This afternoon I got quickly irritated and confrontational towards two people on Facebook, one a progressive Christian and the other a non-Christian of some variety. I know one of them is an extremely nice and well educated person and the other person seems so too, so I do not mean to disparage either of them even as I criticize what they said today. I will even leave them anonymous to minimize any appearances of acrimony.
The dispute started when the progressive Christian was expressing frustrated shock and disgust that any religious believer would ever doubt that God cared about women. Of course He must! The non-Christian backed her up by saying, “It’s amazing what some people will justify through their religion, isn’t it?”
Now progressively minded people will often marvel like that at what terrible things religious believers will use their religions to justify. But different progressives mean different things. Some progressives mean something like “Thanks to their religions, some modern people still believe some obviously terrible things about morality and politics that they otherwise would no longer have any motivation to believe given the advances of modern culture. And it is befuddling that anyone in the modern world would place the obviously immoral (or at least outdated) writings of ignorant, bigoted, brutal ancient people over the most civilized and humane of our modern values when those ancient writings are so obviously grounded in baseless fantasies, delusions, cruelties, superstitions, and surpassed inferences about how the world works.”
Such thinking rightfully puts the blame for bad religious thinking where it belongs–in the subjection of one’s intellectual and moral conscience to faith-based ancient religious traditions in the first place.
But other progressives (or even centrists or conservatives) mean something else when they express amazement at the things people justify with their religions. They express surprise that something as inherently good as religion could be used to justify terrible things. And this really troubles me because it takes an incredible amount of hermeneutical incompetence and/or willful blindness to history not to see that religions have predominantly functioned as justifications for hierarchical, authoritarian, tribalistic, and patriarchal values systems. Why should it be amazing that people who adhere to their religions sincerely actually adopt the regressive or militaristic values often explicitly attributed to their god or gods in their sacred writings themselves? Isn’t that what you would expect? That they would believe in and adopt the values of their sacred texts?
What is particularly grating for me about expressions of surprise that any one would ever get bad ideas from their religions is that it represents either a deep insincerity or an uncritical acceptance of that religious propaganda that equates religion with morality itself. Numerous religions try to lay claim to people’s moral consciences. Often a religion will claim that it (or the god(s) it claims to represent) is the source of morality itself and that religious obedience is the highest of all moral duties–one that sometimes requires trumping other vital moral duties and/or altogether abandoning or subordinating one’s own moral reasoning to religious authorities or gods. Or, even when one does not buy this particular lie, there is a naive trust that religions will do what they promise with outrageously unjustified confidence: reliably make people better human beings.
It is precisely the lies that religious gods and human leaders are the bringers of morality itself and/or its best trainers, which leads to the equation between religion and goodness in people’s minds in the first place. And it is also precisely this equation between religion and morality that allows countless religious people to override their otherwise rational moral consciences and adopt heinous outdated values in the modern world in those cases when they do so.
So the people who seemingly suppose that religion would only inspire good in people and express bewilderment when it also inspires terrible things seem to be uncritically endorsing the same prejudice that leads religion to inspire terrible things in the first place–the one that equates true religion unqualifiedly with goodness. They just expect that that equation means that believers would interpret their religions according to 21st Century moral consciences when for numerous true believers throughout history it has meant a totally reverse thought process. It has routinely meant that their moral consciences must be interpreted only in terms amenable to the traditional dictates of their religion.
Only those modern people who are shocked and outraged that atrocities would ever be done in the name of religion assume that true religion must or always would be subordinate to our most humane, civilized, and modern moral consciences. I share the view that if there is to be a true religion in a normative sense that it would have to be one that only supported a rationally defensible morality.
But the notion that it is surprising that actual religion, as actually practiced, could ever lead to backward moralities represents a naïveté about history, psychology, and/or the plain meaning of ancient religious texts the world over that is frankly beneath any honest educated person. The cognitive dissonance required to genuinely feel shock that religion is used to support regressive values can only be explained by dogmatic, unjustified, evidence-denying faith commitments–whether to a specific religion or to the naïve liberal wish-fantasy that since people are religious and since all people must be tolerated, that religion itself must be inherently not only tolerable but as wonderfully good as most people believe.
But it’s not. At least not usually. Usually it is as ordinarily functional and corrupt a species of human institution as any other. And this should no come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to a millenia worth of world history or who employs even basic reading comprehension skills when reading sacred texts or centuries’ worth of theology and popular religious writings.
None of this is to say that no religious people every did or thought any good. Neither do I naïvely deny that many people have found through their religious commitments and traditions themselves the intellectual and/or psychological inspiration to be better people. And I am not even saying that the “truest” versions of religions are their most regressively fundamentalistic forms, which wholeheartedly embrace numerous things that are morally and intellectually backward within their received traditions. By all means, my progressive religious friends and all you non-believing redeemers of religion the world over, go and update and revamp religion for 21st Century. Make it less irrational and more humane. I even try to explicitly help with the project in some ways by encouraging forms of rationalistic atheism that recuperate and rehabilitate the good things that presently people think they can only get from faith-based religion.
And can we stop promoting the baseless and harmful prejudice that religion inherently equals goodness? That prejudice has led too many people to defer to too many supposed religious authorities to their own detriment and to the detriment of others to be tolerated any longer. Yes, religion is capable of good. It is also capable of evil in potentially equal or greater measure. There should be no default assumption that it can only be expected to yield either good or bad in any greater measure. There should be no feigned or real surprise when any given religion corrupts people’s thoughts or actions. There should only be shrewd efforts to counteract its deleterious influences as rationally and morally as possible. And insofar as religions systematically teach people to subordinate their intellects and their moral consciences to human and textual authorities that make assertions ungrounded in (or even antithetical to) reason and enlightened values, they should be treated with a fair modicum of suspicion and moral contempt, rather than with a presumption of goodness.
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