The Trouble with Unassailable Belief

Much outrage has erupted in the Middle East in these past weeks in response to Innocence of Muslims, a low-budget internet movie trailer that portrayed Muslims as mindlessly violent and easily drawn to anger. This outrage quickly grew into protest, where the offended Muslim parties tried to fight these unfair allegations by storming the streets with violent protests, flag burnings and rioting. Several dozens of people have died in these protests, including Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya.

Religion is uncommonly invasive for an ideology. It locks itself into the believer’s identity, branding itself as a label onto his character. This way it manages to transcend the usual limits placed on creeds: instead of just acting as a belief, it stamps the believer as some certain type of person. While this might be helpful in building community, it is also notoriously dangerous in provoking otherwise unfounded attacks. When French vandals desecrated Jewish graves in Nice earlier this year, it is unlikely that their motivation was a disagreement with the Jews’ rejection of a certain rabbi’s claims of divinity. When Wade Michael Page, a noted white supremacist, attacked the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., it wasn’t because he had theological misgivings about Prophet Mohammed’s claimed revelations (he thought it was a mosque). No, the only motivation for such attacks is sheer racially-based hatred. It is common, at this point in the argument, for fellow secularists to point out that it is the ideology of the group that has been attacked, not necessarily the group itself. While I would love to see a situation where such a separation could be realized, I fear that it is not currently the case. Religious branding paves the way for discrimination used both by and for the religious in-group. Adding theological claims into the attack is nothing but a rationalizing afterword.

Imagine how useful the ego-invading nature of religion is to the blind nationalist or to the skinhead brought up to think that he follows the word of Christ. The psychological difficulty with disassociating oneself from one’s birth-branded religion gives the racist opportunity to claim that his “grievances” rest on ideological grounds, grounds that our society finds more palatable than it would the alternative.

Consider just how little religious labeling actually pertains to personal ideology. Jesus Christ was a Jewish socialist with strong moral intuitions. He wanted his followers to surrender themselves to improving the lives of those around them. He taught that charity and modesty were the virtues his disciples would do best to adopt, not wealth and political power.
Matthew 5:38-48 reads: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

What’s concerning is that political rhetoric actually invokes religious arguments in defense of actions that the religious founders specifically stood against. Is it even intelligible, no less sensible, to premise a call to violence on the teachings of a rabbi who taught us that we should “turn the other cheek” to our enemies? Is it any less paradoxical that the GOP, our “Christian values” party, stigmatizes the poor while still venerating the text that reads, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you”? I should think that American Sikhs and Hindus actually follow Christ’s teachings far closer than do Christians, both in creed and behavior. And I think that the implications from this are far more serious than just leading us to chastise Christians. There exist millions of Christians who share no ideological connections to their religion — only a wholesale acceptance of a text that they hold only a heavily inflated familiarity with. Studies continue to demonstrate that atheists are more familiar with Christian teachings than are Christians themselves. But we don’t dissociate those birth-labeled as Christian from their religion even if they don’t know anything about it.

Similarly, we don’t term self-professed atheists, Taoists and Buddhists Christians even if their opinions coincide best with the metaphysical, nonspiritual arguments of Christ. Why do we still refer to religions as “belief systems” when there are so little ideological connections between the so-called believers? I suspect some might reject this religion-belief disconnect, claiming that the central ideology tying labeled Christians is the belief in the divinity of Christ. But is that sensible? Jesus is presented primarily as a humanitarian. Are we to believe that the son of God cared more about the acceptance of his claims of divinity than he did about the virtue and behavior of his followers? I should doubt, in fact, that a god who takes such care to hide himself from his creations would care at all about whether or not they consider him a deity.

In response to the Innocence of Muslims video, Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pevez Ashraf has announced that he will ask the United Nations to approve the passage of international blasphemy laws. President Obama immediately objected, calling upon the need to uphold free expression. But I think this understates the significance of the proposed violation. Blasphemy laws present an absolute challenge to free speech: they propose that there exist some statements, some group of beliefs that lie beyond criticism. Can there be a surer step towards tyranny? Political and religious opinions are inherently flawed. Believing and legislating the alternative is how despots, both religious and political, seize power.

The attitude that brings one to support blasphemy is exactly the one that allows for harmful, outdated and otherwise absolutely implausible theologies to remain so secure in a society that is otherwise relatively sophisticated. An element of our psychology makes us liable to accept things unquestionably taught in early childhood that if learned later we would consider under greater scrutiny. In general, this element is evolutionarily beneficial. Toddlers are faced with many situations that present serious danger if approached with ignorance. It might be paramount that a child knows not to go swimming alone, for instance, even if he isn’t old enough to understand why. These initial lessons usually stay with us through adulthood, often without ever being questioned. The phenomenon of harmful or non-objectively useful beliefs getting in alongside the beneficial ones is referred to by Richard Dawkins as a “natural misfire” of an otherwise useful phenomenon, and I believe that we must be very aware of it if we are to take our own opinions seriously.

It’s through this loophole of human rationality that misguided parents manage to get viewpoints accepted by their children without them ever facing any critical examination. And it’s through this loophole that conceptions like blasphemy are even brought about – our minds are trained from early on to give an overabundance of reverence to these concepts and to ignore their imperfections. Unless we learn to objectively analyze our own intuitions, we will never be able to depersonalize our opinions and treat the important issues with the rational analysis they require.