“When you look at it rationally, there is no reason [religious] ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow that they shouldn’t be,” Douglas Adams, author of the delightful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy said some time ago, as quoted by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. Dawkins complains further: “The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices, But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe on ‘religious liberty.'”
Douglas Adams chose carefully veiled satire to pose many of his questions regarding faith and God. I absolutely love his brilliantly biting depiction of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I’m not sure how many people get the real joke(s), but I won’t spoil it for anyone here. Perhaps a few will go back and read it again and think to themselves, “Oh my…!”
Dawkins’ own hyperbolic plaint looks a little skewed pulled out of context as it is, but an honest appraisal may actually grant him his point. Or, perhaps we should at least examine our religious and legal structures more carefully. Fair warning: Here is where I am likely to offend my religious friends (if I haven’t already).
In the second half of his introductory chapter, Dawkins expresses distress and confusion over the irrational respect granted religious persons, institutions, statements, customs, etc., even when they fly in the face of common sense. It is as if the avowedly religious have some sort of holy force field around them that makes them immune from scrutiny and even legal obligation.
It really isn’t hard to agree with Dawkins here. He has two issues. One is that religious people do not feel it is necessary to defend their ideas in the face of other ideas. They are offended when required to do so. The other is that religious behavior is extended all kinds of respect even when it absolutely does not deserve it.
I’ve grated against these frustrating practices myself. And I’ve experienced some of the ridicule that Dawkins has faced. When I’ve called certain well-known and flamboyant evangelists to task for their astonishing abuses, I’ve been rebuked and vilified for the trouble. I could almost see the shimmering shekinah force field. The common response to me has been the ubiquitous, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.”
I should pause a moment to address that particularly widespread and ridiculous misuse of the Bible. When I ask the fiery-eyed quoters of this passage if they know where it came from, I usually meet with a blank expression. I remind them that it is a quotation from David, who was a Jewish guerilla war leader at the time he said it and who basically argued that it would be wrong for him to commit regicide among his own people (as in assassinate his own king, 1 Sam. 24:1-15). That’s when I lose my audience. They can’t make the connection between the explanation for the quote and the way in which they have heard the passage used again and again. And that illustrates the problem. The quote has absolutely nothing to do with preachers and so-called religious authority. Nothing. Nada. Zippo, if you prefer.
But that doesn’t stop such people. You can be as calm and rational as you like, and as respectful of them as individuals, but touch on certain untouchable “holy” ideas and, rather than engage in discussion, a scripture-breathing puppet bursts out of their chests shouting lethal doses of Old Testament that are supposed to strike you dumb, singe your hair and paralyze your limbs.
With regard to irrational protection of religion, why should any preacher, church or religious organization enjoy tax-exempt status if it cannot demonstrate a significant material charitable contribution to its community? For tax-exemption, they should be held to the same standard as other non-profit charitable institutions, which is, I believe, a documented twenty percent of their in-take. If a religious organization is not a strong giving organization, helping the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged, then is it anything more than a social club with mutual member benefits paid for by dues commonly referred to as “the tithe”?
I know this sort of thing is not to people’s liking, but it seems tragic that good people stand by and allow religious abuses to go on without question. Martin Luther would not stand for it in the sixteenth century and is regarded as a hero by those who embrace his courage. Perhaps that particular brand of courage is not available at the altar today.
Too many people have drunk their own flavor of religious Kool-Aid. Is it possible to be devout without being duped? I believe it is. Dawkins the atheist states that he cannot extend undue respect to religious entities. Theists should be even more circumspect. Why? Because they should know better.