November 27, 2015
I lost a Facebook friend a few weeks ago. We didn’t know each other offline. I wonder if things would’ve gone differently if we had. A meme featuring what sounded like a Richard Dawkins-derived quote was shared. I protested. The conversation didn’t recover.
So here’s the thing. I understand that a lot of people say strident and absolutist things about religion out of anger at their own experiences. I can completely and fully accept someone else’s right to be hurt and resentful of their own bad religious experience. I am fully aware that such experiences are all too common and entirely real. No shortage of people have no shortage of solid reasons to be resentful of the religion they grew up with.
And I still just can’t deal with it when they go around declaring that “religion” is only ever this oppressive, anti-thought, patriarchal monolith. Because almost intrinsically, what that’s saying is, “Your faith tradition, your community, your religious background, don’t exist. Because religion that isn’t like this doesn’t exist.”
It’s no more true than the fact that the taiga exists makes deciduous forests not exist.
Those are both ecosystems. They’re both forests. They share some important features of forest ecosystems. But they are also different ecosystems in vital ways.
Temperate rainforests and tropical rainforests also both exist. Subtropical deserts and alpine deserts both exist.
I think I have not seen any other topic, especially among otherwise very well-educated, liberal people, about which it is still so accepted to say “My experience is the only genuine one. This was my experience, so that’s the way it really is.” And not just accepted, but considered clever and enlightened.
We don’t accept that with regard to sexuality or ethnic or cultural background, or gender, or even linguistic background (with AAVE and Appalachian dialects increasingly recognized as fully valid ways to speak English—there isn’t just one static, proper incarnation of “real” English). We increasingly don’t accept it with regard to neurology or disability.
(What I’m absolutely not saying is that anti-religious bigotry is the “last acceptable prejudice.” It isn’t. It’s simply a popular one in some factions of society. It’s not the last acceptable prejudice, but it is one of the broadest common examples of a No True Scotsman fallacy.)
But it is hugely acceptable and even considered laudable in many intellectual circles to declare “This is what religion is and this is what religion does and this is categorically true because it was my experience.”
Things get painfully ironic when anti-religion absolutists claiming that faith fundamentally precludes the exercise of rational skills, refuse to apply those same skills themselves when, and only when, the topic is the mere existence of varieties of religious faith other than those with which they are familiar. Then very observable facts don’t matter. World history doesn’t matter. Cultural diversity isn’t a thing. Religion only ever behaves in one way.
Listen. I have spent the vast majority of my life fighting my own erasure in multiple ways. There are so damned many ways in which people have tried to write me out of my own experience. “No, you can’t be both this and this.” Real people don’t work like that. I don’t understand, so you are mistaken about your own experience.
You are what we say you are and your experiences are what we say they are.
It didn’t work when I was ten, and it doesn’t now.
I don’t believe for a single solitary second that religious belief should be held above criticism or interrogation, or that the implications of statements of faith shouldn’t have to stand up to some kind of critical or ethical examination. There are all kinds of debates about religious thought that I’m happy to have, and that we should as a society be having. Pretty much the one fight that I just can’t with right now is that religious faith like that which I’ve experienced my entire life doesn’t actually exist. Or isn’t actually religion because it’s not what someone who doesn’t share that experience has decided it must be.
(And anyway, if religion is only, ever, inevitably repressive, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-intellectual, authoritarian, etc…. then how do we expect to be able to ask religious communities to be better? If the only true alternative is that they cease to exist? We actually lose a lot of ability to make useful criticisms if religion can only be considered as this insidious, monolithic, one-dimensional thing, not taking into account actual diversity of belief and practice.)
And I’m just at a point right now where I can’t cope with it or engage with it. And I don’t think that fully owning the fact that so many people have been hurt by religion means that I have to shut up and take it in the face of blatant denial of the very existence or possibility of experiences that are not that, or of communities like the one I grew up in and like the one I’m blessed enough to have now, and of even more faith experiences outside even my own ability to imagine or conceive of.
There’s a difference between listening, and consenting to erasure.
But having these arguments turns out to be constructive an infinitesimally small percentage of the time.
Relationships in which I have to continually defend the existence and acceptability of something pretty integral to who I am and my experience of the world are not relationships I have the energy for right now. And frankly I become skeptical of your feminism or your anti-racism or your neurodiversity acceptance if you then go and say “Religion should be eradicated.” That’s a serious qualifier on your support for the self-determination of people whose religious or faith experience is intrinsically tied up with their lived experience of gender, family, racial identity, culture, or neurodivergence.
I think people can be not bad people, and be validly hurt in ways that don’t play well together, and with sadness, I conclude that that may be the case if someone else’s pain means that they have to make these absolutist pronouncements that fundamentally misrepresent or erase another group of people and their belief systems.