False Tolerance

Freedom of expression is today informally limited by a false sense of tolerance widespread in our culture. Many people are reluctant to express their thoughts critical of religion out of fear of offending someone. Self-censorship thus silences many who would otherwise contribute to the public discussion of religion and its place in our society that is so badly needed. In light of this lamentable situation, I would like to encourage my readers to assert your right to express your opinion and disregard any attempt to invoke an imaginary right not to be offended in order to prevent you from speaking your mind.

As for me, I refuse to recognize anyone's claim to a right to be automatically respected. If you don't want anyone to criticize your religion, then you should defend it rationally and show why the detractors are wrong. If you can't do this, you should abandon your beliefs as indefensible or humbly accept the criticism. Demanding that someone else respect your faith and refrain from criticizing it, however, is not an acceptable response. You have the right to promote your opinions and I have the right to promote mine. You have the right to criticize my opinions and I have the right to criticize yours. Any respect in the marketplace of ideas must be earned and not arbitrarily granted. If one's beliefs don't hold up under scrutiny, then they simply they aren't worthy of respect. Religion doesn't receive any immunity from criticism merely because of its importance in some people's lives, especially since its effects are far from uniformly benign. It's in fact far more disrespectful to insulate others from your ideas, assuming their justifications for the beliefs or their feelings are so fragile that you must protect them from the hard truth like little children.

I want to be clear that the above applies only to public society and not to private society. The latter has a totally different set of standards regarding politeness and access. If you fail to respect the beliefs of the company you keep by attacking or mocking them, then you cannot expect that company to continue welcoming you. They have the right to exclude you from their homes for whatever reason they deem appropriate, just as you have the right to exclude them from yours. In the world of public discourse, however, no one should be excluded. Anyone should be able to express their opinions by making speeches, writing books, publishing websites, distributing pamphlets, organizing rallies, singing songs, creating paintings or sculptures, producing films or television programs, and no one should attempt to silence them by labeling them intolerant, fundamentalist or militant for simply expressing criticism of the ideas of others. Attacking an intolerant ideology is a service to, not against, tolerance.

I'm very thankful that I myself was able to find books and websites critical of my former religion when I undertook my investigation several years ago. If those authors had chosen to censor themselves, I wouldn't have found the necessary resources to escape the mental prison of irrational faith. Think of how many more people could bask in the light of reason if only they had more opportunities to join the conversation and think for themselves.



The Necessity of Doubt

I simply cannot respect anyone who claims to have never doubted their beliefs. This statement tells me they have never really examined their opinions, no matter how much time they have spent thinking, reading or discussing them. Whatever your beliefs regarding religion, the vast majority of the world disagrees with you. I find it incredible that a person can go through life, aware that billions of people hold opposing viewpoints, without once thinking, “Perhaps I'm wrong.” While it's possible to understand this failure to doubt in the culturally homogeneous societies of the past where literally everyone you knew belonged to the same religion, it's nothing short of inexcusable in modern, cosmopolitan America. Despite this absurdity, I still occasionally read interviews of religious leaders in the local newspaper in which they state they have not once doubted their faith. And very few of those who do acknowledge their doubts then say they have pursued and investigated them logically, instead preferring to rely on prayer and scripture to resolve their uncertainties. Of course, if they approached the question of religion from a rational perspective, it's extremely unlikely they would have become religious leaders in the first place.



Why I Joined the Green Party

UPDATE: I re-registered as a Democrat on 15 May. I decided to accept the reality of the two-party system and make my liberal voice heard within the big tent of a major party. In addition, Florida has closed primaries and I want to vote as often as possible.

My trek across the political spectrum has been as radical as that across the religious spectrum, and for much the same reasons. Within a few weeks of turning eighteen years old, I registered to vote for the first time. Since I was religious and conservative, I chose to affiliate with the Republican Party. Several years later I became so frustrated with the Republicans for not being conservative enough that I almost registered with the reactionary Constitution Party. I acquired a new voter registration form, filled it out, but then decided not to mail it in for whatever reason. After my deconversion during my mid-twenties, without the influence of religion, my politics quickly changed. I had been taught my entire life to listen to ecclesiastical authority instead of thinking for myself and now, having thought for myself by investigating my doubts about the faith, I had very explicitly rejected that authority. So I carefully examined my political positions, which had mostly been based on dogma and ignorance, not on reason and wisdom. As a result, many of them changed radically; some remained the same. In the end, however, I came to identify myself as a liberal. I wasn't in a hurry to change my party affiliation, but I did switch to the Democratic Party before the next major election. That's where I remained until yesterday, when I mailed off a new registration form in order to switch to the Green Party.

My departure from the Democratic Party is primarily the result of the party's failure to represent my voice. The single largest issue is the Iraq war. The newly elected Democratic majority in Congress has failed to bring any troops home and there's still a real possibility that the superdelegates will award the party's nomination to someone who voted to authorize the war in the first place and who has shown utter contempt for the democratic process throughout her campaign. If Obama wins the nomination, I still intend to vote for him in the general election. If Hillary wins, I absolutely refuse to vote for her and will most likely cast my ballot for the Green Party nominee. Other issues are the party's connections to corporate interests, its pandering to the religious, and its lack of support for democratic reform of our electoral system. I acknowledge that my joining the Green Party is mostly a symbolic gesture of protest against the Democrats and in support of the Greens, but it feels good and I'm glad I've done it.

When I examined the Green Party's 2004 platform, I found a number of my own views in it which the Democratic Party's 2004 platform lacked:

  • unequivocal opposition to the Iraq war
  • reduction of military spending
  • repeal of the Patriot Act
  • establishment of single-payer universal healthcare
  • abolition of the death penalty
  • full support for gay marriage
  • support for proportional representation, preferential voting, and neutral redistricting
  • abolition of the electoral college
  • support for statehood for the District of Columbia
  • support for stringent environmental standards (naturally)

There was even one section entitled “Religious Freedom and Secular Equality” which I would like to present in full:

The United States Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion. We affirm the right of each individual to the exercise of conscience and religion, while maintaining the constitutionally mandated separation of government and religion. We believe that federal, state, and local governments must remain neutral regarding religion. We call for:

a. Ending discriminatory federal, state, and local laws against particular religious beliefs, and nonbelief. The U.S. Constitution states that there shall be no religious test for public office. This requirement should apply to oaths (or affirmations) for holding public office at any level, employment at all government levels, oaths for witnesses in courts, oaths for jury membership, and the oath for citizenship.

b. Prosecution of hate crimes based on religious affiliation or practice.

c. Elimination of displays of religious symbols, monuments, or statements on government buildings, property, websites, money, or documents.

d. Restoration of the Pledge of Allegiance to its pre-1954 version, eliminating the politically motivated addition of “under God.”

e. Ending faith-based initiatives and charitable choice programs, whereby public funds are used to support religious organizations that do not adhere to specified guidelines and standards, including anti-discrimination laws.

f. Ending school vouchers whereby public money pays for students in religious schools.

g. Ending governmental use of the doctrines of specific religions to define the nature of family, marriage, and the type and character of personal relationships between consenting adults.

h. Ending religiously-based curricula in government-funded public schools.

i. Ending the use of religion as a justification to deny children necessary medical care or subject them to physical and emotional abuse.

j. Ending the use of religion by government to define the role and rights of women in our society.

k. Revocation of the Congressional charter of the Boy Scouts of America. Any private organization that practices bigotry against certain religious beliefs and classes of people should not have a Congressional endorsement or access to public property and funds.
Of course, I can't say that I agree with everything in the platform, but it certainly reflects my views much more closely than that of any other party. I'm glad to be a Green. I don't know whether my political journey has ended, but it has certainly been a wild ride so far. I might be the only person in the country to have voted for both Alan Keyes and Barack Obama in presidential primaries. I can only claim mental illness in the first case.


Happy Earth Day!

The March equinox is one of the two different days recognized as Earth Day by the United Nations. I want to wish my visitors a pleasant spring or fall, depending on which hemisphere you call home. Let's all work together to protect the planet from ourselves.



Atheists Have Values, Too

It troubles me that people tend to interpret atheism as the repudiation of everything that religion happens to represent in their minds rather than simply the principled rejection of the core of religion, belief in the supernatural. While it's true that someone could be diametrically opposed to absolutely anything even remotely associated with religion, it's wrong to assume that atheists necessarily are; I certainly have never encountered one who was. As for me, I embrace a number of values which religions commonly profess to promote such as peace, justice, empathy, compassion, honesty, loyalty, responsibility, temperance, introspection and reflection.

I also, however, strongly embrace skepticism, which has led me to disbelieve the supernatural claims of upon which believers (wrongly) claim to derive their moral values, and freethought, which allows me to evaluate the worth of moral values with my own individual judgement rather than deferring to an unquestionable authority such as scripture or a religious leader. These twin values foster others which most religions don't inherently support and which some even explicitly oppose such as liberty, equality and secularism. They have also led me to reject irrationality, superstition, fear, hatred and ignorance, which most religions support or have supported to varying degrees throughout their histories. It is my skepticism and freethinking which distinguish me from believers, not a lack of virtue.

In truth, I yearn for a community in which I can foster my personal growth through contemplation of, discussion about and action based on my values without any compromise to supernaturalism. My several visits to a Unitarian Universalist congregation and my casual online investigation of Buddhism were part of an as-of-yet unsuccessful quest for such a community and identity. Humanism presents the greatest promise for fidelity to my beliefs, but it lacks the type of formal structure that I desire, perhaps for fear of being too similar to religion, and it's not distinct enough from increasingly humanistic western culture to provide a unique focus and identity. All I can say is that I'm a naturalist in search of a place to call home.