More on not mocking people’s religious beliefs

If we are to judge people, we should do so based on how they live, not on the basis of forbidding religious beliefs we presume them to hold.

I want to endorse the notion that we don’t mock other people’s religious beliefs. Viewing any major religious tradition from the outside, jeering onlookers have no difficulties finding elements which appear terrible or implausible. Every single holy text with which I am familiar (admittedly a small set) includes intertwined strands of the ugly and the humane, not to mention the peculiar. Every established church or religious authority combines ugly and humane elements, as well. Because religion is so intimate to our humanity, this is hardly surprising.

There’s a place for emphatic atheists and others to note the human and intellectual shortcomings of organized religion, religious dogma, and the implicit and often-troubling premises of religious belief. One should honor (and learn from) Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud, John Stuart Mill, and many others for forthrightly pursuing this agenda. This path was a lot braver 70 years ago and more than it is today.

Viewing these same traditions and texts from the inside, intelligent people are not blind to these difficulties and contradictions, and do their best to navigate them. People work, imperfectly, to improve these traditions. People navigate these contradictions, imperfectly, in their own lives.

If we are to judge people, we should do so based on how they live, not on the basis of forbidding religious beliefs we presume them to hold. Latter Day Saints, the immediate subjects of Mark’s post, provide an excellent case in point. The LDS adherents I know live quite admirable lives. They help each other. They are generous neighbors. Many have complicated personal views regarding problematic positions one associates with their church.

I was reminded of this Friday night when I went on a work visit with Ceasefire violence interrupters in Chicago’s East Garfield Park. It’s a tough, low-income neighborhood. I stood out like a sore thumb. When I stopped at a traffic light nearing the office, some guys walked over and started banging on my car door. I and a graduate student accompanied Ceasefire interrupters to a local basketball tournament. Interrupters were there to ensure that no on-the-court or off-the-court fights marred the family event or led to something worse.

As I munched on a hot dog and chatted up Ceasefire staff, I met some conspicuously buoyant and clean-cut white families associated with Breakthrough Urban Ministries. I spoke with a leader and with a volunteer associated with Breakthrough, which supports the tournament and many social services in the local community. Both people I spoke with have homes within walking distance of the basketball tournament.

One volunteer works in Wilmette. He, his wife, and their toddler just moved in, a few blocks away. I asked him, with awkward humor, whether he chose that spot to shorten his commute. He just said “Christ wants me to be here.”

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

25 thoughts on “More on not mocking people’s religious beliefs”

  1. I had a couple of Mormon friends in high school…I, too, was impressed by many things about the Mormon community. However there were a lot of notably bad things, too. There was, to my mind and the minds of many others, a certain quasi-cultishness in play. Worse IMHO–though I know that it has become highly unfashionable/politically incorrect to express concerns about overpopulation–was their project of intentional over-reproduction. Whatever individual Mormons might think/intend, the institutional motivation is clearly to embiggen the church in the most efficient known way. This strategy is, of course, endorsed by other religions as well, so those religions should also be criticized.

    Not mocking: good. Not criticizing/judging…well…not so good, IMHO. Some beliefs (including religious ones) are irrational; some are downright evil. But I agree that we should tread lightly, err on the side of tolerance and caution, recognize that many of us live in our own philosophical glass houses and so forth.

    I’m basically an atheist, incidentally, though let me say that, for my money, the currently-most-irritating kids on the block are Dawkins and (especially) this Sam Harris fellow, who desperately needs a philosophy 101 course (though I understand that, somehow, he has a B.A. in the subject…) Just as a side note: nothing makes people more sympathetic to religious belief than dogmatic, sophomoric criticism thereof.

  2. I’d be no more apt to ridicule your volunteer in Wilmette had he’d said: “Reagan wants me to be here.” Both beliefs are ridiculous, yet it would obviously be unwise to say so under the circumstances. That has nothing to do with whether the belief is religious. Religious beliefs don’t need, and shouldn’t receive, special dispensation.

  3. Mormons believe that an old man named Thomas S. Monson and twelve other men (the “Apostles”)are prophets who talk to God and communicate his word to human beings. Do you think a man who believes that Mr Monson knows the word of God will do what the American people think is right, or what God thinks is right?

    You may remember that John F. Kennedy took pains to reassure the American people that he would not take orders from the Pope. That was a legitimate concern then, and it’s a legitimate concern now. After all, who needs to listen to voters when you know God’s will? But somehow in the last 50 years we’ve all been persuaded that its somehow impolite to point out that many religions are totalitarian organizations that have contempt for democracy.

  4. A problematic test case would be, say, Scientology. I’d be very uncomfortable electing a Scientologist. First, I’d wonder: how stupid/gullible to you have to be to fall for their recruitment pitch? Second, given how much power the Church reportedly has over adherents’ lives (and how it uses that power to advance itself) doesn’t that give L. Ron Hubbard a thumb on the public policy scales? And neither of those thoughts would trigger my UU-trained instinct for radical tolerance.

    But replace “Scientologist” with “Mormon” or “Catholic” and you could have an argument of the same form—crazy beliefs and divided loyalty—that is clearly inappropriate.

    Perhaps a key distinction is simply that Mormons and Catholics are (largely) raised in the faith, whereas Scientologists are (as far as I know) mostly converts. But maybe I’m just making excuses in order to relabel my anti-scientology bias as “common sense” instead of “bigotry”.

  5. Bloix, I agree with your comment, but I don’t like the implications of your question, “After all, who needs to listen to voters when you know God’s will?” Our leaders should not necessarily listen to voters. The presumption should be that we elected them because they are better informed and exercise better judgment than us. Your question should be, “After all, who needs to listen to reason, science, or the law (including, of course, the Constitution) when you know God’s will?”

  6. Note that there are two separate questions being conflated here. First (the subject of the post), how we should speak about others’ religions. Second, how, as citizens of a secular republic, we should allow a candidate’s adherence to a particular religion to affect our vote–which depends both on the religion and the nature of the adherence. And you don’t have to belong to a “top-down” religion for the adherence to matter: I don’t view Romney’s LDS membership as anywhere near as problematic as what Lieberman’s religious commitments seem to have led him to in foreign policy.

  7. My views on religion, atheistic, are probably less respected that those of any religion no matter what they might believe. No admitted atheist could be elected as president. Religious people demand that atheists show them respect, but show atheists none. Instead there is a constant attempt at conversion to whatever religion that group believes.

    Politeness? Yes. Respect? No.

  8. > First (the subject of the post), how we should speak about others’ religions

    I read the post as “don’t mock religious beliefs HERE ON THIS BLOG” which seems a reasonable request since it’s their blog and their rules.

    If I misunderstood and the point was “don’t mock religious beliefs ANYWHERE” then that opens up a big topic that is endlessly debated within the atheist community and I don’t think this short post and these few comments will resolve it 🙂

  9. All beliefs should be held to the same standard of plausibility. If I say something silly and insupportable and provably wrong about macroeconomics, I should get laughed at and loudly, clearly, discredited. If I say the earth is 6000 years old, I should get exactly the same treatment. If I say the sun revolves around the earth, and there are people who do, I should get exactly the same treatment. You can’t cordon off an area of belief and declare that on <i<this side of the velvet rope, it’s not OK to make fun of superstition, only on that side.

  10. To reitierate some of what I said to Mark’s Initial post: it seems to me lately that overt religiosity is one of the surest predictors (in an inividual, an organization, a cause) of evil in all its banality. I am tempted to wonder why there hasn’t been a lot of research correlating religiosity with moral development (or lack thereof) and ethical behavior. But I realize that a researcher who brought in the “wrong” answers to such questions would be professionally crucified by the faithful — reinforcing my intitial suspicion. Yet, some of the sweetest, most decent, even heroic people in my acquaintance have been quietly religious. And this fact moves me to more tolerance than I might rationally justify.

    Still I think that candidates ought to all take a cue from Kierkegaard and say, “‘The strength of religious conviction is inversely proportional to its publicity’ therefore my religious beliefs are nobody’s business.’” To the degree the candidate espouses any religious belief whatsoever, those claims are absolutely fair game; in fact they should be regarded as crucial to the evaluation of the candidate’s judgment, ethicality, hypocrisy, and intlligence.

    Almost all of us make a leap of faith somewhere (even empiricism is one)but “Faiths” (“Sunday Beliefs” as mark put sit) get a special dispensation they don’t deserve. Beliefs in the face of or absence of evidence are also prejudice, and they should not be bowdlerized into something loftier. Insofar as your prejudice makes you more humane, ethical, self-restrained and tolerant (as some Faiths do — for some)it should be tolerated by others. Insofar as your prejudice (typically in emulation of the Big Bigot in the sky) posits some good higher than fairness, merit, and truth it should be pissed on from a great height. Ridicule, however prone to abuse it may be, is one of the most effective non-violent tools we have for shaping behavior and shaming error. We should not hesitate to use it on educated adults who still insist upon magic, miracles and monsters. Never forget: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. History has confirmed this many times since Volaire formulated it.

  11. Come on, Harold, it is completely unethical to bring up this sort of thing

    One volunteer works in Wilmette. He, his wife, and their toddler just moved in, a few blocks away. I asked him, with awkward humor, whether he chose that spot to shorten his commute. He just said “Christ wants me to be here.”

    without mentioning that, oh, BTW, Christ ALSO wanted the Spaniards to be in the Americas. He wanted those on the wrong side (Protestant or Catholic) to burn rather than corrupt those around them. He also wanted Prop 8 passed — and worse in places like Uganda. etc etc etc.

    You are being completely disingenuous to try to imply that those who are opposed to religion think so because we dislike the “helping each other” part of it, and that we’re just a**holes with no real justification behind our opposition.

  12. Saying, “we don’t mock other people’s religious beliefs,” does not imply that we shouldn’t disagree with them. We can and should disagree with them, but we should do so courteously. As a Jew, I have no problem discussing my beliefs with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, or anybody else, as long as it’s done in a respectful manner. (Being a lover of wisecracks, it’s sometimes more of a problem for me than for others.) At the end of the day, such discussions help us know each other better, and help all involved give up stereotypes of each other.

    This guideline is really just about using good manners to help us understand each other.

  13. So it’s GOOD manners to mock the secular foolishness of religious people, but it’s BAD manners to mock their religious foolishness? OK to point laugh at the hypocrisy, for example, of an elite celebrity like Sarah Palin when she casts herself as a populist? Not OK to laugh at her belief in witches?

    I’m sorry, I don’t see point in this distinction.

  14. Maynard:
    ***
    Come on, Harold, it is completely unethical to bring up this sort of thing
    ”
    One volunteer works in Wilmette. He, his wife, and their toddler just moved in, a few blocks away. I asked him, with awkward humor, whether he chose that spot to shorten his commute. He just said “Christ wants me to be here.”
    ”
    without mentioning that, oh, BTW, Christ ALSO wanted the Spaniards to be in the Americas. He wanted those on the wrong side (Protestant or Catholic) to burn rather than corrupt those around them. He also wanted Prop 8 passed — and worse in places like Uganda. etc etc etc.

    You are being completely disingenuous to try to imply that those who are opposed to religion think so because we dislike the “helping each other” part of it, and that we’re just a**holes with no real justification behind our opposition.
    ***

    I myself am an unbeliever, and I honor Freud, Russell, and many others who traveled the same path.

    I just think we should evaluate people based on how they treat others and respect the complexity of most people’s views and motivations. If someone’s vision of Christ leads him to mistreat others, I should oppose him. If someone’s vision of Christ leads to self-sacrifice in effective help for others, he’s earned my respect, and my best course is probably to find a way to help.

  15. Don, the point in the distinction is that religious beliefs generally are insane, but that doesn’t make everyone who holds them insane. Belief in God and belief in Santa Clause, for example, are both insane, yet we do not consider everyone who believes in God insane, whereas we do consider adults who believe in Santa Claus insane. That is because the former belief is religious, whereas the latter is secular.

    Belief that the earth is 4,000 years old (or however many years old Christian fundamentalists claim it to be) can be both a religious and secular belief. If a person believes it only as a religious belief (i.e., while in church), then, when he is not in church, he might function as a competent geologist, and we’d call him sane. If he believes it as a secular belief, however, and wants to ban textbooks that teach real science, then he is insane.

  16. Harold, did you ask you ask the volunteer’s views on gay marriage (or, to take a different subject, the role of the state in providing a social safety net)?
    Do you think the good he is doing by volunteering outweighs the bad (I strongly suspect) he is doing in these other cases?

    You wish to ascribe to his religion proclivities that, I strongly suspect, are rather more inherent in his personality. After all, there are Buddhist women’s shelters, there are secular Peace Corps volunteers etc. I think it’s far more fair to ascribe to the religion the intolerances and warpings that we see in such people — people who appear to be decent and salt of the earth, UNTIL the right flash-point issue is raised.

  17. Religious beliefs don’t need, and shouldn’t receive, special dispensation

    Sounds great. Certainly much better than the amazing special hostility that they face now. (For example, the courts have widely (counter to both sense and precedent) held that religiously-motivated views are arbitrary, while (e.g.) utilitarian views are not. They are equally unproveble, so if neither counted as arbitrary that would be a great improvement.)

  18. Yeah, Sam, that tax exemption for churches, not to mention similar dispensations (eg special municipal parking rules on Sundays, clearly for the benefit of churches, though never stated as such) show real hostility.

  19. Maynard,

    I have been a public health researcher for almost 20 years now. I’ve worked with all kinds of people who disagree with me about all sorts of things. I’ve done well following a few guideposts. First, I try to meet people where they are at. If you are trying to prevent kids from getting shot or drug users from getting AIDS, the most important thing is to find areas of common agreement and purpose. That’s a lot more important than finding areas on which we disagree. Second, if one wants to change people’s minds about difficult matters such as gay marriage, the best path is to approach them in a spirit of mutual respect and build a relationship that gives people a reason to take seriously what you say.

  20. Let’s be clear: religious people are hugely privileged in our society in contrast to the irreligious. This thinking infects every aspect of Americans’ lives, from school (where applying rigorous intellectual scrutiny to religious belief is strictly off limits) to politics (the difficulty of electing an avowed atheist to any major office) to ethics and morality (where the views of religious leaders are constantly sought or attended to) to the media (any atheist advertising message is considered an affront to the religious; no one would consider a religious message an affront to atheism, or care if it was) to legal proceedings (the assumption that the overtly religious are better equipped to raise children than their atheist counterparts). I fail to see why I should also be forced to pretend that these beliefs are worthy of anything other than ridicule (at best) or contempt (more often).

  21. If I refused to vote for people who are members of religions that have irrational beliefs I would not have anyone to vote for at all. However, like commenter BM I cannot imagine voting for a Scientologist because I would wonder how irrational, gullible, and/or stupid that person was. Yet I might hesistate but would not rule out voting for someone who was raised Mormon even though their creation story and founder are also very problematic as is the cult-like secrecy of their religion. To me the big difference is that most Scientologists joined this new religion as adults. Mormons have been around long enough to have established a large organization with a distinct culture but have also integrated themselves into the larger American culture. When someone grows up in a religion like that, rejecting it involves a lot more than just disavowing beliefs, it requires breaking with the community and family you grew up with. Many people just accept the positive things about their religion – emphasis on community, morals, ritual, etc. – and ignore the rest. While this is not acceptable to me, I know many decent, intelligent people who function in this way.

    Having been raised in a devout Catholic family, I know a lot of practicing Catholics who stay in the church because of these things and just ignore those teachings that they object to. For example, the vast majority of Catholics do not accept the Church’s teaching on birth control. My father once said he didn’t think anyone he knew believed that the communion host was really the body of Jesus, considering the way they gossiped and cut people off in the parking lot right after going to mass.

  22. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with religious people doing good things for reasons that make no sense to me. They’re to be encouraged, and atheists should do good things side by side with them. This will have the good side effect of letting them see that atheists aren’t nihilistic cannibals or whatever they think we are.

    But they don’t get to promote a crazy idea unchallenged, on the grounds that religious ideas shouldn’t be disrespected. I have no such privilege and neither do they.

  23. “Maynard,

    I have been a public health researcher for almost 20 years now. I’ve worked with all kinds of people who disagree with me about all sorts of things. I’ve done well following a few guideposts. First, I try to meet people where they are at. If you are trying to prevent kids from getting shot or drug users from getting AIDS, the most important thing is to find areas of common agreement and purpose. That’s a lot more important than finding areas on which we disagree. Second, if one wants to change people’s minds about difficult matters such as gay marriage, the best path is to approach them in a spirit of mutual respect and build a relationship that gives people a reason to take seriously what you say.

    Harold, I agree with you. I try to be a polite person (though, as some of my comments will show, it’s sometimes hard, especially when all one sees is the [foolish] words of another).
    But you’re missing my point, which is simply that: if the issue is “credit where credit is due”, I think you’re being scattershot and erroneous in where you’re assigning credit.

  24. It seems like Mormons have been doing a lot more to inject themselves into the public discourse lately, both in the presidential election with two candidates, and they were a major factor in passing amendment eight in California, and if you want to tell people how to tell people how to live they are going to look more closely at you. The other reason mocking Mormons is sort of OK is that most Christians seem to really hate them, almost every evangelical I know can spout off about Mormons, in fact I would argue they may hate Mormons more than gays and perhaps even more than atheists.

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