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Monday, April 13, 2015

Why It Matters What You Believe

April 13, Birthday of Christopher Hitchens

Religious tolerance has been enshrined in our consciousness to the point that we've come to regard it as an absolute good. Few people stop to think of it as a necessary evil. It means that we can't have civil discourse unless we put cherished but craven beliefs beyond the reach of criticism. It means that we must pander to those who romanticize their disdain for reason. It means that we cannot aspire to live in a society in which ideas rise and fall on their own merits. It's time to set our sacred cows free to graze on the open range.

We abhor racism independently of any action that it motivates, yet we hold that religious ideas are harmless unless we see a direct manifestation of harm. Is it not harmful to turn the minds of young children against science and reason by extolling faith as something to be preserved even against the available evidence? We do not consider it coercive to educate with the goal of eradicating contemptible prejudices. Atheists do battle against religion armed only with the force of reason.

When it comes to religion we erect a barrier to criticism in the name of tolerance without giving much thought as to why. We can either accept that religion is a contemptible doctrine or not. If we do not, it follows that antitheism is misguided. If we do, it follows that strident criticism is within the bounds of reason. What is incoherent is the idea that religion is harmful and yet we are to tolerate it.

Religious tolerance is not the end game. It was the best the framers could do to keep the peace. We mustn't accept uncritically that religious tolerance is the best we can do merely because we have failed to imagine our fellow human beings as capable of reason. We must continually reassess whether civilization is ready to take the next step. Antitheism is necessary if we are ever to liberate humanity from the constraints imposed on thought and action by religion.

Utopian visions have a way of invoking authoritarian force. History demonstrates that a drive to eradicate an ideology can be transformed into a desire exterminate its advocates. Our weapon is persuasion, not coercion. The failure to understand the difference mirrors the very failure of religious thought. Religion umbrage over being challenged is a failure to recognize that we are not inseparable from our ideas. Inherited faith is not an unalterable part of our identities. We are not believers from birth. Religious faith requires indoctrination. We can leave it behind.

Secularists often express conditional good will toward the religious. As long as religion stays in its place, they have no grievance. But the antitheist's political agenda is indistinct from the secularist's. The difference is philosophical, not just political. It may more strategic to wear the public face of secularism, but we should remember that differences in strategy are not the same as differences in philosophy. What may be ill-advised is not necessarily wrong in principle.

The problem with religious thinking is that it lacks intellectual integrity. Even when religion abandons supernatural beliefs, it asks us to not look too closely at its metaphors. This sort of special pleading is characteristic of religious exceptionalism. Without supernaturalism, the only thing to set religion apart from philosophy is mindless allegiance. Immunity from criticism has come to define religion, even as supernaturalism has receded.

When an analogy is made between religion and another authoritarian doctrine, it implies that religion is an authoritarian doctrine. It is all too easy to forget that our aversion to offending religious sensibilities is conditioned by by the same religious privilege that licensed the persecution of heretics. It would serve us well to always be mindful that blasphemy is a victimless crime and that it is perfectly reasonable to insist that doctrines rise and fall on their own merits.

The beatification of religious tolerance isn't a reflection of the worth of religious claims. It is a concession to the recalcitrance of the religious. If religious faith were not coercive by its very nature nature, antitheism would have no grievance.

As religions become more rational and less supernatural, the ideal of religious tolerance will seem more and more like a relic of a time when it was once necessary to keep sectarian enmity at bay. Ideas with merit need no special protections to survive. It is only the sense of religious entitlement that makes it necessary to keep the peace by contriving reverence. Contrived reverence is submission.

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