July 17, 2013

The Compassion of Religious Criticism. ~ Moira Madden

There are beautiful, dissident voices out there in the world.

Voices coming from brilliant, educated women and men who understand the importance of sharing their opinions. There are the unapologetically imaginative authors of stories, of innovative tales that expose paradigms which already may lurk beneath our human psychology, our politics. These people see brutal romances with danger and inequality that could conceivably become true. There are books, editorials and exposé pieces written by public intellectuals, fearless yet kind rebels, and dedicated students. The whistleblowers. The skeptics. The ones who leave. The ones who wish to empower themselves with information. The ones who evaluate the beliefs of themselves and others for ideals of inequality or potential for harm, and say “no” if it is found. The ones who uncompromisingly seek evidence. These are my heroes.

I am an atheist. I am a skeptic. I am a young woman, and I am often angry.

My anger is, at its source, frustration with injustice and unfairness. My anger sometimes feels helpless and confused. It is passionate and born from compassion. My anger wants to help and write. I have observed that there are great deals of proud liberals who fear criticizing religion, and embrace multiculturalism. This is thoroughly surprising. There is a line of tolerance we must walk between celebrating the diversity inherent in multiculturalism and tradition—and addressing issues of human rights. So many untruths cloud our collective ability to think clearly on this issue. Many of my liberal peers claim to be religious themselves, yet hold political stances that do not align with the actual word of their scriptures. When questioned, I find that many who claim to be religious do so simply because they have been taught to all along—it’s a tradition that’s deeply ingrained in our culture, in our very psyche. Worried glances are cast upon those who question the traditions that we, as we know ourselves, are purported to have been built upon. Ultimately, many of my peers’ empirical reasons for believing in their God are insufficient, yet truly convenient for them. They are based upon faith. When pragmatic evidence again and again opens doorways for dialogue and doubt, I am disappointed by how often the debate is shut down. I see a staunch unwillingness to have one’s own beliefs questioned; I see the fear of testifying against one’s former self and saying “I was wrong.” Sheltering oneself as well as other groups from this experience is a path towards ignorance. I do believe that belief has a place in the public sphere, and it needs this place in order for society to hold a rational discourse about it. Our Christian America needs this—for example, liberals, does your heart not break for the anti-choice legislations being put forward? For the women in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin and Ohio at this very moment? Where do these anti-choice sentiments often come from? I do not have an issue with spirituality, per se. There is something extraordinarily precious about feeling a deep, personally enlightening connection between oneself and the world, and oneself and others. No matter what you hold dear, it is gorgeous and astonishing to connect authentically to some truth in your own identity. I believe these experiences are absolutely necessary, and I also believe that these experiences do not belong exclusively to religion. Chanting, the vibration of one’s own breath, the release of an asana, praying and wishing with all of your heart for an unselfish, benevolent instance to occur in your world, choosing to be with one partner until death separates you… these are acts of love and beauty.

Yet it is unnecessary to adopt a dogma, to believe based upon inadequate reason and evidence, in order to recognize and experience sublime moments.

I am appalled at the term “Islamophobia” being used in application to author and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Among his other achievements, he deserves respect for fearlessly bringing forth reason-based arguments against Islam as an ethical system and he also raises extremely important questions. Why hold these beliefs that have systematically disempowered both men and women and stalled the collection of knowledge in this culture? A woman I also revere, Aayan Hirsi Ali, says the following in her book The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, in response to multiculturalism and fear of rational criticism.

“I cannot emphasize enough how wrongheaded this is. Withholding criticism and ignoring differences are racism in its purest form. Yet these cultural experts fail to notice that, through their anxious avoidance of criticizing non-Western countries, they trap the people who represent these cultures in a state of backwardness. The experts may have the best of intentions, but as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Religion also makes claims on the moral compass. This disturbs me deeply, for religion’s failure as a valid ethical system has been felt acutely in waves throughout society for ages. For example, female genital mutilation (FGM) is a pre-Islamic practice that has been adopted by Islamic cultures. I do not agree with the label of female circumcision because of the widespread understanding of male circumcision. These two separate phenomena should not be compared. What is done to women is far more extreme, and may cause disastrous health issues such as fistula, urinary retention problems and bleeding complications. It is also a startling physical manifestation of the institutionalized misogyny that occurs in many organized religions. And yes, it can happen here. Many young women and girls in misogynistic cultures appear to internalize their own subjugation, and the belief that this is permissible because of where they were born and how they were raised, factors entirely out of their control, is sickening and harmful on a deep level. I do not agree with FGM, and in a terrifying parallel in Westernized countries, I do not believe in the shaming of women’s genitals that results in Photoshopping and/or labiaplasty. I do not believe in guilt plaguing one’s own body. I do not believe in accepting that this is just the way things are. I find it positively unbelievable that this is just one example out of many startling human rights issues springing from religious roots. And meanwhile, so many are worrying about the seemingly obvious ethics of something as small, benign, and yet miraculous as the condom. This plea for self-reflection may be shocking. This plea to join those beautiful, dissident voices and cast away tradition in order to form a new language, a new set of beliefs that, no matter how you slice them, do not shelter or encourage violence.

I wish daily for reason and critical thinking to triumph so we can all relate to one another in peace.

Sam Harris, in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, says “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.” I crave the day that information is what we empower ourselves with, rather than difference, hate, and fear. I am an atheist. I am a skeptic. I am a young woman. And I am often hopeful.

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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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