Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Criticism, Discrimination, Judgment

Nicholas Kristof whines that liberals

have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock. Scorning people for their faith is intrinsically repugnant ...
Ed Brayton replies:
[T]here is nothing wrong, much less "repugnant", with criticizing ideas. And the more stupid or counter-factual the idea is, the harsher that criticism is naturally going to be.

Does Kristof really think it's wrong to scorn the idea that if you die killing infidels you'll get 72 virgins in heaven? That idea is not just extraordinarily stupid, it's barbaric and dangerous and it has led to the deaths of untold numbers of innocent people. Can we really not scorn that idea merely because it comes labeled "religious"? Kristof has clearly not thought this through.
Clearly not. I wonder if antidiscrimination laws in the US have clouded thinking on this topic. Religious discrimination in the workplace is illegal on the assumption that a one's religion has no rational connection to the quality of one's work -- the religious opinions of, say, a fireman, a dental assistant, a receptionist, a computer programmer, a carpenter make no difference to the ability to do the job. One can imagine exceptions to this -- I, for one, would not want a committed Jehovah's Witness involved in a critical decision about a blood transfusion -- but as the saying goes, 'bad cases make bad law.'

When it comes to assessing political candidates, which is nothing but a specific case of the everyday practice of assessing the qualities of our fellow humans, religious convictions do matter. It does matter what a person believes about the nature of morality, what counts as knowledge, what counts as justice, the definition and status of 'others,' whether mankind has a fate, and whether individuals have fates (and if so, what kind of fate). Religions bear directly on all these and much else of direct relevance to the quality of everyday human interactions.

It does not strike me as a coincidence that the Bush-Cheney junta has been a series of blunders and tragedies on the one hand and that George W. Bush believes reliable insights can be gained by praying to a superhero and consulting his gut. It is and should be permissable to say so and to connect the dots between his profound deficiencies and his religious convictions. The same holds true of other believers and their beliefs. And yes, it is fair to connect dots vis-a-vis those of us who reject all religions.

Beliefs and ideas matter because they motivate actions. To exempt religious ideas from criticism is sloppy special pleading that, if taken seriously, undercuts every attempt at judgment.

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