What if someone was to walk up to you on the street and boldly proclaim that Ron Paul was an illegal immigrant who puts spicy pulled baby meat in his tacos? Well, if you responded at all (would probably just ignore them and keep walking) you would probably ask something like, “What’s your proof?” or, “Why am I supposed to believe you?” If I, for one, was expected to believe the extraordinary claim that Ron Paul eats pulled baby meat as we would eat pulled pork, then I would need some sort of extraordinary proof–say, stumbling upon the Congressman harvesting his tasty, tasty baby meat.
Of course, that was an absolutely ridiculous example (so the Paul supporters don’t mob me–I know that Ron Paul probably doesn’t eat babies), but the concept applies to pretty much anything that people talk about. If you make a claim, then you are expected to back that claim up with evidence or, for moral questions that are do not lend themselves to evidence , a sound argument–the more extraordinary the claim; the more extraordinary and definitive the evidence or argument given must be for me to believe it.
Well, it should apply to everything we talk about, but one of the most important claims people make–their religious beliefs–are oddly exempted from this rule. Even our opinions on politics, the other subject we supposedly shouldn’t bring up at the dinner table, are scrutinized (and rightfully so) by those who disagree with, or would merely want to learn more about, our opinions. There is no reason why religious beliefs, the beliefs that arguable have the greatest impact on our daily behavior, views on morality, and views on politics, are somehow immune to any sort of inspection.
Well, this has to change.
First we have to realize what when one makes a religious claim, such as the one that a personal god exists and intervenes in our world, they are making a verifiable claim about how the world works–after all, a godly intervention would surely leave some sort of evidence. As rational individuals, we have a responsibility to either know why we believe something, or to be open enough to criticism as to examine our own beliefs and either develop a rationale or change our beliefs accordingly. After all, an important aspect of maturity is being able to admit that we’re wrong and to change when the circumstances warrant it.
And no, I’m not saying that we should force the issue on people who don’t want to talk about religion in general–I have no quarrel with people who keep their faith private (we want to be defenders of reason, not evangelists)–but when people make religious claims or use religious beliefs to justify a moral or public policy position, we should be able to ask “On what basis should we believe that?”
And that is what terrifies the people who rely on religious claims, to justify bigotry or just fatten their own wallets. When atheists are allowed to speak publicly about nonbelief and the validity of various religious claims, the laity (the cash cows of religious groups) start to question what they’re being told and (god forbid) start to think for themselves. Once individuals start to think for themselves, some (not all, maybe not even most) of them will stop believing, stop attending church, and (god forbid) stop giving money to religious organizations.
So, instead of just trying to participate in the national discussion of religion or the “battle of ideas,” we are painted as attacking religious people. Instead of having religious beliefs scrutinized, apologists have reframed the discussion of one where they are being attacked, not because atheists and secularists are trying to subject religious beliefs to the same scrutiny all other beliefs receive in our society, but because we hate religious people and want to make them cry.
Well, I don’t want to make anyone cry, and I don’t really hate anyone that I can think of (except for the obvious tyrants/dictators/rapists that are pretty much universally reviled by decent people). However, if you are trying to convert me or use your religion to push silly policies that will affect the life and freedom of me and my countrymen, then I will vigorously question you about your beliefs: why (and how) they make sense and why, given their truth, they are important enough, universal enough, and rational enough for you to impose that religion on me or my countrymen.
This is not insensitivity; this is not just being mean. This is the Battle of Ideas, and your religion is merely an idea–the merits of which are and should be up for debate.
In short: your religion is not special. It will be questioned and you should be prepared to defend it. If you can’t then you have some thinking to do.