February 19, 2008

Edges of Religious Bigotry

Scourge of Scientology dies in apparent suicide

Now that’s not shady at all. This is a fellow who created a documentary show for his public access cable channel, and angered more than a few scientologists in the process. He was even “battered’ at one point, while he was filming.

They called Lonsdale’s employer at a title company and his landlord and said that Lonsdale was a religious bigot, possibly dangerous.

If you disagree with the tactics of Scientologists, you’re a religious bigot? Really? I mean, seriously. L. Ron Hubbard said that if you want real money, you have to make up your own religion. Where’s that quote? Here it is on Wikiquote. So, he decided to do that.

If you make up a religion, should people be labeled as “bigots” if they oppose the activities of an organization they disagree with?

The answer is “no.”

I’ll restate it for clarity: Opposing the actions of an organization that calls itself “religious” does not make a person a bigot. Actions are part of the observable world, and are subject to evaluation on their merits alone. You are not a bigot if you oppose an action.

I think we all agree that we wouldn’t respect an organization if its stated goals were to oppress some other group. If they couch that activity in religion, it doesn’t make it any better. Certain fundamentalist Muslim organizations have a radical and violent agenda. Are we bigots if we openly disagree with those beliefs, and even work to oppose the activities of such a group? No.

If we agree on that, does it only apply to a violent agenda? I shouldn’t think so. If your disagreement is based in reality, it’s a rational objection, then it’s not bigotry. If you disagree with some of the ideas the organization espouses, that’s also a disagreement based on reality.

So, what do I think is religious bigotry? That’s easy. Like other bigotry it’s when you discriminate against an individual because of some group affiliation. here are some bigoted statements:

  • “I refuse to have an Arab in my house.”
  • “I will not hire a Jew.”
  • “I refuse to ride in an elevator with a Scientologist.”
  • “Christians have an anti-science agenda.”

That last one is tricky. I’m generalizing, so I’m applying my opinion to all Christians. That’s a problem, because it’s inaccurate and unfair. If I was trying to make a rational point with that comment, I should try to be much more precise, accurate and fair. Even if I make a comment that hurts feelings, if it is defensible as accurate and fair, it can be argued that there is value in the comment.

Not bigoted:

  • “I won’t shop at that website because part of the proceeds go to the Church of Scientology.”
    • If you disagree with the activities of the Church of Scientology, you should not be expected to support them.
  • “The people I talked to from that Baptist church have some pretty backward ideas about biology. I worry about their effect on the local schools.”
    • You may feel some beliefs are detrimental to your community without being a bigot, especially when they result in policies that affect you.
  • “O’Leary was extremely rude last time he was here. I am never inviting that guy over again.”
    • O’Leary may be Irish, Black, left-handed or whatever. He was rude, you aren’t obligated to invite him over.

I’ve drawn a fairly clear line between individuals and organizations, your ideas and actions, their behavior and generalization.

But there is a borderland, of course.

Your actions against an individual, if they cause injury or are unfair and hurtful, are not just an opinion; they have a measurable effect. That will land you in the “bigotry zone” if they are motivated by a generalization.

But some organizations define themselves based on a specific behavior or idea you might find abhorrent. You might be able to defend against charges of bigotry if you think that people who believe aliens are hiding among us are not worthy of trust. And if those people form a group called “Humans Aware of Alien Presence” they’re self-identifying, and that doesn’t exempt them from your opinion. But what if a job applicant says he is a member of that group? Now you are in a situation with potential to do harm by not giving the person a fair shot at the job. Is this a grey area where your ability to be more certain of their beliefs collides with the knowledge that your actions could be unfair? Perhaps we need to err on the side of calling it bigotry if you don’t go out of your way to be fair here. Or is that, in turn, unfair to you, because it strips you of an aspect of your decision-making process?

Human Resource departments often have rules to avoid these situations altogether, by limiting what you are allowed to ask applicants. But presidential candidacies don’t. I had no problem with Romney for his Mormonism; there was plenty I disagreed about with him. I think that if I said I opposed Romney for president because of his religion, I’d have some real explaining to do to show it wasn’t for bigoted reasons, because that’s a bigoted statement1.

How about whether you decide to be a part of the Catholic Church2? Let’s say you make that decision based on the Church’s priest scandal, because the organization acted to sacrifice the security of children in an effort to avoid criticism and retribution from the law. If it’s a church, a book club, or a bunch of model airplane hobbyists you can argue that your actions are a direct consequence of their actions. There is no bigotry there, and no religious discrimination. You cannot say that this priest or that priest is a molester, but it is entirely fair to say you don’t trust the organization.

Calling someone a bigot because they don’t like the actions of the Church of Scientology is inaccurate and unfair. It attempts to protect the organization from valid criticism. And it dilutes the meaning of “religious bigotry” from an unfair treatment of an individual to meaninglessness.

1 If you had a sense that a candidate was only in a race to impose his religion on the country, or if he didn’t seem to be able to make a rational decision without making it a religious issue, you would have a real basis for questioning his judgment as a humanist.

2 I apologize to my Catholic friends for this example, not because I think the Church shouldn’t be criticized for its actions but because I think that Catholics and Priests are disproportionately criticized. I think that, as an organization, the Church deserves all the criticism it gets for its scandals, but the fact that other churches are less organized, or smaller organizations, or more splintered makes it less likely you’re going to hear about a scandal. And there’s possibly as much of a chance that some random non-Catholic cleric is taking advantage of his position as there is for a Catholic one.

Posted by James at February 19, 2008 3:18 PM
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I think that with regard to religion, people should agree to disagree and agree to respect each other's right to their beliefs. As a non-Baptist in the bible belt, it can sometimes be oppressive...there's still something that seems strange to me about hand-holding praying in restaurants. I don't have any desire to abolish it...it just doesn't seem "normal" because it isn't something I grew up with.

Posted by: Di at February 20, 2008 5:51 PM

Agreeing to disagree does not have a very successful history when it comes to religions, which generally assert that they have the only correct version of the Truth, and you need to believe it on no evidence whatsoever.

However, in the spirit of "the right to swing your fist ends when it contacts my face" I'm willing to let people swing their fists around as they see fit.

I also agree with you that one should respect others rights to their beliefs, which is a way of respecting people. However, that doesn't mean you necessarily should accord additional respect to religious beliefs in all cases. It depends on the case.

In the case (largely applicable) that people use their religious beliefs specifically to comfort themselves, I think we should definitely respect both the people and the beliefs.

However, you notice that I have a humanist reason. If you told me that ice cream made you feel better about a loved one's death, that's not a religious belief, but I would respect it (in that I would be willing to be inconvenienced if it meant you could have your ice cream in your time of need).

Posted by: James at February 20, 2008 8:23 PM

There are a few different definitions of "respect." By "respect" I think we're talking about esteeming or valuing something, holding it in high regard.

What do we mean by "belief," then? There are these definitions from dictionary.com: "confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof," and also "something believed; an opinion or conviction."

So that wouldn't mean we can believe in gravity, I guess, but can we believe in the right of all humans to life and liberty? That seems to fit.

My heuristic is to respect people, but I don't think you necessarily respect a belief. I think there's a continuum from disrespecting a belief through accepting a belief and finally respecting a belief. I do not respect the belief that a medium can tell your future by looking at your palm, but I do respect the belief that all humans have a right to life and liberty.

Taking your friend to ice cream, or letting him stop by a cemetery, or driving him to the church so he can pray would fall under caring for your friend's feelings (perhaps respecting your friend), in my opinion, but not respecting his belief. That is how I see it for myself.

Posted by: Maggie at February 20, 2008 9:48 PM

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