07 August 2012

Religion isn't faring well in the marketplace of ideas

Here's some food for thought:

What do you call someone who mocks something the church considers sacred? You guessed it – a blasphemer.

What do you call someone who questions or openly criticizes church doctrine? You guessed it – a heretic.

What about someone who abandons the church for either another church or no church at all? You guessed it – an apostate.

Now, think about someone who openly questions, criticizes or mocks a political ideology. What's the name for that? Can you think of one? What about someone who changes political parties? Or maybe you can think of a name for someone who changes their mind about a philosophical issue, or a scientific one. I sure can't, though.

Religion has such a rich history of suppressing critical inquiry that it actually has names that marginalize people with dissenting views. These aren't innocuous labels, either; for most of religion's history, being labeled a heretic, apostate or blasphemer was sure grounds for imprisonment, torture, exile or execution. A long trail of blood and corpses has been left in the wake of accusations of host desecration – blasphemy of a fucking cracker.


I remember watch Piers Morgan's interviews with Ricky Gervais and Penn Jillette; in each case, Piers pressed them on the idea that they were 'mocking' religion. And in both cases, they shied away from saying they did. But I imagine that if it were me in that interview, I would turn the question around: what is wrong with mocking religion? Not that I want to get fixated on mockery here, but I think there are plenty of religious beliefs and practices that are so utterly ridiculous that they are fully worthy of mockery. 

And I think all religious ideas are deserving of the same critical inquiry to which we would subject any idea. Religion has, for most of human history, constructed ways to shield itself from inquiry, whether through insular communities, the demonization of outsiders, or the marginalization and persecution of dissenters. But now, in the age of the internet, as we have unprecedented access to contrary views of all imaginable stripes, it's becoming increasingly difficult for religions to shield themselves from criticism and doubt.

The result does not bode well for religion: non-believers are the fastest-growing 'religious' subset in the industrialized world; young people are increasingly skeptical, and are leaving the church in droves; and even among those who remain religious, surveys show that its significance continues to diminish. And why would we expect anything less? If any religion's claims were true, its followers would have nothing to fear from skeptical juxtapositions with dissenting views.

For my part, I've embraced my non-belief for what it is. Apostate. Heretic. Blasphemer. And proud of it!

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