Soapy Joe is all Wrong

Religion on all sides. How it does keep coming up, and how it does shape (and often distort) the debate – for that matter, how it does shape our lives. It’s inescapable, and massively influential, and yet it’s taboo to discuss it honestly. What a bizarre situation.

It’s kindly meant, of course. It’s about protecting people’s feelings and sensitivities. But the trouble is, if we give religion a permanent free pass, it can go ahead and trample on other people’s feelings and sensitivities, not to mention their freedoms and rights and bodies and lives. Religions are the foundation of a lot of the glaring systematic injustices in the world, and the more kindly-meaning people are too polite to say so, the more such injustices can carry on their merry way.

And then of course even apart from the physical harms religion can do, there is also the cognitive harm. There is the damage done to everyone by the pervasive pretense that religion is true. That’s another obvious fact that simply gets systematically overlooked, in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings. But at what a price! And besides, why doesn’t it ever work the other way? Why aren’t religious people too polite to hurt the feelings of non-religious people by disputing their truth claims? Hmm? Religious people don’t hesitate to say that atheists have it all wrong, so why do atheists keep their mouths shut when theists are talking? Why does Soapy Joe Lieberman get away with scolding Democratic presidential candidates for not talking about religion enough?

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut called on Tuesday for strengthening the role of religion in public life and took a veiled swipe at Howard Dean, who has run a steadfastly secular campaign. “I know that some people believe that faith has no place in the so-called public square,” said Mr. Lieberman, an observant Jew. “They forget that the constitutional separation of church and state, which I strongly support, promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Some people forget that faith was central to our founding and remains central to our national purpose and our individual lives.”

Yeah, and some other people forget that ‘faith’ is not central to all our individual lives. But much more basic than that – people like Soapy Joe forget one important thing: that religion is not true. He’s rebuking people for not talking about a fiction as if it were true. He’s rebuking candidates for high office for not taking a fairy tale seriously, he’s whingeing about the putative failure of people seeking a secular political office for not loudly and often enough avowing their belief in a supernatural being for which there is no evidence. He doesn’t rebuke his rivals for not declaring their ‘faith’ in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or Hobbits or wizards or elves or talking animals, does he? Not that I’m aware of anyway. But rebuking them for neglecting to talk about that other made-up, invented, fantasized, magical being – that’s another matter, that’s normal and acceptable, and nobody answers him, ‘We don’t talk about the deity because we have no reason to think it exists, that’s why.’ Well why not? Because it would be rude and insensitive, no doubt. You may think I’ve just been very rude and insensitive. But what is the difference? Why is one invented supernatural being taken with the utmost seriousness when the others are not? Custom, habit, precedent? Not very good reasons, I would think, and certainly highly circular. Psychological need, wishful thinking? But our desire for something to be true doesn’t make it true, as surely we realize once we grow up. Group think? Everyone else does so I might as well too? Yes, no doubt, which is precisely why it would be nice if more people were willing to drop the ridiculous pretense and point out the truth. Soapy Joe should stop urging his rivals to join him in peddling a pack of lies.

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