Editor's Note: Guest blogger Dominick L. Auci earned his Ph.D. in Pathology from Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn and served for many years as Assistant Professor. He has written more than 40 peer-reviewed publications and currently resides with his husband in Louisville, Kentucky.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known to the world as Pope Francis, moved away from lost causes like opposition to marriage equality and reproductive freedom and instead took up climate change last month. In a sermon in Rome, before a throng of believers, His Holiness admonished all Christians to become "custodians of creation" and warned of "catastrophic effects." He had me until the very end.
Just as I was hoping his moment of clarity would translate into a larger, lasting ecclesiastical breakthrough, he immediately anchored his environmentalist theology onto the biblical story of Adam and Eve, noting that God gave the earth to Adam and his sons, and charged them with its care. Heavy sigh.
"Okay, aside from hating on the gays and whole misogyny thing, he's probably a nice old guy," I thought, "but he really believes in talking snakes, zombie Jews, and dozens of other Bronze- and Iron-Age fairy tales. How can he have a credible part in any serious debate?" Only I didn't just think it, I said it out loud and in public on my Facebook page. My own mother got mad at me for being "disrespectful."
Mom will get over it and as for everyone else, I couldn't care less. However, the whole episode reminded me of a question that often pops into my head: precisely how much "respect," if any, do I really owe religion?
The word "respect" can have a number of meanings. Synonyms include "esteem," "regard," "high opinion," "admiration," "reverence," "deference," and "honor." It can also imply "to leave unmolested," "to avoid interference with," or "to not oppose" - especially in the context of polite disagreement. What respect do we owe religion in that context?
Jumping on the cultural bandwagon and bowing to social pressure, the answer would be enormous respect. While the First Amendment forbids government from "respecting any establishment of religion," I'm not so fortunate. My family, friends, and acquaintances - even my own mother for Pete's sake - all but demand that I show abundant respect for just about any religion, no matter how kooky or ridiculous, even those pledged to LGBTQ extermination (some three out of four, by my last count).
Maybe I should. No one has actually shoved us queers into the gas chambers yet, at least not in this country. What would it take out of me to smile, nod politely, and with fish eyes simply say "no, thank you" to the well-intentioned Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other assorted homophobes who come knocking on my gay door all too regularly?
Do I always need to share my conclusion with them that religious belief is tied to an unconscious, irrational fear of death and a desperate longing to be reunited with our dearly departed? Who likes to hear that? Why can't I just quietly respect their faith? Am I taking this too personally? Maybe I'm just a disgruntled homosexual.
The two millennia religion has spent trying to exterminate gay people notwithstanding, the real problem comes with the aforementioned definitions of "respect." I don't feel it. I tried, I really did, but I just can't find any esteem, regard, admiration, honor or reverence for belief despite evidence. All I see is fear dressed up as virtue, a form of mental illness that drives its victims to fly planes into buildings, bomb parades, hotels, buses and abortion clinics.
Perhaps I should feel bad about my own narrow-mindedness, but I don't. It's not personal, but a dispassionate diagnosis. The Pope himself feels the same way about all other denominations except his, and he's not the least bit sorry or a disgruntled homosexual (that we know of). I just do him one better: I think all religions are nuts.
What about those other definitions of respect, "to leave unmolested, to avoid interference with," or "to not oppose?" Can I do that? Again, regrettably, the answer is a resounding "nope!"
How could anyone not oppose a cataclysmic, institutionalized mass delusion that has been nothing more than an anthropophagic straitjacket on human progress for thousands of years? It would be like not opposing HIV or avoiding interference with a tsunami. I suppose I'm being intolerant, but if so, it's like being intolerant of a tumor: it's a good thing.
The truth is that religion has never been just a polite disagreement, but rather an unmitigated catastrophic contagion. Humans have a long and bitter history of killing each over religion, and in the most cruel and gruesome ways imaginable too. Religion would never have survived the Enlightenment without state-sponsored protections that included horrific acts of terrorism on a continental scale. Religion, like any infection, desperately needs tolerance.
Science, in contrast, has never been constitutionally protected. It doesn't need tolerance. It is true whether anyone believes it or not. No amendment guarantees the freedom of science and scientists don't go around trying to make laws that protect their rights to believe in particular theories. The very idea is absurd: scientific theories stand or fall on their own merits.
Religion, on the other hand, has nothing else to stand on but force. It needs victims (the weaker and more marginalized, the better) - like infidels, gays and lesbians, single women, and children - to sacrifice in order to maintain the integrity of the mass delusion. That is why religion has always used the power of the state to compel belief, or at the very least to protect as inalienable, the believers' right to remain delusional.
A closer look at Francis's dire warning on global warming is enlightening. The man makes very valid points about its catastrophic effects. Why can't I just agree with him and admire his rational use of the pulpit?
It is because his motivations are dangerous. We ought to address global warming not at the command of a Bronze Age deity, but because Earth is the only home we've got. In the same way, we ought not follow the Golden Rule because Jesus said to, but because we're compassionate, empathetic creatures by nature and the worth of our own lives depends on the value of others.
These are not trivial distinctions. If good behavior is based on the authority of Jesus instead of our own sense of decency and fairness, bad behavior is instantly justifiable on the word of his vicar. Succinctly, if we're good because the Pope says Jesus wants us to be good, then we're liable to be bad when the Pope says Jesus wants us to be bad. Hence crusades, holocausts, genocides, misogyny, homophobia, and millennia of random acts of terror - all because the Pope said Jesus said.
This pattern appears, more or less heinously, in all religions. Religion is really good at setting people against each other. I have a really hard time respecting that.
Folks criticize my thinking by saying that I paint with too broad a brush or that I overlook the good. Truth be told, I have not painstakingly gone through the 3,000 or so cults that mankind has invented over the long centuries. That would be an impossible burden.
The good news is that I really don't need to. All fail on one essential point: real knowledge comes only through reproducible, empirical observation. The method is called science. Those who claim otherwise bear the burden of proof. As for the good charged to religion, it is true that human kindness shines through even the most distorted prism. Imagine a world without it.
The best I can do is not treat or view individuals with fear, distrust, or hatred simply on the basis of their faith. I can't distinguish between religions anymore than I can between leprechauns. To single out one or another as particularly ridiculous would be irrational and bigoted, but it is not bigoted to reject a theory or idea as patently absurd or false.
I cannot help but think less of religious folks just as I would have diminished respect for a fellow scientist who stubbornly clung to a pet theory despite all evidence.
I must respect the human dignity of religious people as fellow sojourners on planet Earth, not for any other reason but if I value my own life then everyone's life is valuable.
I can respect their good intentions and I can certainly respect acts of generosity, kindness, and compassion. We are all medleys of virtues and defects. But respecting religion itself, in any sense of the word? No can do.