It’s not particularly hard to find news stories where the excesses of religious belief have led to something objectionable, damaging, and even fatal. Actually, this can be done almost daily, and quite often doesn’t even have to extend outside of our own country – this is what the New/Gnu/Nv/Nouveaux Atheists refer to when pointing out why religion really isn’t a good thing. As evidence, it’s really hard to argue against, since just about the only other facet of societal ill that shows as prevalently is handgun deaths. Whenever this is pointed out, however, the invariable response is that such examples are “not my religion!”
Such distinctions escape me. I have repeatedly asked (never receiving an answer) in what way someone’s own religion differs from the particular splinter sect named in the news. Now, in all fairness, it’s important not to over-generalize, lumping things into broad categories specifically to avoid the distinctions that make significant differences, something that people are far too prone to doing in the first place. Yet, it’s not enough to draw a line in an arbitrary location and say, “but this happened on that side of the line.” Such a thing can be done ad nauseum, as Zeno demonstrated pointlessly, but does this actually address the cause in the first place?
If we ask, “Why did the haredim abuse little girls?“, the answer is, “Because their books told them that this was right.” If we then ask, “What makes them think their book is right?”, we receive a lot of vague answers about personal revelation, tautological referrals back to the book itself, or demands to respect a belief system. The kicker is, we can apply this to any religion named throughout the world, making distinctions among faiths, sects, and facets rather pointless, wouldn’t you think?
Lest anyone goes off on me for broadening the field unnecessarily, I’m going to point out that one of the most frequent arguments I hear in favor of religion is, “So many millions of people around the world can’t be wrong.” It seems that broadening the field is just ducky when it’s used in favor of one’s own practices, and that the distinctions between religious sects aren’t significant enough to warrant a more accurate count when it comes to supporting numbers.
Before I continue, I also want to highlight another interesting aspect of belief. I have yet to come across any particular religion not supported by claims of personal revelation, miracles, and the authenticity of their holy book and artifacts; however, the only ones that seem to count for religious folk are those that support their own religion. All others are roundly ignored – because they’re false idols? Because everyone else in the world is now delusional? Again, I’ve asked, but somehow this question falls on deaf ears. Of special note is the whole ‘respect’ angle, where religious folk decry how their beliefs are not being respected, beliefs that almost invariably involve not respecting others in one way or another. It’s very hard to see this as anything other than egocentric special rules, and frankly I’ve given up on trying – I realized that, in considering such arguments for more than a second, I was pursuing a concept of ‘fairness’ that actually involved being grossly unfair to everyone else who fell outside the argument. Religion, with too few exceptions to bother bending over backwards to highlight, involves little more than selfishness to an astounding degree. Even those who ‘selflessly’ limit themselves to “spreading the good word” do so from the standpoint that they’re doing something good, without in any way establishing support for this belief in their own special position.
Returning more to the original point, we can attempt to see excessive behavior (of any kind) in terms not of arbitrary distinctions, but of measurable ones. When it comes to abuse, what comes up with significant frequency is the underlying idea that the abuser holds a higher position than the abused; a privilege, as it were. [The alternate motivation of abuse is that the abuser feels threatened by the abused, which bears its own separate examination.] While our competitive minds latch onto anything supporting privilege far too easily, it results in little more than petty bullying until there is a greater cultural emphasis on such privileges – in other words, until there is more support from greater numbers of people, reinforcing the idea that this must be ‘right.’ As numerous examples throughout history demonstrate inarguably, rational support of such ideas isn’t really necessary; more often, some weak justification is accepted quickly on the sole basis that it serves to support the emotional concept of privilege.
Now, we turn to considering what happens when a few factors are established in a culture, such as:
a) considering personal revelations and older texts as reasonable ‘evidence’;
b) respect for belief systems and spirituality;
c) the idea of a greater authority that lacks demonstrable evidence or value.
What this establishes is a situation ripe for abuse, since little more is needed to generate a sense of ‘privilege’ than calling it a religion. The values that are claimed for religion are immeasurable, and subjectivity rules. Objective values to distinguish one from another are specifically avoided.
Worse, a special situation is created, where actually asking for something measurable, some distinctive benefit (much less reason for privilege in the first place,) is frowned upon, sometimes to the point of crying “persecution!” The very concept of value, that not only our society, but our whole social structure is based upon, gets discarded in lieu of some ‘diplomatic immunity’ called religion. A frequent defense of supernatural authority is, astoundingly, that we can’t prove it doesn’t exist. We also get to see, with alarming frequency, the abuse of others not on the basis of strengthening a community or even ‘saving’ people, but as demonstrations only of personal piety.
Thus, when someone tries to claim, “It’s not my religion!”, I have no issues with saying, “Yes, it is. The very rules that you depend on are the ones that provide for abuse, and your own belief structure enables every other.” Like the post title implies, does anyone really need to differentiate one fairy tale from another to make the argument that following fairy tales isn’t really beneficial to us?
The inevitable response to this accusation, naturally, is that some good comes from religion. I could be nasty and ask how one could tell it isn’t some good coming despite religion, but that’s not even necessary. It’s much simpler than that: if you’ve got some good bits, then you actually know how to find them. Perfect – you have a working brain! Keep the good bits, and get rid of the bad ones. If there are important distinctions to be made, I would certainly think that one qualifies above all others.
Most especially, while privilege is a nice thing to have, perhaps it should actually come from hard work and the efforts to improve society as a whole, rather than self-indulgence. You know, status granted by others, not by professing a personal belief system. Just a thought.