The Perils of Civilized Discourse

Today I wrote a very angry blog post about religion, but I’m not going to post it. At least, not until I’ve slept on it. After drafting it, I had to pause and ask myself why I’m feeling so hostile.

What is it about religion that so upsets me? I mean, there are some wonderful liberal religious institutions, and even folks who go to less enlightened churches have been known to do kind things from time to time, such as run soup kitchens for the homeless. So what’s my problem?

I’m pretty sure the root of my disgust with religion is that religious belief is irrational. Of course, if you’re religious, you may not even understand that. You may think you’re being entirely rational. But if you think that, you’re delusional. That’s part of the problem.

Religious belief is irrational because its bedrock is a set of ideas for which there is no evidence and that are not subject to debate. I mean, you can’t go into a Lutheran or Presbyterian Church and say, “Hey, maybe Jesus wasn’t the son of God. Maybe there isn’t even such a being as God.” The Lutherans and the Presbyterians are not going to be prepared to roll up their sleeves and discuss these possibilities rationally. They might pretend to do so, or even think that they’re doing so, but the fact is, their minds are already made up. Such matters are not open to a genuine, rational debate. Other, less exalted questions — same thing. Some churches may oppose war on theological grounds, others may enthusiastically support it on what also purport to be theological grounds. You can’t argue with any of them.

If I’m discussing economic policy or government regulation with a conservative friend, we may not agree, but we can have a rational discussion. We can swap facts and possibly learn from one another. One or both of us might even moderate our views as a result of the conversation. When religion gets into the act, such discussions cannot take place.

Some religions are relatively benign. Some are quite toxic. (The Catholic Church opposes the distribution of condoms in Africa. Condoms help prevent the spread of AIDS. Therefore, as a simple matter of concrete fact, the Catholic Church is murdering Africans. If that ain’t toxic, I don’t know what is.) But in no case are the tenets of a religion subject to rational examination. That’s what I find so upsetting. The world is full of powerful people whose heads are full of toxic ideas, ideas that hurt people, and you can’t argue with them because they’re not listening.

What’s more, because a religious society is a hermetically sealed ideological system, what was once benign can all too easily turn toxic. No corrective influence can be applied, because rational discussion is impossible. I tend to think of the Quakers as quite a benign religious group, for instance, but I’ve recently learned that there is no central authority in the Society of Friends. Each Quaker congregation is free to have its own views on social questions. In general, that’s probably a sensible approach; it’s certainly preferable to the secretive top-down hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Yet as a result, there are conservative Quaker congregations that righteously condemn homosexuality on Biblical grounds. And who’s to convince them to change, if their fellow Quakers can’t?

That’s why I hate religion.

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