With All Due Respect

With characteristic wit and sarcasm, H.L. Mencken had this comment on the prevailing social norm granting respect to religion:

“We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

Like so many of Mencken’s cynical bon mots – and you’ll thank me for this link – this one was the product of much careful thought. He barely concedes a grudging, limited respect to religious faith and only for the implied, pragmatic reason that it’s good to try to get along with others when discussing emotion-laden subjects where argument is pointless.

It sounds like Mencken was advocating toleration rather than respect. He certainly did not favor anything like genuine and sincere respect for religion based on admiration, honor, or deference. He was, in fact, a staunch atheist who often skewered creationism, fundamentalism, organized religion, and theism.

I certainly agree with the notion that we should as a rule try to refrain from expressing opinions that may cause offense or hurt others’ feelings. Keeping quiet about certain topics is generally the way to go in any normal, mutually respectful society.

Ah, but there’s the rub: I hate to tell you we no longer live in that kind of society (not that we ever did). These days we’re deep in the throes of a destructive culture war that was started by ignorant, arrogant, and aggressively intolerant people on the religious and political right. Given this nasty, menacing reality, a more apt analogy for our times would sound more like this:

Those other fellows on the religious and political right not only believe that their wives are beautiful and their children smart, but they openly complain that we and our wives and children are ugly and dumb, and moreover we brought it on ourselves and we’re a threat to all decent, respectable people. At least to my ear that’s how the Beckian melodrama comes across from bigoted, repressive, right-wing religious and political leaders and their media shills. (This time I won’t even discuss their endemic hypocrisy.)

So Does Religion Deserve Respect?

In a word, no. And here I’ll begin to explain why. In this country religion has a huge and, in my view, generally negative influence on culture and politics and is undeserving of sincere and genuine respect. However, in the interest of not offending more people than necessary, I want to make a few important distinctions – call it a disclaimer, if you will:

First, I have lost interest in debating the existence of a god or gods. I paid my dues long ago and made up my mind about supernatural entities, and I have not encountered any arguments worth thinking about in a very long time. So on that subject I’ll go along with Thomas Jefferson, who famously said, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” With so many strongly held beliefs and shades of belief out there in the teeming marketplace of U.S.culture, religious tolerance is essential to the maintenance of a peaceful society. But it goes without saying that tolerance must be mutual, and in this country it’s not.

Second, I have no quarrel with moderate believers who uphold Jefferson’s dictum regarding the absolute necessity of maintaining a strict wall of separation between church and state. I just wish those moderate religious folks could join us infidels in denouncing the menacing theocratic trend in one of our two major political parties. Or one and a half, if you count the loony Tea Party. (Just because they’re ignorant lunatics doesn’t mean they won’t prevail. I’m starting to think almost anything is possible in this crazy-quilt nation. Anything, that is, except rational, evidence-based decision-making.)

Third, it distresses me that my conclusions about the religion of Islam are at odds with the position taken by so many Western liberals, truly progressive people whom I admire and consider to be comrades in the great culture war raging across this country. I’m sorry, but contrary to disingenuous Muslim propaganda and conventional progressive wisdom, Islam is not a religion of peace whose reputation has been sullied by a minority of violent extremists. In his book, The End of Faith, Sam Harris provided five pages of quotations from the Qur’an that he called “a litany of sacred hatred.” He added that those quotations were far from exhaustive and far from the worst.

The bottom-line point of my lengthy disclaimer is simply this: It would never occur to me to write a column like this if religion were a benign matter of individual conscience accompanied by genuine tolerance across the broad spectrum of belief and non belief. Believe me, I don’t want to be in this place. But the problem is that a politically powerful religious faction – the religious right – is trying to break my leg. They are exploiting the social norm of respect for religion to their own advantage while using their scary political power to undermine virtually everything I value about this country. And in that matter I think I speak for the great majority of progressives. We understand the corrosive nature of the army of fanatics who place their Bible-based religious certainty far above their respect for the laws and democratic traditions of this country.

Most believers – notably Muslims worldwide and their fundagelical counterparts here on the religious right – think their religions deserve special treatment. Call it a sacredness exemption – not only from taxes and other legal requirements, but from any form of criticism. This immunity is lethally enforced by law in Islamic nations; it is aided and abetted by discriminatory customs, laws, and court decisions in the U.S. Christianity is unquestionably privileged in this country in a great many ways that strain or violate the First Amendment. But as I said, they put their version of “God’s word” above their loyalty to the Constitution.

In the view of Muslim and Christian fundamentalists – and Muslim is tantamount to fundamentalist – their faiths come directly from the creator of the universe and deserve to be placed on a higher plane than mere mundane considerations like reason, evidence, and constitutional law. Their highest loyalty, under threat of everlasting punishment, is to their version of the all-knowing and all-seeing creator-god as interpreted by their chosen religious leaders. The perfect word of God (or Allah) as recorded in the Bible (or the Qur’an) trumps everything. Given that mindset, they demand respectfor their ridiculous superstitions, respect in the sense of honor and deference. In Islamic countries this is enforced in the form of harsh blasphemy laws that favor Islam and keep other religions in check. In the U.S. Christianity is privileged by virtue of its majority status and through prejudicial laws and court decisions. And it almost certainly will get worse.

I’m running out of allotted words for this column, so I’ll focus on Islam, which is depressingly in the news once again following the murderous rampage that took place in what has been called one of the most peaceful areas of Afghanistan. Why did enraged Muslim hordes overrun a United Nations compound and murder guards and workers? Apparently those infantile lunatics were frustrated because they couldn’t find Americans to murder, so they went after anyone associated with the hated U.S.

And why the sudden spike in hatred? They learned via their corrupt President Karzai that the infamous Reverend Terry Jones burned a copy of the Qur’an in Gainesville Florida (which, FYI, was my home for nine years). Islamic government and religious leaders are now calling for the arrest, conviction, and punishment of Jones, never mind that he committed no crime, that his act was protected free speech. And just as in the case of the infamous Danish cartoonists, I’m sure that many influential Western liberals will focus their condemnation on Jones while making excuses for the rampaging, murderous, Muslim religious idiots.

And what about those moderate American Muslims? Do they even exist?

Sam Harris gets to the nub of it when he asks if “moderate Muslims” will defend Jones’s right to burn a Qur’an. And make no mistake about it, that is the issue, an issue that has long been settled in the U.S. When I say settled, I mean this: Jones, or any U.S. citizen, has the right to burn a Qur’an. Or a bible. Or any other damn book they please. Jones is an asshole, but that’s beside the point – it’s a free-speech issue. Free speech, which is nothing less than the foundation of all our other freedoms.

Muslims could care less about free speech. As Harris points out, "A recent poll showed that thirty-six percent of British Muslims (ages 16-24) believe that a person should be killed for leaving the faith. Sixty-eight percent of British Muslims feel that their neighbors who insult Islam should be arrested and prosecuted, and seventy-eight percent think that the Danish cartoonists should have been brought to justice. And these are British Muslims."

That’s right, British – i.e., Western – Muslims! How do you think that poll would turn out in the U.S.? Just where are all those moderate Muslims we keep hearing about? What I’ve been hearing from Western Muslims sounds more like a public-relations conspiracy to downplay the prominent, hate-filled themes that appear throughout the Qur’an, themes that regularly become manifest in violence and abuses of fundamental human rights around the world. And it is a conspiracy that far too many Westerners are happy to promote.   

Just last week, under strong diplomatic opposition from the U.S. and other Western nations, the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) agreed to suspend its twelve-year campaign in the United Nations that was aimed at criminalizing “defamation” of religion. For more than a decade the OIC had consistently won majority approval in both the U.N. Council on Human Rights and in the General Assembly for a series of resolutions condemning defamation of religion. While those resolutions did not have the force of law outside of Muslim countries, they were clearly intended as a step in the direction of a worldwide ban on speech critical of religion.

So for now, anyway, the U.N. has restored a measure of sanity in the form of an alternative resolution calling on member nations to protect the individual human rights of believers. But the whole episode makes me wonder why Islamic nations are even members of the U.N., considering that their actions in their own countries and elsewhere routinely fail to comply with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Let me wrap this one up with two quotes, the first from Sam Harris:

“There is an uncanny irony here that many have noticed. The position of the Muslim community in the face of all provocations seems to be: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn't, we will kill you. Of course, the truth is often more nuanced, but this is about as nuanced as it ever gets: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn't, we peaceful Muslims cannot be held responsible for what our less peaceful brothers and sisters do. When they burn your embassies or kidnap and slaughter your journalists, know that we will hold you primarily responsible and will spend the bulk of our energies criticizing you for ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia.’ “

And this from H.L. Mencken:

"Morality is doing right, no matter what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right."