Making a Case for the Open Critique of Religion

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When I enter conversations about religion with friends, I often find myself leaving them with unshakable labels set upon me. Labels which I find both offensive and incorrect. Some of them include: closed minded, judgmental, stubborn, and somehow elitist. I am not going to attempt to make a case for my opinions on religion. But I will attempt to illustrate the problem with labeling me as such when I do make such attempt.

What I have found in my endeavor for open religious discourse is that the attempt itself appears futile. But here is my overall point; it shouldn’t be. Setting aside the religious versus non-believer arguments, the simple premise that religion should be an avoided topic, un-debatable, or even a sacred one, is mistaken. Here’s why: regardless of what you believe, you cannot deny that the world we live in is a social one. Everything that revolves our everyday is a product of ourselves. Science, government, economies, education, the family, gender roles, etc. If religious, you may argue that all of these are the result of an almighty god, what he (or she) set forth for us to endure. But we must break this down to the fact that these institutions and concepts of being and living are comprised of people. People make them what they are. The term ‘social construct’ is a social scientific one which accepts that everything beyond the natural sciences is a product of us.

Again, some of you may disagree with this because you believe that somehow everything was designed. But even if that were true, a fact remains: everything is open for critique. Politics, family life, government, economies, education, gender roles, etc. The role of media, the role of social interaction, the role democracy, the role of social movements; have all been to remodel and reshape how these institutions go from politics to truth, and vice versa. What begins as a conversation leads to a wider opinion of masses. This is how the social world works. Now, the problem with the labels set upon me when I talk about religion is that they stop that from happening. Yes, I am stubborn in a lot of ways; hard headed more like it. But I believe there is a misunderstanding of what my role in the conversation is. Yes, I am criticizing religion. That is the whole point of my interest in entering such a discussion. But the problem is that because I am doing so, I am inherently viewed as in the wrong. I ask the question then, why are we able to use the same tactics for politics and social rights, but not for religion? What would happen if democrats weren’t allowed to critique republicans (or vice versa) on the basis that it would be intolerant? What would happen if the suffrage movements were viewed as going against something sacred?

Some of the arguments that have been held against my wanting to challenge the conversation on religion include: tradition, spirituality, and comfort. Sociologist Gabriel Tarde, made the point to not confuse Tradition with Opinion. That something is traditional, does not mean it is opinion nor that it is free from it. Opinion is of present time and those who once held what is now traditional as opinion have come and gone. That Seppuku, or honor suicide, was once an ingrained traditional act by Japanese samuri, does not mean that it should be retained in the fabric of Japanese modern civil society. It was once viewed as a sacred and honorable act, we now view it significantly different. Had we followed holy books to the letter to present time (which generally doesn’t happen), our social world would be immensely catastrophic. Therefore to say that one cannot critique what is traditional seems senseless to me.

I’m also often criticized for critiquing what some consider purely spiritual (this is where the label of closed mindedness tends to come in). Yes, I do have problems with that argument. That you somehow feel an inward “blessing” from your religious beliefs does not take away from the fact that your belief is not yours. Sorry (not sorry) to say it. My dear Neo-Atheist heroes, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, always point out that what you believe in was most probably indoctrinated in you. Your religion is as much yours as is the political party you support. Yes, there is a type of emotional aspect that comes in to play as much as nationalism does. But you are as randomly a catholic, for example, as you are Mexican (I’m using my own background here). And it also is not coincidental that those two identities come hand in hand. Geography matters. Therefore, to say that I cannot critique something because it feels intangible to you is not a proper argument. That your behaviour was molded by the religious views of your parents, is not a personal spiritual concept. That in some cultures and religions, women still retain a second-class citizen role, is not a personal spiritual concept. So the argument that your experience is of personal spirituality; I simply don’t buy it.

Now, the one of comfort is a complicated one. It is often said that lack of belief is for the elite, while belief is for the downtrodden. I understand why this is often said. “Some people need it.” My response is: they need their community, their nation, and their government. We as people have built institutions with the purpose of facilitating life. We have reworked and reshaped economic models to better fit our survival. We have created governmental institutions to ensure our safety and civility. And we have created the concepts of family and friends to further support our private and increasingly individualistic lives. Of course these all need work, but to say that someone ‘needs’ religion, and it tends to be the poor or marginalized, I believe, is to undermine the deeper problems that are in those social groups. It is to accept or believe that they can’t be helped. When I am critiquing what you label was what someone needs, does not mean that I am being negligent to them. It means that I look to hold true what the roles of government, community and country are meant to be. It is not only about critiquing religion, it is about critiquing everything. If you believe they need it, the question then is: why? And then, we can get to work.

I’ll admit something, when talking about religion I do get heated and often emotional. I understand how those reactions come off as negative. I do need to control my temperament. But while for some this conversation seems pointless, it matters to me and many others. It matters not only as a general subject but as a personal one. Growing up in my community, I realized women often feared being chastised and reprimanded in a way men didn’t. I often found myself angered by this and at times rebelled. The concept of a fearful God haunted me when I stepped over lines, and the concept of a benevolent God simply offended me. By the time a let go of this split-personality God, I was able to take responsibility for myself and become more understanding of others. While it may seem contradictory to the religious, I became much more compassionate.

So, I will continue attempting to critique and debate religion. I believe it to not only be worth it, but necessary. And while I do so, if I continue to be labeled closed minded, judgmental, stubborn, and somehow elitist; so be it. But hopefully it won’t be for long.