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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Unholier Than Thou

Interfaith is--arguably--an improvement over Christian ecumenism. It takes the next step to be inclusive of all faiths. In the interest of cleaning their own houses, faith leaders have found common ground under the Interfaith umbrella. The impulse to be more inclusive is laudable, but Interfaith reinforces theonormativity and skeptophobia. Without atheist participation, Interfaith cannot credibly affirm its commitment to inclusiveness. Defining itself in terms of faith is certain to deter atheist participation. 

Interfaith is like a Trojan horse. It has become a means of insinuating religion into the public space by sanitizing it--stripping it of sectarian content. The irony is that by affirming all faiths, it nullifies them all. By disavowing sectarian differences, it strips away the substance of the beliefs that differentiate faith communities. In the process, it serves to further entrench religious--especially clerical--privilege.  Interfaith--to be truly inclusive--must champion the resistance to public displays of piety in the interest of true pluralism. 

Religious freedom is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and in our consciousness. It is good to bear in mind--however--that religious expression should be covered under other guaranteed freedoms. Why was religion set apart for special protection? The obvious answer seems to be that religion is a stubbornly entrenched form of irrationality that could not be dismissed--however much it warranted dismissal in a rational world.  

Religious freedom is not absolute. It can't be used to allow parents to withhold medical treatment from children and it shouldn't insulate religious expression from scrutiny for the mere fact that it is religious. But is it redundant? In a post-religious world, the answer is unambiguously affirmative. In the world as it is--not so much. Religious freedom--insofar as it protects religious expression over other types of expression--seems designed to become an anachronism.

In the world such as it is, religious freedom is a means of preventing one religion from marginalizing the rest--and from marginalizing non-belief. It is a reminder that the ordinary protections afforded by freedom of expression were not emphatic enough to keep the peace without redundant elaboration. It is to the perpetual shame of religion that religious freedom had to be elaborated when free expression was already assured. To let it become a weapon against secularism is to ignore the history of religious hegemony. 

What will Interfaith advocates do when Campus Crusade for Christ submits a charter that affirms that homosexuality is sinful? Is that belief exempt from scrutiny merely because it is religious in nature? Doesn't holding a discriminatory attitude constitute discrimination? Can the group be compelled to accept GLBTQ members? Should administrators be compelled to grant the charter? Are non-religious hate groups eligible for charters?

Freedom of religion lends respectability to uncritical views on sexual mores. It is not a tribute to the inherent worth of religion. It is a concession to the iron grip of religion on critical thought. This is the best argument that religion is problematic in its own right and not merely a grafted-on affirmation of cultural values. Safe space for obscurantist affiliation enables it. Why would anyone take the final leap from nominal faith to honest self-identification when a vacuous, sanitized vestige of tribal religion has acquired an air of respectability?

Let us protect religious expression to the degree that we protect other forms of expression--but no further. Religious expression must compete with other forms of expression on its own merits. To protect it as extraordinary is to privilege it. Surely the founders did not intend that. Let's defend it religiously because it is expression--but not expressly because it is religious.

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