Tolerance of Religion vs Respect for Religion

The question of religious tolerance may very well be the single most divisive issue among secular liberals in the west.  From the proposed French ban on female head-covering to pandering defenses of female circumcision, liberals find themselves divided on the question of when and whether it is appropriate to tolerate the institutionalized intolerance that is often a part of religious conviction.  The debate takes on a special vitriol in the United States where minority religious rights are as close to a sacred value as any secular principle could be.  We hold it as a virtue to protect freedom of worship, even if we cannot agree about what god, if any, is worthy of our worship. But, at the same time, we are made uncomfortable when confronted with the racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, and xenophobic descriptions and prescriptions that lurk in the pages of every major religious text.  We embrace liberal theologies that explain away these uncomfortable details, and we shake our heads with frustration when confronted with fundamentalists who refuse to compromise.

The recent controversy over the proposed plan to build a Muslim community center- which would include a mosque- a few blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood has given me pause to reconsider the puzzle of religious tolerance.  Let me say from the outset that I have no problem with a mosque being built at or near ground zero.  If the United States protects the rights of citizens to peaceably assemble for the purposes of religious worship and fellowship, then it should protect that right for all citizens, regardless of the content of their beliefs.  Moreover, most of the people who are complaining about this "disrespect" or "insensitivity" really just have a problem with Muslims, not the content of their beliefs (which are, incidentally, much more similar to the beliefs of Christians and Jews than are secular philosophies and various other Eastern and polytheistic religions).  So, lest there be any confusion on the matter, I am not on the same side as Sarah Palin and her ilk.  I don’t think building a house of prayer "hurts hearts."  I don’t think every Muslim is a potential plane hijacker anymore than every Christian is a potential abortion-clinic bomber.  And, if places of worship are going to be built, I think the former site of the Twin Towers is as good a place as any to put one.

All of that being said, I don’t think the imperative to tolerate peaceful assembly or private religious fellowship in any way extends to an imperative to respect religious belief.   If your religion tells you that the world is less than 7,000 years old and you believe it, then I think you are an idiot.  If your religion tells you to disown your gay son and shun your immodest daughter and you do it, then I say you’re an awful person.   I can tolerate your believing things that are nonsense so long as you aren’t breaking the laws we’ve both agreed to obey, but that doesn’t mean I respect what you believe.  Moreover, I think I have a moral obligation to challenge your beliefs when you hold them up in defense of a policy that will affect me and other people in my community.

It’s this distinction between religious tolerance and religious respect that is really at issue in the mosque-at-ground-zero controversy.  The most vocal critics of the mosque are not rabid atheists who are angry about religious zealots killing people.  They are right-wing Christians.  Now, leaving aside the possibility that some of the Christian mosque-building opponents are just plain racists, I think the best explanation for why this group opposes building an Islamic house of worship near the former site of the Twin Towers is that they conflate the imperative to tolerate peaceful religious practice with an obligation to respect the content of other people’s religious belief.  Their thinking seems to be that because Muslim belief (among other things) motivated the 9/11 hijackers, showing tolerance for Muslim belief so close to the site of the attacks is an inappropriate sign of respect for the religion.  If you think about it from their perspective, the twisted logic is not hard to follow.  The Christian right is quite fond of accusing the secular left of intolerance. Whether by charging that the left is "closed-minded" for not teaching creationism as a science, or "ignoring the will of the people" when a federally-appointed judge overturns the church-promoted Proposition 8, Christians in this country are fond of painting themselves as the victims of religious persecution.  So, given that the Christian right conflates legitimate challenges to their beliefs with "intolerance," it kind of makes sense that they might confuse the reasonable mandate to tolerate Muslim religious practice with a legitimate objection to belief in the tenets of Islam.

So, let me make the distinction between religious tolerance and religious respect explicit.  Refusing to teach religious myth as science in public schools is not intolerant.   Allowing homosexual couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples is not intolerant.  Blocking people from building a religious community center on property they have legally acquired is intolerant.  In all three cases, I don’t respect the religious beliefs that motivate the project.  I don’t believe in your God, so what you think He says about the age of the Earth, the sin of sodomy, and the proper way to pray doesn’t matter to me.   In the first two cases, the issue is not private religious belief but the legal definition of the terms "science" and "marriage" which have implications for everyone in the country, regardless of their beliefs.  In the third case, once the legal status of the building property is determined, the issue really is private religious belief.  I am not affected by you praying at your house of worship, but I am affected by you legislating from it.  Perhaps the religious right would appreciate the relative harmlessness of the former if they stopped doing the latter.

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Faith-Healing as Mental Illness

Yesterday, Jim and I had a conversation about the Neumann case, which he addresses in the post below.  Jim’s take on the case is that the parents’ conviction on the charge of reckless homicide is just and that the judge should not consider the parents’ religious faith as a grounds for leniency in sentencing.  I share Jim’s feelings about the absurdity of appeals to religious faith as a justification for gross negligence leading to the death of a child.  If the plea for leniency is founded upon that kind of argument (i.e. that the parents’ faith in Divine intervention was a good reason for them to ignore needless suffering that led to the death of their daughter) then the judge ought to disregard it and give the parents an appropriately stern sentence for a very serious crime.  I believe, however, that there is a good argument to be made for why the judge ought to be lenient in sentencing the Neumanns.

If a person prays as an alternative to seeking medical attention for an injury or illness, that person, in a very real sense, does not understand the consequences of his actions.  As such, it is appropriate to deem that person as mentally incompetent and therefore not responsible for his actions.  Quite obviously, the Neumanns (and those who share their religious faith) would be unwilling to go along with the argument that the practice of faith-healing amounts to insanity.  Perhaps that is why their lawyer did not make the case for an insanity plea in court.  But we do not normally take the self-assessment of those within the asylum as evidence that they are not insane.  If Dale Neumann is not a psychopath, if he is instead a loving father (and by most accounts he is) who honestly believed that he was choosing the best possible action to save his daughter (a claim he has yet to renounce), then the best explanation for his gross negligence is that he didn’t understand that prayers do not cure illnesses.  As a practical belief, this amounts to insanity.

I know lots of people who pray when someone gets sick.  I know lots of people who cross on their fingers and knock on wood, too.  I don’t think that religious faith or superstition amounts to insanity in most cases.  Now, it would be easy for me to say that most people who claim to have faith aren’t insane because, when it comes down to it, they aren’t really faithful.  After all, most religious people take their kids to the doctor when they get sick, and they rely on scientific evidence rather than faith healing to cure illness.   But this account is cynical, and I’m not sure that it’s descriptively true.  My religious friend Kim genuinely believes that prayers played the pivotal role in her father’s cancer remission, though of course he also received chemotherapy.  It is obvious to me that Kim’s belief that her prayers played a causal role in her father’s remission is unjustified, but Kim is not insane.

Everyone has false beliefs.  Everyone has unjustified beliefs.  And the vast majority of people navigate their way through life fairly successfully without worrying too much about why they believe what they believe at all.  This may be immoral, and it’s most probably intellectually lazy, but it isn’t insanity.  The relationship between faith and insanity isn’t defined by what people say that they believe, or what they believe that they believe; It’s defined by what they do.  An insane action isn’t that which is done for a bad reason, it’s something that is not, in principle, justified by any good reason.

Religious practice gives many people comfort.  Studies suggest that devoutly religious people enjoy a number of quality-of-life advantages over their non-religious counterparts including longer life span, and more happiness.  The devoutly religious person believes that God is an active force in his life, and he believes that this is the reason for his happiness.  On both counts, he is most probably incorrect.  But prayers may actually improve the quality of his life.  In principle then, a good reason for his religious observation does exist.  Even though it is not his conscious reason, and even though he may deny that it is true, the religious person is not insane for continuing his regimen of prayers, fellowship, etc., if it gives him comfort to do so.  The same could be said of the faith-healer were it not that the comfort he seeks is directly opposed to his course of action.  Unfortunately, it is.  Faith-healing is insane not because faith-healers believe lies but because they put those lies into practice and expect miraculous results.

Dale Neumann would be guilty of a moral crime if he had wanted his daughter to suffer and die early and had chosen the rational means of declining medical attention in order to bring about this criminal end.  He didn’t want his daughter to suffer and die, however.  For that reason, it is proper to describe his refusal of medical care and appeal to religious faith as insanity.  He should not be held to the same standard of moral accountability as a sane person, nor should he be trusted with the privileges and responsibilities of a competent adult.  He is a crazy person and should be treated as such.

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