On the Religion Excuse for Bigotry and Intolerance

In The Battle for God Karen Armstrong makes a compelling case for secular tolerance of religion.[1]  She sets out to explain the global rise of public violence by adherents to fundamentalist interpretations of the world’s major religions during the waning decades of the 20th Century.  Her basic argument is that the success of rational secularism (roughly, science) has led many people (i.e., both the rational secularists and the fundamentalists) to interpret religious texts literally, despite the fact that they are allegorical, mythical tales.  In other words, fundamentalism is the bitter fruit of the hegemonic success of scientific reasoning, and political conflict–which inevitably entails public violence–naturally follows.  The implication of her argument: chillax, you frigging science lovers, stop being so literal and embrace some tolerance.  You are getting people killed.[2]

One can find a similar dialectic process in Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights: A History.[3] Hunt offers a highly readable account of the remarkable political success of rights rhetoric since the 1780s, and highlights the backlash each success produced.   The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that have been sweeping state legislatures across the US in recent years and the stories about male Orthodox Jews refusing to sit next to women on airplanes (e.g., here and here) are but two contemporary illustrations of such backlash: the fact that the terms of debate are religious “rights” demonstrates the hegemonic success of the rights project.

Let’s explore the arguments being advanced by the advocates of the religious right to bigotry and intolerance.

My literal interpretation of my religion’s teachings leads me to be uncomfortable around certain human beings, and I have a “religious right” to not be made uncomfortable.

That their literal interpretation of the religion is the problem, not the human being they are uncomfortable with, does not occur to them.  Further, the assertion of a “religious right” is empty sloganeering that grafts the hegemonic language while abandoning its accompanying logic.  That rhetorical move is as old as political rhetoric itself, and has persisted forever because it is effective among the anointed.[4]

So what is a rational secularist, a science lover, a humanist to do?  First, we need to double down and embrace tolerance.  Tolerance is difficult, especially in the face of righteous bigotry and intolerance.  Consult Gandhi or Martin Luther King.  

I especially want to endorse Armstrong’s idea that we embrace diversity in cognitive styles and the variety of means human beings pursue to find meaning on this cold orb.  That one finds comfort in deities has never made an iota of sense to me since I was first exposed to the notion as a child.  But I have long been accustomed to the understanding that not everyone thinks like I do.  And religious beliefs patently give meaning to large swaths of humanity.  Sure, there is no shortage of charlatans and opportunists among politicians and religious leaders, but one can find plenty among any other collection of human beings.

Mysticism, faith in deity, and appeal to allegory and myth have assisted the success of our species for all of recorded history, and certainly long before then.  Casting it aside would not only be foolhardy, but doing so beyond a personal decision is also antithetical to rights and tolerance. We must consistently and vigorously challenge bigotry and intolerance, and unmask the rhetorical shenanigans in defense of them.  But historical political forces are interactive: one need not subscribe to dialectical theorizing to appreciate that.  Religion is here to stay, for at least the medium run, but I would guess the long, long run.  Embracing tolerance is an important challenge that those of us on the rational secular side can do better.


[1] You can read the Introduction to her book here.

[2] Though Armstrong is happy to be provocative, she does not spell out the implications that way.  I am.

[3] You can find reviews here and here.

[4] See, for example, the American idiom preaching to the choir.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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