April 6, 2007

Blog Against Theocracy, part one: a bit of humor to make a serious point

Posted in Civil rights, Religion at 10:33 pm by The Lizard Queen


[Edited to add: this post represents one third to one half of my participation in the Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm.  Please do go check out the other posts!]

I took the following joke from the blog of Irving, one of Evil Bender‘s regular commenters.

A man was walking across a bridge one day and he saw another man standing on the edge, about to jump off and commit suicide. He immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”

“Why shouldn’t I?” the other said.

The man said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”

“Like what?”

“Well … are you religious or atheist?”


“Me too! Are you Muslim, Christian or Jewish?”


“Me too! Sunni or Shiite?”


“Me too! Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi or Maliki?”


“Wow! Me too! Do you follow Sheikh Fulaan al Fullani or Sheikh Kaza Kazah?”

“Sheikh Fulaan al Fullani.”

To which the first man said, “What?!! Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.

I chuckled a bit when I first heard this joke, but it also made me think. Other religions can be broken down in a similar manner; think of the recent incident in which James Dobson stated that Fred Thompson isn’t a Christian because he isn’t an evangelical fundamentalist. There are people in this country who believe that the nation would be stronger if it would return to God (if you will), if its citizens would return to the beliefs that their forefathers (according to these people) held. The problem is that there is a subset of people among those aforementioned people who would not be satisfied if America were simply a Christian country. They would want the country to be Christian according to their specific requirements. Where does that end? Do you really suppose people like James Dobson would be satisfied if America were merely Christian? What, then, might happen to the Catholics, for example? (We already know, of course, what would happen to Muslims and Jews. Atheists would be Right Out.)

My ultimate point, then, is this: if you genuinely want the freedom to choose your own beliefs, then you should be willing to extend that same freedom to everyone. And by everyone I mean everyone, including people whose beliefs you disagree with. No, seriously–EVERYONE. Even the ones who follow Sheikh Fulaan al Fullani.


  1. DavidD said,

    So then Liz, are you expressing your willingness to let James Dobson have his beliefs, even with them being so exclusionary? I wouldn’t go that far myself.

    I’ve spent time with my fellow liberals on message boards about this. Many do have a threshold for tolerance that would exclude belief systems that hurt people. How much hurt is enough to make some belief system illegitimate? It’s hard to say. It’s arguable. I don’t mind people coming to their own conclusions about that.

    Regarding those conclusions about what is intolerable, though, or any other aspect of belief, there are going to be intellectual weaknesses. There are plenty of such weaknesses in the idea that Dobson or anyone else is authorized to say who is a Real True Christian, as Fred Clark of slacktivist would put it. There are plenty of such weaknesses in all religions and in atheism as well. That’s not how many people see it. Many people see it as their religion or atheism being correct with no meaningful doubts, or they do what many liberals do and say all religions are true, close enough. I think it’s more true to say all religions are false, including atheism, making frank discussions important to let people find a better way for themselves. Those aren’t possible when people become defensive and aren’t willing to see other possibilities.

    For example, is it possible Dobson is right? I suppose. What does that say about God if Dobson is right? Ooh, I think it says a lot of things about God that make no sense to me and requires a God who is not the God of my understanding. I can repeat that for just about anyone’s God. Even with my God, I’ve always known atheists might be right, and my God is something my brain has created for me, with no other reality except that other people have similar needs as I do. God tells me He’s more than that, though.

    So what is the healthiest kind of tolerance? I’m sure it allows plenty of criticism, but not the nastiness of oneupsmanship. I’m not sure how much fits in there. How about saying that Real True Christians must live their lives to end poverty and/or strife? I don’t know. I’ve said something like that. If people just want to disagree rather than understand that, it’s rather pointless to bring up. Trial and error on this point is acceptable, I think.

    In the meantime, as much as I’d like to tweak the first amendment when it comes to speech, I wouldn’t touch either of the two points it expresses about religion. That’s a healthy tolerance, I think.

  2. So then Liz, are you expressing your willingness to let James Dobson have his beliefs, even with them being so exclusionary? I wouldn’t go that far myself.

    I’ve spent time with my fellow liberals on message boards about this. Many do have a threshold for tolerance that would exclude belief systems that hurt people. How much hurt is enough to make some belief system illegitimate? It’s hard to say. It’s arguable. I don’t mind people coming to their own conclusions about that.

    That’s an issue of no slight complexity. It leads me to two somewhat overused (but still very important) phrases: “my rights end where yours begin” and “the way to fight against offensive speech is with more speech.” I want the right to worship a god whom I believe doesn’t see me as an abomination in whatever sense (and I think it’s safe to say Dobson would believe his god would see me as such, whether or not he would phrase it in those exact words). Allowing Dobson to believe those hurtful things about me, then, makes that right of mine difficult, at best.

    However, silencing people who hold beliefs that I find hurtful is unlikely to stop them from believing those things. It simply adds resentment, which often acts as fuel to the fire. I don’t necessarily know how to balance these two sides, but I believe communication and education are part of the equation.

    Furthermore, there’s something to be said for allowing people like James Dobson to express their beliefs, because I think eventually the expression of those beliefs backfires on them. Dobson’s comments on Fred Thompson had unexpected results that suggest his influence may be waning. And Fred Phelps (I was going to link to the WBC website, but… you know, no) has made some unlikely bedfellows between supporters of LGBT rights and military families by protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq with signs like “God hates your tears”. Does that make it okay that beliefs like those Dobson and Phelps espouse are absolutely hurtful, and may well be traced to incidents like Matthew Shepard’s murder*? Not a bit. So, I don’t know. It’s a quandary, to be sure.

    From the standpoint of legality, however, I can say with certainty that explicitly outlawing the beliefs themselves is not going to solve the problem.

    *(Incidentally, this made me think of the scene in the film version of The Laramie Project in which Christina Ricci’s character et al block the WBC’s signs at Matthew’s funeral with their homemade angel wings; the only representation I could find of that moment on YouTube is here. I can’t think of any other scene in film that fills me with such an overwhelming feeling of pride and grief.)

  3. pavlov112 said,

    Even if somebody’s hateful eliminationist beliefs don’t backfire on them, I don’t want them to be outlawed. There’s the hypocrisy issue that you already point out. There’s also simple pragmatism; I want to know if somebody thinks I deserve to die!

  4. Liz, right on with the post, and with your notion of freedom: “my rights end where yours begin”. I think hateful beliefs like Dobson or Donohues are fine so long as they do not restrict my own. I do think perhaps eliminationist rhetoric might merit some special treatment, only in that we need not actively sponsor such speech, but it should not be censored out of the public sphere. So no outlawing pavlov, but no reason I should pay to let someone say I should be hung or shot for being liberal.

    Liz, this would be a scary nation if it became officially Christian. You are correct, the religious right would likely press even further towards an authoritarian theocratic state.

    Freedom is for everyone or not at all. I wish more people realized that!

  5. Infidel753 said,

    I think one has to differentiate between beliefs and behavior. Everyone has a right to believe whatever he wants, but doesn’t have the right to engage in behavior which interferes with the freedom of others.

    So Phelps has the right to believe as he does about homosexuals, but he doesn’t have the right to disrupt funerals or otherwise harass people. No one should try to stop Dobson from believing what he believes, but everyone should try to stop him when he campaigns for laws that would undermine the freedom of those who believe differently.

  6. The Truffle said,

    Agreed. I actually believe that separation of religion and state benefits both in the long run. Dominionists fail to realize that without that separation, Christianity could not flourish in America. The benefit of having no state religion means that people of all religions can be respected and/or tolerated.

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