February 20, 2008

My Conflict Over Religious Bigotry, Part 2

If you missed the first part of this series, you can find it here. I had to re-read it to orient myself to the task of continuing with this post, however, I have the feeling that I may have gained a little clarity since then. I guess we'll see.

Am I An Anti-Christian Bigot?

I think we can all agree that anti-Christian bigotry is possible. If someone hates Christians simply because they are Christian, it is difficult to see that such a person would not qualify as an anti-Christian bigot. But are there other pathways to anti-Christian bigotry?

It seems that there are an infinite number of pathways, depending on who one asks. What if I regularly use "goddamn" when I'm upset? Would this qualify? Some Christians think so. Suppose I think that persons who believe what Christians claim to about the natural world are simply wrong. Would this make me an anti-Christian bigot? What if I actively criticize Christianity? Some would say yes; others would say no. I'm not even sure who gets to decide a question like this.

It would not surprise me to discover that a majority of Christian respondents believed I was a bigot and a majority of atheist respondents believed that I was not a bigot. But what would that signify? Should such a finding be cause for concern, for celebration, or absolutely unimportant?

Opposing Religion Does Not Equal Bigotry

It seems to me that the heart of bigotry, in all cases, involves making sweeping and unsupported generalizations about members of a group on the basis of group membership. Thus, saying something like "I hate Christians," or "Christians are stupid" reflects bigotry. On the other hand, criticizing Christianity itself and demonstrating that Christian belief is both irrational and destructive does not appear to warrant the bigotry label.

Criticism of religion typically proceeds on two independent fronts. First, one can examine the rationality or irrationality of religious belief. Such an examination reveals that religious belief is irrational because of its reliance on faith. Faith, generally accepted as the core of Christian belief, is inherently irrational in that it involves maintaining belief in something without sufficient evidence to justify the belief in question. Second, the consequences of religious belief can be examined. Most fair-minded observers would agree that religious belief has both positive and negative consequences. The key questions are whether the good outweighs the bad or whether there may be more adaptive ways of obtaining the benefits without the costs.

To the degree that such inquiry proceeds in an informed and rational manner, this sort of criticism is not bigotry. This does not mean that believers will welcome it, but the fact that they do not like it is completely irrelevant to the bigotry question. Hurting someone's feelings or even attacking their cherished beliefs is not sufficient to get us to bigotry.

I think I can respect another person without necessarily respecting everything this person believes. In fact, I know I can. I've had many close friends with political and/or religious beliefs with which I strongly disagreed. I did not respect their beliefs, but I did respect their right to hold them and even the persons who held them.

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