“Why pick on religion? Why not leave people alone? Why do you always have to be right?” In the face of such questions, I’m tempted to ask, “Why confront anything at all?” Why confront others’ ideas on climate change, abortion, same sex marriage, or tax policy?
We bother to confront ideas because they inform behaviors. If behaviors matter, then ideas matter, so when an idea is inconsistent with reality, we often challenge it. A trivial answer to a trivial question.
Still, some insist that religious ideas don’t matter because religion itself seldom motivates destructive behaviors. Religion is just one way to express social injustice, and to attack religion is to ignore the root of the problem. It’s unfair to take Hamas at their word when they offer religious justification for their antisemitism; the root cause of the conflict is not religious in nature, not really. There are a host of reasons to doubt claims of this nature, but I’m willing to concede the point just this once. For now, I’ll agree that religion is not the problem. On this point I am less flexible: an unyielding devotion to any position, in spite of evidence to the contrary or the interests of others is a problem, and a serious one. In short, dogma, not religion, is a serious problem. So then, why confront religion? Because religion shelters dogma.
It is, after all, religion which gives us occasion to declare belief without evidence (faith) a virtue, and not just any virtue, but one to be positively coddled. Here in the US, to say “She began to doubt her faith…” is an expression of worry and caution for perhaps eight out of ten people. Simply rephrase it to reveal how silly a sentiment that is: “Some evidence called some of her beliefs into question.” Isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t her tractability be laudable in any other domain of thought apart from religion? Yet even those of us who do not share her particular religious views tacitly agree that they are immune to the normal tests of discourse and ought to be sheltered from criticism categorically. Unfortunately, this policy nurtures some of our worst incentives.
All one needs to do to preserve his dogma is contextualize it within his religious tradition, since religion is the one thing that both preserves our absurd beliefs and guarantees our good standing. There is no idea bad enough to exempt itself from this rule. You’ll notice that even when people are confronted on inhumane conceptions of Jihad or rights to contraception, the source of the dogma, the religious text, is seldom called into question. It’s far politer to pedal a milder interpretation of the text than to suggest that it might not have proceeded from the mouth of God. This is not a sensible social convention, but it is a dominant one. It sustains the status quo, according to which billions of adherents to thousands of religions rest self-assured in their varied and conflicting convictions.
These varied convictions are more than a set of innocuous truth claims (e.g. Jesus died for our sins, Mohamed is Allah’s prophet, etc.) but claimants to the source of morality and goodness itself. If we shield religions from critical discussion, we forfeit the opportunity to take a rational approach to morality. Given that dogma suppresses rational discussion quite well enough without our help or express permission, it is a wonder we feel such a burning need to offer it both.
Religion is not the source of all evil or even all dogma, but it imparts dignity to belief without evidence more effectively than any other convention. Religion lends dogma a cheap tuxedo and invites him to rub elbows with his superiors as an equal. In a perfect world, ideas would survive on merit and belief without evidence would be a source of embarrassment rather than a badge of pride, as it is in every enterprise outside religion today. As long as we continue to congratulate ourselves for holding tightly to beliefs we can’t justify, we will continue to believe unjustified claims. It’s frankly hard to understand the need to explain this, and harder still the need to explain why belief in justified claims is preferable. Religion creates this need, and on that basis some of us insist on confronting it.