Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Can We Talk About Religion, Please?

The Issue

Last week the Vatican invited Anglicans who are, as The New York Times put it, “uncomfortable with female priests and openly gay bishops” to reunite with the Roman Catholic Church. If a secular institution, Wal-Mart or Microsoft, for example, made a similar offer — Tired of leadership positions being open to women and gay employees? Join us! — it would be slammed for appealing to bigotry. Some criticism was directed at the church, but it was faint. Are we right to speak softly when discussing a subject as sensitive as religion?

The Argument

Etiquette holds that religion, especially another person’s religion, should be treated with deference or, better still, silence by nonbelievers. Hence the familiar dinner-party injunction: don’t discuss religion or politics. Even at a table full of co-religionists, feelings can run high, and there is a reluctance to combine digestion with discord (particularly where knives are nearby). To the observant, a nonbeliever’s comments on church doctrine can feel less like a discussion of theology than a personal attack.

Yet despite the risk of provoking the ire of believers, we should discuss the actions of religious institutions as we would those of all others — courteously and vigorously. This is a mark of respect, an indication that we take such ideas seriously. To slip on the kid gloves is condescending, akin to the way you would treat children or the frail or cats.

The passionate intensity unleashed by religious matters is evinced in responses to The Ethicist, my other column for The Times Magazine. When I take up a secular question that provokes broad disagreement, I typically receive a few hundred responses by e-mail that begin: “Dear Sir, I am appalled…” When I write about religion, I cause a tidal wave. The week I rebuked an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent whose beliefs forbade his shaking the hand of a female client, I stopped counting after receiving 4,000 ferocious messages, lambasting not only my argument but my character, my appearance and my parentage: it was speculated that dogs played a part.

My political beliefs, my ideas about social justice, are as deeply held as my critics’ religious beliefs, but I don’t ask them to treat me with reverence, only civility. They should not expect me to walk on tiptoe. It is not as if religious institutions occupy a precarious perch in American life. It is not the proclaimed Christian but the nonbeliever who is unelectable to high office in this era when politicians of every party and denomination make a public display of their faith.

Some of my most indignant critics have declared religious practice a matter of free association: what people do voluntarily among themselves is nobody else’s business. But children raised in a particular faith did not choose it. And sometimes one spouse is pushed into a pew by the other. Even when membership is truly volitional, once a group reaches a certain size and acquires power and influence in the larger community, to treat it like four people getting together in someone’s rec room to play bridge is disingenuous. Its actions are still subject to moral scrutiny, whether the group is the Boy Scouts or Nascar or the Roman Catholic Church.
Read the rest here

An interesting and thoughtful piece from someone who desperately wants to break the social conventions against attacking other people's religious beliefs. My position on the subject is essentially libertarian. You are free to criticize to your heart's content. Just as I and others of religious belief are free to practice our religions and to respond to said criticism. The rights of all involved end at the tip of the other's nose. Which is to say your rights end when they materially interfere with someone else's.

That said, social conventions exist for a reason. And those who contemplate breaking them should do so with great caution. The same principal by which you claim the right to flaunt convention and offend people, gives the more polite element the right to snub you or exclude you from their society in various ways. To some it means little if they are thought of as rude or boorish. But most people would prefer to avoid that kind of label as it carries a certain stigma even in our rather sad modern world.

1 comment:

Annie said...

I don't object to criticism per se. I object to people who hang their objections on a misreading of the facts. If I keep pushing back on people who think the Vatican is full of homophobic nazis, it's not because it's rude to criticize another person's religion. It's because they keep insisting that this was a preemptive move, a marketing ploy, which allows Anglicans who don't agree with Rome into the fold just because they hate the right people. That may or may not be rude, but it is just plain false.