Reflecting on a lifetime of confrontation with religion, I find that I am incapable of accepting the normalization of religious faith. No apologies. It’s not a flaw. I accept that religion is normal from a statistical standpoint. But that doesn’t make it true. Or harmless. There are societies in which sexism is normative. Does that make justifications for sexism true or good?
As for its truth value, religion is a type of ideology. According to Ted Honderich (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy), an ideology is a collection or system of normative beliefs and values possessed by persons beyond purely epistemic reasons. Epistemic refers to knowledge, which is confirmed or verified belief. In other words, ideology relies on assumptions and beliefs about the world that have no factually demonstrable or logically necessary basis. Moreover, the claims of religion are plainly false. They systematically confuse predicate and subject. In truth, nature exists independent of the philosophies the mind has developed to understand it. Minds are the products of brains, which result from the evolutionary dynamic of natural history. Social relations as well have truths independent of the justifications for them. Indeed, human beings invented religion and the things belonging to it in order to justify oppressive social relations.
Religion is not good because it has made life difficult for people I love. Including me. But it has also made life difficult for hundreds of millions – billions – I could never know. (One cannot say this about nature as natural forces carry no intent.) Consider these three passages from the religious texts of the two most popular religions, Christianity and Islam.
The first two come from the Pentateuch, which is the scriptural foundation of the Abrahamic traditions (using the New English Translation). Leviticus 18:22 states: “You must not have sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman; it is a detestable act.” Two chapters later this prohibition is repeated with the punishment prescribed. Leviticus 20:13 states: “If a man has sexual intercourse with a male as one has sexual intercourse with a woman, the two of them have committed an abomination. They must be put to death; their blood guilt is on themselves.”
Those of the Christian faith who wish to keep their religion going but find these verses objectionable instruct us to read the scriptures from the standpoint of contemporary moral understanding. This admits that God is not a being that exists beyond history but a human construction. Given this, what makes God necessary? What is its authoritative value if we may disregard those bits that offend us? And what stops others from faithfully adhering the demands of the text? It is important to keep in mind that Islam takes over the biblical story of Lot (Lut) to condemn homosexuality, which in many Muslim-majority countries is punishable by death. For a lot of religious people cherry picking is not an option.
The third passage is found in the Qur’an sura 4:34 (Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation): “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).” The Qur’an instructs men to beat their wives which presupposes the right of men to control women, the foundation of the patriarchy. The refusal of even some women who identify as Muslim to reject the inerrancy of the Qur’an – see my blog entry Qur’an Verse 4:34 – is a stark reminder of the danger of failing to delegitimize scripture.
Admittedly, I have trouble suffering zealots. But I tolerate people who believe in gods. I even count them among my friends. What I endeavor to stress is that if I am to be confident in my criticisms of Christian belief, I must also judge Islam by the same standard. To make an exception for Muslims that I do not make for Christians is also a failure of courage.