>> Thursday, October 29, 2009

Johann Hari isn't my favorite bleeding heart, despite the fact he's clearly a fellow traveler on so many principles. However, this comment from a January editorial in The Independent (brought to my attention by a piece at OpenSalon, tip'o'the hat) resonated for sure:

All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don't respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don't respect the idea that we should follow a "Prophet" who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him.

I don't respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don't respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. This is not because of "prejudice" or "ignorance", but because there is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species, and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.

When you demand "respect", you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.
-Johann Hari, "Why should I respect these oppressive religions?"
The Independent, January 29th, 2009

I happen to agree with everything Mr. Hari writes in that piece (and in a related item written a week later after republication of the article in an Indian newspaper led to riots), which is, as I say, a little bit unusual insofar as I've mostly avoided reading things written by Mr. Hari after reading several articles and commentaries in which I found myself agreeing with some of his premises only to find myself saying, "Yes, but you're getting that wrong" when I got to his conclusions (occasionally it's even run the other way, where I violently disagree with Mr. Hari's premises only to find myself startled to find a perfectly reasonable conclusion somehow tacked onto the piece); I've also read at least one piece (on Somali piracy, I believe it was) where I'm reasonably certain he got his facts wrong, or at least I can't find any reliable source corroborating his statements. (This is why, by the way, we liberals tend to be pretty ineffectual; we even have violent arguments about things we agree on--conservative readers would have little to fear even if the President actually were a socialist, since we'd get into a knock-down brawl over seating arrangements and whether the word "and" was somehow derogatory to somebody.)

The context for dredging up the Hari piece on religion is some recent controversy over whether President Obama agreed in any way with Islamic countries seeking a global law or resolution against blasphemy. There's not really anything to the story: the United States joined with Egypt on a UN Human Rights Council resolution regarding freedom of speech, which tepidly included a clause stating:

...that incidents of racial and religious intolerance, discrimination and related violence, as well as of negative racial and religious stereotyping continue to rise around the world, and condemns, in this context, any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, and urges States to take effective measures, consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat such incidents.

Ironically, conservative organizations, many of which include members who have no problem stating that the ecumenically diverse United States is actually a "Christian nation" and members who might reach for their guns if you told them it's possible Jesus was a mythical or composite figure (as there's no firm evidence outside Christian texts that he ever existed at all, though there's no real evidence he didn't, either), have gotten riled over the fiction that this resolution means the Obama Administration is in favor of blasphemy laws that would prevent criticisms of Islam (or, more to the speed of some organizations like the Birchers, unfunny and potentially racist depictions of Muhammad--which, incidentally, ought to be any human being's right to create, even if nobody ought to laugh at them). In fact, however, the Obama Administration's position on anti-religious defamation resolutions or treaties is explicit in the Administration's support of free expression and opposition to any attempt to quash free speech through censorship of religious criticism or anti-religious sentiment. The signal-to-noise ratio has been abominable enough that it seems to be creeping into liberal fora, particularly those already worried about the present course of the Obama Administration.

I'm happy--actually, "relieved" might be the better word--to say that, as best I can tell, the Obama Administration hasn't screwed this one up yet.

On the occasions I've decided to write about religion, I've found myself second-guessing myself, and sometimes being a bit reluctant to be too explicit about some points. Some of my most-loved family members and friends are openly religious and it is something they define themselves by (a subject my online friend Janiece Murphy was grappling with a few weeks ago); many of these family members and friends are people I respect despite the fact they cling to ideas that I can't.

It's frequently awkward away from the Internet, too, because (as Hari rightly points out), there's something deeply and profoundly insulting and condescending in smiling noncommittally and agreeably at the expression of something that you find wrong or possibly even basically, fundamentally stupid. Part of this is a tension that Hari doesn't address: ideas don't inherently deserve respect, but people inherently do; however, ideas are held by people, they don't actually exist Platonically in some nether space waiting to be stumbled into, and so to fault an idea does, unfortunately, necessarily imply a fault with the brain holding it, whether that fault is simply an ordinary and correctable failure of observation, knowledge or logic or whether the fault is in fact a deeper, tragic, impossible-to-fix defect (for want of a better word).

I would like to think that it is nonetheless possible for people to get along regardless of their ideas, that where ideas clash people might, out of mutual respect, agree to disagree. I have no especial need to convert everybody to some sort of agnosticism or atheism; beyond the occasional skeptical materialist argument here or there, it seems like it would be a tiring and futile crusade. I worry, though, that there may be ideas that are simply incompatible and no means for a mutual human respect to be reached: if, for instance, adherents of a particular creed insist that their beliefs are beyond intellectual criticism or flat-out mockery and are willing to resort to force or oppression to carry the point across, I don't know that absolutism can be compromised with even to the extent of "let's agree to disagree." So long as somebody's religion--whatever it might be--doesn't affect me, I really could care less what they believe; as soon as they tell me, however, that their religion dictates what I can say or do, whether I like it or not, we're no longer on that same page, and I don't see how there can be any reconciliation without one of us surrendering our principles. Given that my principle says we can offend each other as much as we like by poking holes in each other's thoughts and notions, while their principle says anyone who disagrees with them ought to be in jail or worse, I have to find my principle superior not only out of self-interest (I'd rather not be locked up and/or shot for blasphemy, thank you), but out of the view that my principle has the utilitarian value of maximizing happiness for the most people, or at least spreading around any unhappiness caused by sentiments any of us find insulting.


Janiece Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 1:36:00 PM EDT  

Eric, I struggle with this, too - every day.

Not with the idea that I should be allowed to poke fun at others' beliefs if it suits you note, the believer can certainly make a case that my behavior is rude, but I don't think they can make one that my behavior is criminal. On that issue I struggle not at all. My right for free speech certainly trumps their right not to be offended.

What I struggle with is reconciling the dichotomy of holding an "idea" in contempt while simultaneously holding onto the very real respect I feel for my family and friends who are people of faith.

Let me know when you get that figured out, won't you? Because it's starting to irk me that I'm unsuccessful in behaving in a way that honors both points of view.

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