Monday, December 1, 2008

All Religions Are Bad

I was rock-climbing in Utah's Canyonlands. Looking up at the cliff, I found a nice route that I wanted to start the day with before it got too hot, but as I got my equipment ready, a young Mormon guy approached me. "Can't climb that cliff," he said. "Why not?" I asked. "It's sacred," he said. "Too bad," I said, and climbed it anyway.

Okay, I made that up - but it does happen, in different locations and with different religions. The 2001 documentary In the Light of Reverence analyzes the use of public lands considered sacred by Native Americans. One of the cases is Devil's Tower in Wyoming, considered sacred by the Lakota (I took these pictures in 2008 of the Tower and of some prayer flags at its base.)

I know people who have climbed Devil's Tower but I have not; if I ever go back I plan to. The Lakota find it outrageously disrespectful when people climb the Tower. "Can't climb here," they say. "It's sacred." Climbers say "Too bad," and climb it anyway.

Callous? I'm deliberately pressing a point here that many Western atheists are uncomfortable with. All religions are pernicious arguments from authority, not just the ones that happen to invade the political power of your own country. In this case, you should worry more about the emotional and intellectual development of Lakota kids who are taught that medicine flags have some magical power more than you should worry about my right to climb a big rock. Those kids should have at least the same chance to reach a sane conclusion about the world that you and I did. One of the fortunate things about atheism is that it's real, so it is constantly independently re-discovered by honest and brave and inquisitive people everywhere, like Peter Sconchin, son of a Modoc chief.

Politically, it usually makes sense for atheists to ally with minority religions in our own countries, since we are a minority ourselves; in so doing we form a united front against religious majoritarianism. At the same time, philosophically and in individual discourse, we most emphatically do not have to respect any such set of beliefs. In the United States we're used to guarding against the various incarnations of Christianity polluting secular government, and those are the ones worth spending your time on. At the same time, we often wince when we hear a diatribe against other religions because more often than not the subtext is "they should be Christians instead". In fact if you were an atheist and came from Pakistan like Ibn Warraq, you would be (even more dangerously) resisting Islam's dominance of public life.

When we view religion this way - as a political problem, which is really why it's a problem - the problem of the Lakota faith doesn't seem to be worth worrying about. Not many of us are going to climb Devil's Tower, and if you want to, you just have to worry about a few annoyed Lakota and some small signs around the base of the Tower asking you to consider Lakota feelings. But there is at least one place in the United States where your freedom of movement is restricted on "public" land, unless you're lucky enough to be Navajo - the Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona, where except for one trail, you're required to hire a guide. I (angrily) kept to the open-to-infidels trail. The Navajo say the canyon is sacred. Too bad: like all faiths, the Navajo faith's adherents claim that it is revealed to only a select view (based as is sometimes the case on ethnicity) and argue incoherently from authority that everyone should change our behavior because of it.

I could expand the laundry list of "small-time" religions out of moribund New World superstition complexes to Old World religions that are no longer practiced at all, but there's no need if what we want to see is horrendous suffering in the name of irrational beliefs; in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins discusses some positively ghastly Inca Practices, and I think most Mexicans (atheist or otherwise) are glad they don't have to worry about having their hearts cut out anymore. Talk of heart-cutting might seem cute today, but five centuries ago it would have been a daily terror with no way to argue against, because those bloodthirsty maniacs were in power (soon followed by new bloodthirsty maniacs from across the ocean). Because atheists tend to be on the liberal side of the political spectrum, we might be uncomfortable with such pronouncements about people who after all did not invite Europeans onto their land. Then again, are you comfortable with the U.S. installing a government in Afghanistan allowing religious freedom, or would you rather allow the return of Taliban-style oppression? Are you okay with U.N. or Western pressure on developing countries to expand human rights, including freedom to worship or not worship? How is that any different? And would you still think I was callous if it really was Mormons instead of Lakota trying to keep me off Devils Tower and I said "too bad"? Why should that make a difference?

The distinction to be drawn here is not that the Lakota faith is any better than the rest of them, but rather that it's a minority religion with no political power. I'm similarly not as worried about New-Agers or Fore highlanders in New Guinea or Zoroastrians, not because they're any nicer or more sensible than Christians or Muslims, but because to my knowledge in recent times they've never killed anyone who made a film they didn't like, nor are they in a position to force my kids to learn their creation myths as fact in public schools. Whether those religions would seek political power in some alternate universe where they became widely practiced is another question - one to which I think a "no" answer is difficult to support, given the pattern that has been repeated so many times throughout history. In that universe I'm sure there would be Lakota holy men testifying before the Prairie-Nations Council that medical students who refused to tie bedside prayer flags before operations should be disbarred.

Of course, the two dominant politically aggressive religions on the planet today are Christianity and Islam, in all their mutant forms. All too often I see atheists backing off from sharp criticism of Islam, probably because most such criticism they've heard before has the subtext of "and they should all become Christians" (or supertext, in many cases, like General William Boykin's rant). In fact I would even argue that the inroads Islam has made into secular Europe is a result of similar postcolonial oversensitivity. Make no mistake: Islam is politically as dangerous as Christianity, many of its practitioners expect you to accept it without question, and it's kept many of the countries where it's dominant as medieval theocracies. (For a taste of what life is like for women in Muslim-dominated Somalia, read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali); if you have a stronger stomach try this CNN article. For a much fuller and more comical atheist treatment of Islam you could watch the comedian Pat Condell or read the outstanding God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the inimitable Christopher Hitchens.

I know that many atheists who read this will get "icked out", but there's no segue here into a discussion of American Christian values - I'm just a regular atheist who's disgusted with the suffering the politically powerful religions inflict on humans for no reason other than their own perpetuation. 2008 is no time for atheists to get confused about this - as Karl Popper said in The Open Society and Its Enemies, the one thing we cannot tolerate is those who seek to limit tolerance - for example, limiting your ability to criticize religion in public debate. This has happened right here in North America, and not just with Christianity. It can't be tolerated from any quarter.

And here is why shrinking from criticism of Islam is a missed opportunity. Western Atheists can be even more militant and unreserved about bashing Islamic stupidity because we're honest - we have no subtext to serve. One atheist I know has a bumper sticker: "ATHEISM CURES RELIGIOUS TERRORISM". Criticism of Islam also provides a possible common ground for discussions with conservative Christians in America - you can explain that both of you are atheists with respect to Islam and talk about, in rational terms, exactly why Islam is silly. This makes a kind of psychological end-run around the human mind's ability to doublethink its way past chains of reasoning distasteful to it, by not triggering immediate defenses. A thorough deconstruction of Allah, echoing in the mind of a Christian, quite logically leads to similar questions inevitably leaking into the brain-space reserved for Christ. This is why Sam Harris and others have at times used this exact rhetorical approach.

In the end, the important point is that all religions are false and harmful arguments from authority, even if from pragmatism we're forced to spend our time worrying about one or a few that affect our life the most. Don't be confused by politically aggressive religions claiming that to reject them is intolerance. Use your rejection of "foreign" religions as a tool for public debate with Christians and conservatives. As an atheist, you know what your values are: public life must be grounded in secular values accessible by reasoned argument and your own senses, and protected from those who would argue from authority. God is not great, but secular democracy is.

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