Friday, October 14, 2005

Respecting religion

Yesterday, reading Pharyngula, I had one of those rare moments where one is forced to realize one's subconcious biases:
"She is a deeply committed Christian," Dobson said. "She has been a believer in Jesus Christ since the late 1970s. I know the person who led her to the Lord. I know the church that she goes to. I know it's a very conservative church. I know that she is a tithe-paying member at that church. I know that she has deep convictions about things. I have talked at length to people that know her—and have known her for a long time. Some of them have been a close personal friend of hers for 25 years. I trust these people because I know them—I know who they are and I know their character and I know what they stand their heart for the Lord."
Try substituting "Hindu" for "Christian" and "Ganesh" for "Jesus" and rereading that if your own religiosity prevents you from seeing how deeply weird that stuff sounds to some of us.
I heard the quote before. I heard backlash of a sort, complaints we are a secular country and religion shouldn't be a qualifier for public office.

But, in spite of being an atheist, I never thought, "how weird." Yet that's what my reaction would have been someone said the same thing about a Hindu. It would be doubly true for a Scientologist.

When I look at it rationally though, it is just as weird. We're subconsciously wired to form our opinions of various religious groups not based on how much sense the beliefs make, but based on how many Americans adhere to them.

When Tom Cruise did his anti-psychiatry rant, one blogger said the interviewer should have asked him if he believed the story about the alien overlord Xenu. At the time, I thought, "no one would ask a Christian celebrity if he believes the story about the snake and the apple." I shoved the worry aside on the grounds that everyone knows most Christians don't believe it. What Cruise got was just the downside of belonging to a little-known religion, right?

More recently, in anthropology class, we watched a video on Hmong shamanism. It centered around a single shaman who immigrated to America. I don't want to sound to disparging, but basically shamanism is the idea that certain people can visit the spirit world to accomplish certain tasks by jumping up and down for hours on end. Weird, huh?

There was a very brief segment, though, that made me wonder. It involved a Christian missionary telling the guy he deserved to go to Hell. I think the missionary also got in the bit about needing to believe in Jesus to be saved. This wasn't a hellfire and brimstone preaching method. The missionary, though talking to an adult, spoke in a soft voice generally reserved for small children. He obviously viewed the man as a primitive. The shaman's response to this was to explain, via interpreter, that he had never sinned.

Then it hit me. The absurdity. On one level, when you take it too seriously, fundamentalist Christianity is barbarous. On another, it's a contender for the silliest set of beliefs humans have ever come up with. The missionary's probably resonded to the "no sin" claim by explaining that he could be sent to Hell for the tinniest sin. Think of it! People taking infinte punishment for the smallest misstep, and not even because the world is perillous but because an all-powerful, all-good God has decided that's how it ought to be. Religion based on jumping up and down doesn't even come close in terms of silliness.

The forced me to realize something: the way people react to Scientology and such is not about their level of knowledge. It's about their exposure, which decreases the feeling of weirdness regardless of how weird the thing really is. Of course, the same thing happens with choices of clothing and the like, but when we label a belief "weird," we think we're talking about something more than bad fashion sense. Claims to truth shouldn't be treated like cultural artifacts.

Something to keep in mind the next time you're inclined to label a belief as "weird."

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