Girding for the Lightning

A piece in the Times the other day brought up a peculiar point: "Look critically at someone’s god and gird for the lightning." Issues of cultural sensitivity aside, why do religious ideas have the privilege of exemption from critical examination?

The short answer is simply that they don’t, despite the common survival strategy of presenting themselves as unquestionable. (Rappaport defines sanctity as a sort of discursive immunity characteristic of ultimate sacred postulates.) Perhaps the better question is: why do religious people, even many generally amenable (and some quite committed) to empirical reason, suspend their critical faculties when it comes to religious ideas?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer here. The reasons for belief are as numerous as believers, and those reasons vary tremendously across the gamut from diehard fundamentalists to secularists who retain some handful of beliefs. However, complex as this variety may be, perhaps we can represent that spectrum itself as one ranging from refusal to question to failure to question.

Refusal to question religious ideas is to be expected among those who believe them to be actually true, whether for lack of education or because they’re convinced illogical belief without proof — faith — is a virtue unto itself. Of interest here is the other end of the spectrum, where critical thinking is by and large the healthy norm, yet where religious ideas nevertheless escape critical attention and the collapse that tends to follow.

What does it matter, one might ask, if a responsible, intellectually rigorous person still has a few unquestioned religious ideas? From a certain pragmatic perspective, indeed not much. Certainly the more moderate behavior of such people is far preferable to the many egregious transgressions sanctioned by religion even today. However, there is an epidemiology of religion: ideas, like diseases, can lie dormant in one host and yet facilitate the spread of infection without being radically expressed. Thus, one reason decidedly undesirable expressions of religious ideas — anti-intellectualism, misogyny, bigotry, and so on — can persist in modern, ostensibly civil societies is the failure to recognize such relatively radical expressions’ roots in the very same ideas maintained by moderates.

This concern isn’t merely academic. When moderates regard radicals’ behavior as a matter of different interpretation of religious ideas, rather than recognizing the connection between such behavior and religious ideas themselves, they inadvertently sanction its recurrence among future radicals exposed to the same ideas. That is, it isn’t necessarily harmless for moderate, humane people to casually harbor the same ideas that underpin the unquestionably inhumane actions of religious radicals.

Lest it be thought I’d endorse some systematic extermination of religion by dystopian thought police, let it be completely clear that I don’t condone any kind of discrimination on the basis of ideas. I must also disclaim that I don’t mean to assert religious ideas are the sole cause of the evils of religious radicals. It goes without saying that people may be prone to violence, hate, and oppression for countless, complex reasons, and religion can provide a platform for dark deeds just as it often does for humanitarian work and community-minded goodwill.

However, religious ideas, whether expressed for good or ill, depend for their survival upon suspension or avoidance of critical examination. As someone committed to complete intellectual freedom, I cannot but declaim any realm of ideas where critical doubt is discouraged, much less persecuted.

Let us return to failure to question religious ideas. Why do open-minded, moderate people with perfectly functional critical faculties neglect to divest themselves of beliefs that really can’t stand up to serious questioning? We may suggest several reasons: maybe some moderates quietly want to believe certain religious tenets, even knowing them to be illogical; maybe some are used to their beliefs and never have occasion to actively question them; maybe the beliefs of some play such a passive role in their lives that they aren’t aware of themselves as believers at all.

To touch on the Times article at last, maybe some are subtly moved by the sort of furor that arises when religion is openly criticized. Dispossessing oneself of religious ideas in a society where religious ideas thrive in the attitudes and actions of entire communities isn’t as easy as casually accepting those ideas. Such a saturated society hardly rewards those who venture to call religion into question. When honest inquiry brings on a veritable storm, little wonder many people who might, all else being equal, shake off the vestiges of religious thought don’t ask more questions.

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