Tolerance Run Amok

I try to be a gracious person but would you mind terribly if I caused offense? I’ve been wondering about the limits of civility in the wake of the recent controversy over Mona Eltawahy’s article (and accompanying photo) on the state of women in the Arab world in this month’s Foreign Policy.

A couple years before he died, I had a lovely conversation with Christopher Hitchens at a dinner in D.C. at which my husband was receiving an award. We talked about the perils of living as a religious skeptic in American society, where polls show that non-believers are less trusted than rapists and child molesters. Hitchens told me that thousands of people had written to him likening their experience of “coming out” as an atheist to the experience of declaring one’s homosexuality after years of being in the closet.

That coming-out metaphor makes a lot of sense to me. In a religion-normative society, is it surprising that I still feel a sense of shame when I try to express my wobbly beliefs? It’s hard to be so ‘other.’ And it’s not as if I want to ditch everything about being an Episcopalian either: the liturgy, the history, the music, the good deeds… I love Jesus, too. I do! I just don’t see why he has to be the Son of God. Isn’t it enough to let him be greatest prophet-philosopher the world has ever seen?

So I’m basically in a bit of a conundrum here: I want to be a good neighbor, a respecter of “differences.” And I want to cry and scream and throw up when I read that a Muslim father’s first reaction to a daughter’s rape might be the impulse to murder her.

It’s hard to risk offending my religious students and friends. But I can’t keep pretending that it’s easy to embrace diversity and mutual understanding, on the one hand, while secretly believing that a whole lot of religious faith is not only puzzling but full-on dangerous.

Eltawahy asks why it’s so incredibly hard to make moral judgments about religion’s toxicity :

“…When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty…when an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. “

People on both ends of the political spectrum have brought us to this morass. The post-modern crowd is still locked in 80’s style cultural relativism. And the conservative folks are afraid to criticize somebody else’s orthodoxy lest some elements of their own be found wanting.

It’s so enraging and fatiguing, both. I watch a smart guy like Ross Douthat at the New York Times tying himself in knots trying to justify his idiosyncratic parsing of the bible. It’s embarrassing, quite frankly. (‘Jesus doesn’t talk about homosexuality. But he talks about the opposite of homosexuality! So how about we just connect the dots?’…)  

It fills me with utter dismay. ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman.’ End of story. How do you engage in these tautologies? There’s no way to argue against them.

It always comes down to people’s belief that they can – take your pick – slice off their daughter’s clitoris/keep girls shrouded at home/deny certain individuals the civil rights a secular society guarantees everyone else… (‘And, meanwhile, let’s be clear that it’s their beliefs about what constitutes sin – but not yours! – that can be altered at whim when an uncompromising position on interracial marriage or keeping concubines, let’s say, becomes just a little too awkward for 21st century life.’)

Look, I’m not trying to be snarky. I’m genuinely troubled. I’ve always thought there was a limited but generally positive role for religion in the world. Of course, I’m also pretty certain that history tells a different story. But I’m moved by the ritual and traditions of my church. I’ve felt a sense of connection from religious expression – even transcendence – that I have felt nowhere else. Clearly, others do too.

But I’ve begun to think we’ve reached a tipping point in our relationship to the physical world — our knowledge of the universe, its inhabitants, and our own bodies – that is in some sense wholly incompatible with the current practice of what we called organized religion. What value is there in the old rules of religion when even being religious is very likely to be encoded (or not) in our DNA? Do I really end up in hell because I didn’t get the religiosity gene? Seriously?? Not to get all tautological on you, but aren’t you guys claiming it was God who created our DNA in the first place?

The problem is you rarely get a straight answer if you bring up these sorts of questions with very religious people. You get one of two responses. The first – what I call the ostrich stance – is just this: ‘Science is a lie and scientists are lying liars. Sacred texts are the literal word of god, so God is testing our faith by planting fake evidence of dinosaurs and natural selection and such all over the place.’)

If you press these folks – maybe pointing out that they’ve enjoyed the fruits of evolution just the other day when they treated Grandma’s bacterial pneumonia with an antibiotic – they tend to get really pissed and start hauling out the ‘War on Christmas’ ammo.

The second response is more subtle and, to my eyes, more frustrating. People like Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, who’ve found some ingenious, slippery way around the whole mind/brain problem, just throw up their hands and tell you what a great “mystery” life is and how religion and science are perfectly good friends merely answering completely different questions.

Only an ignorant fool would waste her time trying to reconcile the two spheres when each has its special role to play: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Well, thanks, guys! I appreciate the reminder that I haven’t personally solved every single question about the inner workings of the universe because, you know, for a while I really thought I had it all tied up pretty neatly. Until you generously brought me to my senses and now I can see the error of my arrogant ways and how ‘mysterious’ everything really is.

Why is the default that certain ‘mysteries’ have to be explained by religion? Why couldn’t they be defined by – here’s an idea! – more science? Haven’t the past 500 years of telescopes and microscopes suggested the robustness of that strategy? And why is it that only certain “mysteries” lend themselves to religious explanation? I find the cherry-picking aspect of this so disingenuous. I once read a fantastic satire: Why does god hate amputees? (Ever notice how God will pony up with the blessing of a sunny wedding day but won’t fuss with restoring somebody’s lost limb?)

I know I sound bitter and mocking but I don’t mean to be. I want to find another way to understand life’s mysteries, another way even to understand “God,” that hasn’t yet been conceived. I don’t want to throw it all away; and I’m sure most of the world’s Muslims don’t want to either. I just want to be free to say what I believe is true, even if it is painful and unpleasant to hear.

Somehow – still – I can never quite bring myself to declare my true beliefs. And yet this reluctance to call out religious faith that is noxious or stupid or wrong is exactly what Ms. Eltawahy was writing about. Being a blasphemer may be the godliest thing we can do.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director/author. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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