Why Does Religion Always Get a Free Ride?

    By Greta Christina | 29 April 2012

    Image: Malenkov via Flickr

    Why should religion, alone among all other kinds of ideas, be free from attempts to persuade people out of it?

    We try to persuade people out of ideas all the time. We try to persuade people that their ideas about science, politics, philosophy, art, medicine, and more, are wrong: that they’re harmful, ridiculous, repulsive, or simply mistaken. But when it comes to religion, trying to persuade people out of their ideas is somehow seen as horribly rude at best, invasive and bigoted and intolerant at worst. Why? Why should religion be the exception?

    I’ve been writing about atheism for about six years now. In those six years, I’ve asked this question more times and not once have I gotten a satisfying answer. In fact, only once do I recall getting any answer at all. Besides that one exception, what I’ve gotten in response has been crickets chirping and tumbleweeds blowing by. I’ve been ignored, I’ve had the subject changed, I’ve had people get personally nasty, I’ve had people abandon the conversation altogether. But only once have I ever gotten any kind of actual answer. And that answer sucked. (I’ll get to it in a bit.) I’ve heard lots of people tell me, at length and with great passion, that trying to persuade people out of their religion is bad and wrong and mean… but I haven’t seen a single real argument explaining why this is such a terrible thing to do with religion, and yet is somehow perfectly okay to do with all other ideas.

    So I want to get to the heart of this matter. Why should religion be treated differently from all other kinds of ideas? Why shouldn’t we criticize it, and make fun of it, and try to persuade people out of it, the way we do with every other kind of idea?

    In a free society, in the marketplace of ideas, we try to persuade people out of ideas all the time. We criticize ideas we disagree with; we question ideas we find puzzling; we excoriate ideas we find repugnant; we make fun of ideas we think are silly. And we think this is acceptable. In fact, we think it’s positively good. We think this is how good ideas rise to the surface, and bad ideas get filtered out. We might have issues with exactly how this persuasion is carried out: is it done politely or rudely, reasonably or hysterically, did you really have to bring it up at Thanksgiving dinner, etc. But the basic idea of trying to convince other people that your ideas are right and theirs are wrong… this is not controversial.

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    1. My answer is that religion should NOT be excepted. As you correctly point out, religion is a truth claim. As such, it needs to be able to advocate for its claims, or it needs to shut up and not try to convince others to believe. And if it is going to advocate for its claims, then it MUST accept challenges to its claims. Otherwise it's juts a lot of noise from people insisting that they are right, everyone else if wrong. And that's what it almost always amounts to.

    2. I think religion is all bunk and always have but it may be callous to disregard its solemn and sacred importance to people though delusional. Just like its not fair game to criticize ones family in a political debate or tell someone their kid is funny looking. Some things are off limits. The better context is that it must be okay to challenge these ideas when they arre used to justify political or government or other types of societal action or inaction.

    3. I have a question about my particular area of focus, why does Alcoholics Anonymous claim the same kind of hands off approach that is reserved for religions while claiming to be "spiritual not religious"? A simple examination shows that it is not only religious, but a free standing religion.

    4. I think there are two reasons most people won't try to convince others that religion is incorrect. One you pointed out yourself. Too many people tie their personal identities very deeply to their religious and become violently angry when you challenge them, or start arguing that if 'you're' right and their religion is a lie, what about their grandparents, does that mean they're not in heaven, etc. Which leads me to the second reason most of us won't go out of our way to argue that any generic set of beliefs are wrong if they are not being directly tied to bigotry or something of that nature at that particular time. People don't use their minds when they 'believe' in something, If you didn't reason your way into it, most people can't or won't reason their way out of it. It just turns into an ugly, ugly situation and of course the atheist is 'always' the bad guy for daring to point out the insanity of believing in invisible sky daddies or three parts equal one whole god, or what have you. So I guess it's more a case of picking your battles and knowing the company you're keeping and how they are going to react.


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