Sunday, October 12, 2014

How Religion Corrodes Civil Society

That religion is a net negative to society is a given among atheists, but now Andy Norman at Free Inquiry has made the effort to explain why and how.

If the gods were not passengers on the earliest human attempts to resolve differences with words, they soon hitched a ride. Ever since, religious pronouncements have been part of public discourse. Such talk can induce feelings of religious solidarity, and this reinforces the impression that religion is conducive to moral and civil order. In fact, though, religious talk is profoundly corrosive of civil society. By quietly subverting expectations of rational accountability, religious talk undermines reason’s power to reconcile, civilize, and humanize us. In this article, I mean to illuminate the mechanism by which religions compromise our prospects for truly civilized existence. Protecting public discourse from the deleterious effects of religious piety, it turns out, is a job that cannot be left to the so-called “wall of separation” between church and state, because the U.S. Constitution’s anti-establishment clause is woefully inadequate to the task; a considerably higher and sturdier barrier is needed. The time has come for a more far-reaching principle, one that insulates politics from all forms of unaccountable talk. The solution lies in the promotion and collective embrace of an idea central to humanism—the idea that each of us has a profound moral and civic obligation to yield to the force of the better reason.
He concludes:
Should the introduction of religious pronouncements into public discourse, then, be considered a punishable offense? No. I am not suggesting that we introduce legal or constitutional restrictions on religious speech. Indeed, the right to speak freely—even in a religious modality—should be viewed as fundamental. It doesn’t follow, though, that we are obliged to listen to such speech or treat it as germane to public policy issues, still less that we give it “equal time.” A truly civilized people will regard the insertion of theology into politics as faintly ridiculous—as worthy of bemused disdain. (And sometimes worthy of ridicule, the ridiculous being—by definition—that which calls for ridicule.) Such a people will enforce rational accountability with politeness and good humor but also with seriousness, vigor, laughter, sarcasm, and irony. They will take a stand for the force of the better reason and recognize that doing so will sometimes offend the delicate sensibilities of the faithful. The making of a truly sustainable and prosperous civilization requires that we renew our collective commitment to rational accountability.

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