics and also tends to exacerbate their fanaticism. This is because when one hides behind the “word of God” it is easy to justify anything and commit the most heinous of acts. Therefore, it is incumbent upon religious people who are reasonable and rational (whom I presume are the majority) to denounce and expose religious fanatics. I think those like myself, who are not religious, would not be nearly as fearful of the negative aspects of religion if the extremists were routinely called-out and chastised by those in the mainstream. When I sit by and watch the Religious Right define religiosity as opposition to gays and abortion, with little mainstream opposition (at least that I can see), I think this points to a failure on the part of religious leaders and communities who don’t share these views. As is often the case, extremists are the loudest in society, but the religious majority must not let their relative silence be interpreted as complicity with the extremist agenda. Openly struggling against the religious extremists in American society would go a long way towards gaining the trust of the non-religious.
In addition, I think religious people in general should be more open to criticism about their beliefs. There is an unhealthy version of political-correctness currently in vogue, which states that as long as someone says something “is my religion” it is then automatically sacred and immune from criticism, especially from “non-believers.”
Those of a more conservative or Republican orientation may notice that much of the extremism I have discussed so far is centered within their ranks. I don’t want to give the impression that there are no fanatics on the Left, because there are. The Left’s version of extremism often comes in the form of those who see conspiracies everywhere, who believe that nothing the U.S. does is ever good, who think corporations only do evil, or that globalization is to be everywhere opposed (there was a time in my early 20’s when I largely fit this bill; we are all susceptible to forms of extremism). It is incumbent upon members of the Left to openly chastise and critique these individuals and groups who are just as dogmatic and uncritical as the most ardent religious believers.
What is ironic is that these elements on the Left are very similar to religious extremists in that they both share a reactionary agenda. While the Religious Right seeks to return to a utopia of nuclear families and suburban bliss (which never existed and conveniently ignores biblical references to polygamy and the lack of women’s rights), the extreme Left romanticizes a pre-industrial age of harmony and ecological balance that also never existed.
In summary, I think the debate between the religious and non-religious isn’t of primary concern. The real struggle today is that of reason and rationality against dogma and fanaticism. This struggle often manifests itself in the religious arena, but is not exclusive to it. I want to make clear that Voices of Reason is dedicated to fighting against irrationality and extremism in all forms. What’s surprising is how pervasive these are across the political spectrum as well as across the secular-religious divide.