Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Agnostic Argument - 9 (The Shibboleth For Rationalism Versus Bigotry)

Thanks to the Cory Bernardi affair, I have now understood how to identify a bigot.

But let me first rewind to a few days back, when one of my friends read a previous entry on this blog and remarked that anti-religious people could be as dangerous as religious fanatics. I was struck by that remark, because although it seemed plausible, I was sure it was not true. However, I couldn't prove my hypothesis in any convincing way. After all, the murderous Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were atheists, and they had more blood on their hands than the holiest inquisitionist or conquistador, and could give the various Islamic conquerors of India a run for their money.

That problem was stewing in my mind when the Cory Bernardi affair broke, and I suddenly had not one, but two, data points to help me find a resolution.

The better-known episode is the one that triggered Bernardi's resignation (or more accurately, his sacking). For those who don't follow Australian politics, Cory Bernardi is a conservative politician belonging to the opposition Liberal and National Party (LNP) and until recently a Parliamentary Secretary. In a recent debate in parliament over whether to liberalise gay marriage (the motion failed to pass, by the way), Bernardi made a speech against it, where he suggested that legalising gay marriage would open the doors to polygamy and bestiality.

This was too much for a lot of people, and LNP leader Tony Abbott relieved him of his position of Parliamentary Secretary for reasons of indiscipline. [My cynical take on this given Abbott's own strongly conservative views is that "discipline" for Abbott means not revealing your cards until after you've won election!]

There's also a recent but lesser-known episode that revealed the mind of Bernardi. After the weekend protests by Muslims in Sydney that turned violent, Bernardi said 

They [those who support immigration] proclaim multiculturalism as a triumph of tolerance when in fact it undermines the cultural values and cohesiveness that brings a nation together.  Our culture is built upon the two great pillars of Western civilisation – the rule of law and Judeo-Christian values. To allow these great strengths to be undermined by supporting calls for any form of legal plurality or the indulgence of cultural practices that go against our social norms is to abandon reason.

Can you see a pattern here?

In his statement after the Muslim protests, his resort to the line about Judeo-Christian values immediately leapt out at me, since I am neither Muslim nor Judeo-Christian. Rather than try to analyse the situation and isolate the cause of the violent protests by asking, for example, if it was Muslim youth who were primarily involved, and if so, if it was unemployed Muslim youth, and so on, which could have led to some meaningful insights and a policy direction, he went in the opposite direction. Now he seemed to be tarring Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and all those who weren't part of the "Judeo-Christian value system".

Bigot alert!

[Aside: Rajiv Malhotra has the interesting opinion that Bernardi's "two pillars of Western civilisation" are actually at odds with each other. The Hellenic tradition of reason (the rule of law) conflicts with the Hebraic tradition of religion (Judeo-Christian values). That's why European history demonstrates such a tortuous path towards the separation of church and state. The two "pillars of Western civilisation" have to be kept apart like squabbling children.]

And that's exactly what Bernardi did again on the gay marriage debate. A rationalist would see the debate as one over whether an individual adult human being has a right to have their commitment to another adult human being recognised by law. That's what the gay marriage bill is about. To be perfectly fair, this definition leaves the door open to polygamy, but not to bestiality (or paedophilia, as one of his supporters suggested). And with the reference to bestiality, Bernardi crossed the line once more.

Again, bigot alert!

[The reason why the acceptance of gay marriage could lead to calls for the legalisation of polygamy, but not paedophilia or bestiality is that homosexuality and polygamy involve consenting adults. The other two do not, and so there is no slippery slope, as he tried to argue.]

And that finally gave me the shibboleth I needed to distinguish a rationalist from a bigot. A rationalist tries to narrow the argument to understand the core issue or principle being debated. A bigot unjustifiably widens the argument to advance a preconceived position.

Here's an example of how one could twist facts to make any case one wants. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)

The bottle is the only thing in the picture that holds water

And so, coming back to my original question of whether an anti-religious person is as dangerous as a religious fanatic, it's not enough to say that a person is "anti-religious". Why are they anti-religion? That reason is key. There could be individuals fuelled by a dogma that is anti-religious, such as Communism. Communist ideologues would use any opportunity to blame religion by conflating issues to implicate it. That's bigotry.

On the contrary, a rationalist who is anti-religion arrives at that position after homing in on the core issue or issues with religion. In my case, there are 3 specific reasons why I oppose religion:

1. While there seem to be a few exceptions, religions generally exalt faith over reason. It always scares me to hear that someone is religious because I understand that to mean their actions are not directed by reason. Once people suspend reason, they can do irrational and horrific things.

2. The positive aspects of religion are not original. They can be independently derived from secular ethics as well. "Be truthful and honest", "don't harm others", "be compassionate towards others", etc., sound like secular common sense to me. Atheists believe in goodness too, so goodness is not an exclusive contribution of religion.

3. Many of the original aspects of religions are entirely negative. They are not justifiable either by reason or by ethics, e.g,. superstitions, cruel and demeaning practices, interference in aspects of personal life that don't concern others, such as a curious obsession with controlling the sexual behaviour of adult human beings, etc.

[There is an old Soviet joke about the two official Russian newspapers - Pravda (Truth) and Izvestia (News): "There is no pravda in Izvestia and no izvestia in Pravda." Similarly, religion offers nothing original that is positive and nothing positive that is original.]

The "best" religion, in my opinion, would be one that prescribed behaviour consistent with secular ethics, refrained from introducing superstition and needlessly intrusive regulation of personal behaviour, and encouraged free thought. I would gladly follow such a religion.

Come to think of it, such a "religion" exists, and it's called by a variety of names - rationalism, scientific thinking, agnosticism, etc. :-).

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