You can hardly go a week these days without some sort of dustup over religious issues making the news. Whether it’s that duck guy making homophobic comments, or some high school coach getting reprimanded for making his players pray, or some public official putting up a Ten Commandments monument at the county courthouse, or state legislatures going out of their way to give legal encouragement to discrimination against homosexuals, these issues come up in a steady drumbeat. And whenever society, or the law, moves away from what evangelical fundamentalists want, or criticizes the fundamentalist position, religious leaders seem to love to scream “persecution!”
But that’s not what it is.
You see, on a certain level religions are collections of ideas. They tend to be collections gathered together under a single label and assigned a supernatural source, but basically they’re just ideas. Some of the ideas are good, and some of them are bad. And when someone evaluates one of the ideas contained in your religion, and decides it’s a bad idea and ought to be prevented from being put into general practice among people who don’t share the belief, that doesn’t mean they’re persecuting you. It just means that they don’t consider some ideas to have some special claim to immunity from evaluation simply because they’re religious.
If I think, for example, that persecuting homosexuals is a bad idea, I don’t particularly care if the reason you do it is because gay makes you feel icky, or because you have the ignorant notion that everybody will otherwise turn gay and doom the species, or because your religion tells you to. Going out of your way to make other people miserable when they’re not doing anything that actually hurts anyone is just a bad idea. I will oppose it; not because I’m opposed to religious people, but because I’m opposed to persecuting people.
Likewise, I regard treating other people with kindness and respect as a good idea. If your religion tells you to do that, you won’t find me opposing you in the exercise of that idea. Because whether you believe your god of choice wants you to do it, or because you just happen to share empathy with your fellow human beings, treating others well is kind of a good idea.
There are many examples I could give. I think demonizing sex and sex education, opposing science education, putting the government in the bedrooms of consenting adults, slavery, using government authority to pressure people into accepting a particular religion, and teaching people that they are inherently vile are all bad ideas. I think generosity, kindness, promoting education, and promoting community are all good ideas. All of those have been put forward by some religious denomination or another in recent memory, and I really don’t care: each idea is good or it’s bad based on its own merits, not whether it came out of a religion.
I see real problems with the practice of packaging vast swaths of ideas together and treating them like a monolithic whole. It creates a situation where two people can agree on 99% of their values, but become wholly incapable of discussing the 1% where they disagree without each feeling like the other is attacking their entire world view. There’s no logical connection between “love thy neighbor,” and “evolution doesn’t happen.” But because both those ideas got packaged into the same religion, you have people honestly making the argument that people who don’t believe the former somehow can’t follow the latter either because they’re immoral. The religion creates an artificial and divisive link between the ideas.
I understand, really, that if you accept a religion then it’s hard to see criticism of a particular idea that it espouses as not being an attack on the religion itself. Most religions seem to encourage that view. But those of us on the outside, we really don’t see it that way. We see the individual ideas, and believe they ought to stand or fall on their own. Many antireligious arguments are aimed at getting people to see past the artificial linking of those ideas, so that the ones we see as harmful can cease to be propped up by the ones we see as beneficial.
This isn’t done to persecute religious believers. It’s done because in a society based on religious freedom, an idea that is propped up only by a particular religion cannot be forced on those in society who do not share that religion.