The myth of “live and let live”

It’s not hard to find articles that decry the efforts of the “New Atheists” for their bullying of innocent and defenseless religion, in terms that range from disapproval to outright vehemence, nor is it hard to find comments where the commenter prides themselves on their “live and let live” attitude, maintaining that the only proper behavior is to not judge others for their choice of religion. The hypocrisy of stating this out loud was not lost on Randall Munroe at xkcd:

"But you're using that same tactic to try to feel superior to me, too!" "Sorry, that accusation expires after one use per conversation."Despite this flaw, it’s still easy to believe that being judgmental is something we should avoid, especially, as we are so often reminded, when it comes to someone’s personal choice. Yet, this is falling for both an inferred trait, and a gout of assumptions. To begin with, there is a vast, staggering difference between a simple opinion, such as whether Andy Kaufman was funny (he wasn’t,) and a combined worldview and ideology, one that informs someone’s decisions, attitudes, and indeed, their very concept of morality. We are a looonnng ways away from opinion here, and to be blunt, the only time that such things are ever considered “opinions” is when someone feels the need to defend them against the multitudes of arguments against them. Feel free to show me any church, any religious leader, any scripture or verity or pamphlet whatsoever, that admits that their version of creation is a “choice” and an “opinion” – seriously, I’d be delighted to see one, because all I have ever heard is bold and unwavering assumptions that they are relating Truth™, and the only Truth™ at that. This state of affairs bears highlighting, because this is a phenomenally arrogant and pompous thing to say, about anything, and the only reason we don’t fall down pissing ourselves laughing at it is that we’re used to it, and have been told time and again that this kind of nonsense deserves respect. It is this very social construct that causes no small number of people to react negatively to the wording I’m using here.

Because, let’s face it, there is no religion, anywhere in the world, that is not demonstrably, wildly, and irredeemably wrong – I say that not from an ethical point of view, but from a simple factual one. No creation story even comes close to the converging reams of evidence that tells us how old the world is and how it formed. At all. No scripture even hints at the long and supportable history of life evolving on this planet. No supernatural source of information manages to grasp the enormity of our solar system and the nature of the planets therein. And mind you, I haven’t even touched on the events that they do relate, events so staggeringly ridiculous as to require repetition and immersion in a mutually-supporting environment, because past the age of six no one is buying the idea of flying horses and talking serpents without a whole lot of assurances that this “is really really true, so help me god.” In fact, faith requires a suspension of disbelief to some degree, at least to dismiss the contradictions and anachronisms found in every religion, when it does not involve actively finding ways to excuse or ‘qualify’ the gross inaccuracies. And gross is not at all too strong a word; humans are notoriously fallible and have produced some really-wide-of-the-mark ideas at times, but anyone confessing the to sheer number that can be found in any form of scripture would be hastened to a safe care facility after sharp and heavy objects were surreptitiously removed from reach. Even the most wrong of scientists throughout the ages at least based their ideas on something demonstrable, which puts them well ahead of most items claimed within scripture.

That’s only the first part, however; there remains the question of whether anyone should actively correct such wild misapprehensions. The response that immediately leaps to my mind, at least, is, “Why the hell wouldn’t you?” First off, correct and supportable information is not only the cornerstone of learning, it is absolutely necessary for functional decisions. We don’t have mandatory schooling, with nationwide standards and meticulous assessments, because we think ignorance is a good idea. When we find potential dangers in products, or health issues within either work practices or leisure activities, we don’t shrug them off and figure that it’s not our business to tell someone else how to protect themselves, and to be honest, we’re pretty horrified every time we see anyone expressing such an attitude. We consider it a social responsibility to at least inform someone of the hazards, but in many cases, such things are regulated; it’s not really a matter of opinion whether someone thinks their child can handle alcohol or not. And in fact, we’re seeing health issues right now in this country since a bunch of dipshits got it into their heads that vaccines cause autism, and are willing to compromise the immunity of everyone else’s children over this repeatedly disproven canard; it’s not something that we can afford to ignore, and it’s taking a concerted effort to eradicate this ridiculous belief.

“But we’re talking about personal beliefs, and not something that affects everyone else,” comes the immediate protest. Which is utter horseshit, and I really shouldn’t have to even point this out. At no point, in the history of mankind, has religion ever been a personal thing. We are actually in one of the most peaceful times in the breadth of our knowledge, perhaps the most. Which means the religious wars are no longer an facet of recent experience, at least if one remains ignorant of all world events – but there were a hell of a lot of them, as well as the persecutions and the ersatz regulations and the ritualistic abuse of authority. It would be nice to believe that we’ve moved on from this now, but that’s ridiculously na├»ve, especially since we can still visit the gas chambers and burial pits and refugee camps in several different countries. One can try to make all the excuses that they like in the belief that their faith would never succumb to such abuses, but the bare fact is, if an ideology is based on ignorance, it isn’t likely to produce anything that we’d be proud of. It really is that simple.

But we don’t even have to talk about violence, or a theocratic state. We routinely deal with proposed laws and practices that are informed not by science or solid results or even a distinct goal, but religious kneejerk bigotry. The virulent attempts to undermine or eradicate education in both sexuality and evolution are not ‘choices,’ but active campaigns by churches that feel that their authority should extend far beyond their local suckers followers to everyone within reach, whether they like it or not. This is the exact opposite of choice; it is the attempt to remove choice from as many people as possible. While county clerk Kim Davis (from Kentucky, imagine that) was held up by numerous religious blowhards for her ‘principles’ and as a martyr to their cause, this doesn’t even come close to the real situation, which was her arrogant attempt to impose her opinion on everyone else, despite having sworn an oath (to god, no less) specifically not to do so. Amusing, isn’t it?

Note that nobody gave a good goddamn what her religion was before she defied the Supreme Court decision, because her religious views were never the issue in the slightest – it was her attitude that she was entitled to abuse both the law and others who didn’t agree with her. And this is, for the vast majority of activities from those mean ol’ nasty outspoken atheists, what is being addressed in the first place: not religion itself, but the abuses that take place in its name, as well as the undue and unjustifiable privilege that usually goes right along with it. The whole “personal choice” thing is a smokescreen, and I have no doubts an intentional one. Of course this needs to be pointed out, clearly and frequently.

There’s another misconception about choice that appears frequently in regards to religion, one that too few people seem able to grasp: no one gets to choose their own facts. Certainly, one can decide if they want to believe anything in particular or not, but this doesn’t change the nature of evidence, dependability, or prediction, and no statement becomes more valid if someone professes their support of it – we don’t get to vote on truth. While anyone may point out that their scripture says right there that it’s the word of god, so does everyone else’s scripture – these are facts. However, this doesn’t make the statements themselves factual, any more than, “Al is the smartest person in the universe, so sayeth the lord” – right there in plain sight in front of you – makes that statement factual. It is, in fact, completely neutral, neither truth nor lie, until it can be demonstrated either way – that’s what a fact is: a supported and demonstrable statement of condition (this one will be shown to be a lie very easily, just in case you suspect I’m getting all hubristic here.) One can deny all the facts they like in pursuit of their own personal feelgood mantra, but this has no impact on the facts themselves, nor does it tell us anything other than how much of an idiot that person is.

Yet, even when we’re dealing with a situation that all boils down to a choice in the first place, this makes no difference whatsoever. Choices are not sacrosanct or protected; you may choose to hate Asians, but you’re still gonna catch shit for it, and rightfully so. Personal choice is strictly that: personal. It affects the individual and the individual alone. It applies to things like music and colors and food and other such trivialities. Anything, however, that has any affect on someone else whatsoever is no longer personal – this includes how someone votes, how they raise their kids, how they treat others, and even how they themselves expect to be treated for their choice. And if it’s been expressed publicly in any way, then it’s an invitation for commentary.

This one’s amusing, so watch to see how often it occurs. Because an awful lot of people are just ducky with commentary – provided it’s in agreement with them. What’s considered inappropriate and unwarranted and rude is disagreement, and especially pointing out the flaws – which means it’s not judgment that they have difficulty with, but negative judgment (which is how you’ll find most people define “judgmental” anyway.) This is especially notable when it comes to religion, since people very often rely on the ‘good’ status that this is supposed to confer upon themselves, and get really testy when the vast evidence of this being ludicrous is brought to light.

Underlying all of this, however, is what we might seek as a goal. There are a lot of people who feel that the only thing that should be done in all social interactions is make friends – don’t dare to give offense, don’t dare to question judgment, don’t dare to jeopardize warm fuzzy feelings. Which seems fine, for the average interaction. But society is not something that we find, but what we create and shape – it is our input, all of us, that produces what is acceptable, and how we should behave. Obviously, avoiding any confrontation at all when someone is behaving in an obnoxious, racist, privileged, or abusive manner is just tacit approval, and while that might be ideal for someone who’s scared of their own shadow (you know, that personal choice thing,) it hardly defines a working society and shouldn’t be considered a rule for all. It’s up to all of us – again, human beings – to express how we need to interact and what’s not going to fly in our community… and just how little sense something is making. History is full or brutal regimes that we look at askance, now, and wonder how everyone could have fallen for such nonsense. And the answer is, as a species, we’re pretty bad about simply huddling quietly within the status quo, no matter how goofy it is.

And I’ve dealt with this argument many times before, but it’s going to come up alongside this topic anyway, so let’s tackle the whole ‘religion as a guide to ethics and morality’ angle. First off, see the bit up there about ‘all of us,’ to recognize that any religious guidance that purposefully excludes or marginalizes others without rational support is not social benefit, only privilege; we can marginalize criminal behavior because not doing so actually marginalizes the victims of it (I shouldn’t have to point this out, but there are always those who cannot grasp issues beyond the superficial.) The point of this all is to find what works best, not what’s personally indulgent. And arguments that anyone is simply following the word of god fall apart on three levels: the first being that anyone else may be following the word of theirs, somehow contradicting one’s own (imagine that); the second being that the utter foolishness of most scripture, outlined briefly above, is evidence of this not being the word of a god, and not even being the word of someone very bright; but worst, of course, is that the ‘personal choice’ argument has just been trashed again.

Further trashing the argument of religious guidance is just how selective people are about following their own scripture, conveniently ignoring some of the more ridiculous aspects – but this is followed closely by how many ridiculous aspects there really are. Seriously, it’s child’s play to build a better society than what is dictated by scripture – any scripture – and all it takes is exercising a few moments of critical thought. Is this beneficial in any way? Does it marginalize someone who is doing no harm? Is this just here to make me feel superior? Naturally, one has to get down from their pedestal and start thinking objectively to do this, and that’s really damn hard for far too many people.

But, you know, that’s what we’re here for, and by we, this time I mean those who are not afraid to point out the flaws and manipulations and outright horseshit that keeps arising, shockingly enough, when it comes to religious influence. Some people are not going to like it, certainly, and they’re welcome to argue their case in the marketplace of ideas – invited, even. Let’s see what produces a better society. Because the whole aspect of not liking negative judgment is that we, as a species, actively seek social approval – it’s what is necessary for a cooperative species. Upon finding that we don’t have this approval, we can whine about it of course, or we can present a rational case that it should be approved and why, or we can seek that which is approved. The whiners, more times than not, feel they have something to lose by pursuing either remaining option – I’ll let you imagine what that might be.

There’s one more thing that I feel obligated to highlight, because an awful lot of people cannot grasp this point. At no time, in this post or anywhere else, have I argued that religion needs to go away, or that religious people should be actively censured from public view in any manner, and for the vast majority of cases, neither has any outspoken atheist. Censorship is the tool of those who don’t have supportable ideas, who cannot face competition and need to eradicate it – see above about decrying criticism to begin with, but also the bits about trying to block evolution in schools and all that. I’m more than happy to trash religion, and give plenty of reasons behind it – and anyone else is welcome to rebut them if they can; I welcome the debate, actually. That’s quite a bit different from repression.

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