Thursday, March 20, 2008

Religious debate

Note: I originally wrote this when there were more candidates in the current U.S. Presidential race so it contains a few references which are slightly out of date.

In general, people often find it socially acceptable to say “I’d like to convince you that your opinion about X” is wrong where X is almost any political topic, e.g. health-care, the War in Iraq, or the minimum wage. People often find it acceptable when X is almost any non-political issue. People can argue over PC v. Mac v. Unix v. Linux. People can argue over how much of evolution is due to neutral drift and how much to selection. But there is one thing that is for many people otherwise open to vigorous debate socially unacceptable to say: “I want to convince you that your religion is wrong. You should convert to this one.”

Consider Ann Coulter’s recent book “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans.” No one batted an eye about the title but when Coulter went on CNBC and stated that she wanted all the Jews to convert to Christianity, people were shocked. This is puzzling, Coulter’s book title directly insults about half of the American public. She thinks that they are stupid for making the choices they’ve made. However, Coulter’s comments about Judaism are far more restrained; she thinks that Jews are, mistaken, in her language, not “perfected.”

This social taboo about arguing about religion is unjustified for and unproductive.

I’m aware of five arguments for this taboo. None are convincing.

The first argument runs that people are more emotionally invested in their religious opinions than their opinions about other topics. Opinions about religion are more deeply tied into personal identity. Therefore, attempts to change someone’s opinion about religion can feel like attacks on the person’s core identity. This is not really an argument for why we should have such a taboo but it is a highly plausible explanation for why such a taboo exists.

Second and related to the first argument, since religious beliefs are tied into our respective personal identities, arguments about religious opinions are much less likely to result in a change of opinion than other types of arguments. They are less productive. I doubt this is in fact the case. Consider how infrequently most people change opinions about anything even after multiple arguments and discussions about the topic.

Third, since people take religious opinions very seriously and have historically killed over them, for a liberal democracy to function we need to keep religious arguments to a minimum. This argument is an argument of low expectations. If we have so little allegiance to the ideals of liberal democracy that we need to worry about persecuting each other if we allow people to discussion religion we have a serious problem. Unfortunately, this argument does has some merit. Look at the recent Republican primary. Once religion came onto the table at all the fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon became an overriding concern to many Christian voters. While this isn’t the same scale as killing people the basic issue is the same.

Fourth, religious beliefs often rest on very little actual evidence. Thus, these conversations are particularly unlikely to get anywhere. “My interpretation of the 2000 year old text is better than your interpretation” isn’t persuasive and “My religion’s record of supposed revelation to a small group of people 2500 years ago is better than your religion’s record of supposed revelation to a small group of people 2000 years ago” isn’t compelling either. This combines with the second argument above. Deep emotional investment on all sides and a lack of evidence is does not make for productive dialogue. This is especially the case when some people cite “faith” for their reason to believe something.

Fifth, many people today acknowledge that their religious beliefs are not determined by being correct but by what works for them, in terms of giving them satisfaction and happiness with life. If so, religion is a completely personal decision. I find this view hard to understand. Whether or not I believe in a God does not alter whether or not there is a God. If Jerry Falwell was correct, regardless of what religion personally works for me, I’m almost certainly going to hell.

However, despite these reasons, this taboo on religious debate is ultimately misguided and unproductive.

First, there’s no inherent logical distinction between questions of religion and questions in other areas that somehow put religion off limits to debate.

Second, in an era when religion is intertwined in politics it is unreasonable to let religion influence politics but not let the religious aspects be open to question. If a politician is anti-abortion for religious reasons then that politician should be able to explain what the theological basis is for his or her belief. If the politician is a Christian then what Biblical verses are justifying the stance? Similarly, if politicians claim that their “faith” is important to them, they should be prepared to defend it. How does Hillary Clinton reconcile her “faith” with abortion? Where they stand on the Documentary hypothesis? How do they handle the notion of a loving God ordering the slaughter of babies. You can’t only talk about religion when it is convenient to you. If religion is fair game, then it is always fair game.

Third, the taboo is not always respected and the religious groups that refuse to respect it gain an advantage over those that do respect it. All sorts of religious groups missionize and spend their time trying to convert people. Ann Coulter does not reside in a vacuum. Obviously, they’ll gain more converts than the religions that aren’t trying. Their memes will be more fruitful. Indeed, the religions that are least like to respect this sort of taboo are also the religions that will most likely be problematic, religions that don’t care about anyone else’s social norms or damage to society and just care about spreading their personal view of the Truth. This sort of taboo is much more common among politically moderate Christians and Jews than almost anyone else. These religious groups are simply hurting themselves while often irrational religious fanatics have free reign.

Fourth, if anyone really believes his religion is correct, why not argue for it? If you believe that you are correct about something you should want to convince others so that they too know what is correct. And if you think religion is simply a personal decision then you should have no objection to discussing for starters whether religion really is just an arbitrary personal decision.

In summary, we should not have a taboo against arguing about religion, be it whether a unicorn would be kosher, or whether Jesus was the son of God, or whether God exists, or any other religious question. If a politician says that religion is important to him or her, then that opens his or her religious opinions to detailed examination. Mike Huckabee should be pressed on what he really thinks about Mormonism and how old he thinks the Earth is. Hillary Clinton should explain what she means when she says her “faith” is important to her. This applies not just to Presidential candidates, and not just to politicians. We should all be willing to discuss and debate our religious viewpoints. If someone is unwilling to defend their religious views, it is likely because they cannot. So let’s call them on it. May the most reasonable views win.