Of Rights, Wrongs, and Rights

It likely comes as no surprise to members (and observers) of the secular movements in the United States that the secular and humanist world is in the midst of no small uproar over the results of the Hobby Lobby case decided recently by the U.S. Supreme Court. Due to my work and the ethical obligations that come with it, I won’t be commenting on the case at all. You’ll have to go somewhere else for that analysis. (Same for same-sex marriage cases, and really pretty much any case.)

But the secularist community’s response to that case does prompt this post. Specifically, I want to return to something I wrote about briefly some months ago: the secular movement’s apparent allergy to religion.

I have friends on Facebook from various points on the religious and political spectrum: conservative Christians of various stripes (in terms of ideology and in terms of the specific flavor of Christianity), progressive atheists, middle-of-the-road Jews, progressive Christians, progressive Jews, conservative (politically, I mean) Jews, progressive members of the Bahai faith, libertarians, etc. I roll my eyes at some posts, click on others. I have the luxury of remaining silent on political and legal matters, and the obligation to do so. And I’m OK with not talking politics on Facebook, or in public generally–I don’t know to what extent the kind of talking that happens in these environments is effective at persuading anyone, and I enjoy (!) the role I have in the legal system.

But I am committed to Humanistic Judaism, which is itself aligned on certain issues with certain secular organizations. I think Humanistic Judaism is harmed by implication when those with strictly secular commitments speak “their” truth but not the full truth.

What do I mean? A friend (IRL and on Facebook) posted a “discuss this” kind of question about whether conservative monotheistic religions–Christianity, Judaism, and Islam–are fundamentally, inherently damaged beyond repair. Responding from their places, the answer for many people who commented was a straight “yes”–these religions are fundamentally broken, without exception. This is a response that many secularly-aligned individuals have: people who have been or who have at least felt oppressed or harmed by members of religious traditions that have turned others away, rejected them outright, denied them help, etc. It’s the response, too, of those like Christopher Hitchens, who categorically denied the value in any respect of any religious tradition in his God Is not Good. (I’ve discussed the problem with that approach for talking to theists in my brief review of Peter Boghossian’s recent book.)

I attacked the question–not only because it’s not clear what conservative means, but also because it denies a fundamental truth about many individuals in those traditions: that however hateful they seem, they often come from a place of love. And many others of those folks may be personally and religiously conservative, but not necessarily politically so.

It’s pretty easy to poke holes at an all-or-nothing kind of argument. You just need one counter-example. When David Silverman of American Atheists says you can’t be an atheist Jew, you can point to tons of examples to the contrary and we’re done; he’s reductively defining a group of people from the outside because it’s convenient for him to do so. So, too, when someone says that evangelical Christianity is inherently broken and hateful toward group X, you just need counter-examples to disprove it.

So, secularists who say all religion is bad: I’ve got your counter-examples for evangelical Christianity, people who publicly are your allies. Brian McLaren, Anthony Campolo, and Doug Pagitt. Oh, hell, the whole Emerging Church movement. (Yeah, yeah, lots of evangelicals just clicked away from here because those guys aren’t evangelical. Guess what? If you’re not an evangelical, you’d probably think these guys are pretty much evangelical. In- and out-group definition is a weird phenomenon.)

Want Jewish examples? A.J. Heschel (marched with Rev. King). The whole Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. (Read the most recent Pittsburgh Platform. They aren’t peddling Humanism over there.) The Open Orthodoxy movement. Much of what happens at CLAL. Yitz Greenberg and his gang. Reconstructionist Judaism (which has a lot more “woo” happening than once was the case). The Jewish Renewal movement (which has been described as mating Hasidism and Hippie counter-culture).

(Sorry, I just don’t know enough about modern Islam to really chime in here. It’s a failing, I know, but I’ve only got so many hours in the day.)

My point in all this? Setting aside ideas of strategy, alliances, and the like on specific issues, the secular community puts a premium on truth-telling when it comes to science, social matters, etc., and spends lots of time playing the “that’s a bad argument/that’s just untrue” card in argument. But being on the “right” side doesn’t mean being able to be wrong on the facts about religion and those who consider themselves persons of faith.

This kind of error takes different forms. It takes sophisticated forms, like Daniel Dennett writing about religion in a way that defines down the term to only specific kinds of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, because he doesn’t consider liberal religious persons to really be adherents to their traditions–or at least not the ones he wants to argue against. Dennett should, as a philosopher, know and do better on this–it’s the same shifting of terms that many conservative Christians use to define out of “real” Christian status those who belong to liberal Christian groups–but the convenience of this for the argument masks a lot of the “facts on the ground.” (Does it seem as though, as outsiders to a group, it’s probably best to keep your definitions of a group reasonably wide if you want them to be reasonably accurate, if only so that you view appropriately the sentiments of group members?)

It also takes the simple, knee-jerk response of “YES!” to questions about the inherent flaws of religion.

But the problem is that these aren’t true in the sense of factual accuracy. I understand distortions creep into an “apologetic” context (apologetic meaning the classical form of argumentation in defense of a position)–I don’t like it, but I understand it, because the other side of an apologetic argument is often also being selective.

But this language too often obtains things aimed at those already within the secular movement. And that’s a problem because it prevents the secular movement from developing positive approaches that “feel” right. It puts the members of the group on a kind of permanently argumentative footing, constantly looking to poke the bear.

Some critiques are valid; many have counter-examples or are simply untrue. In both internal and external discourse, if you value the truth, that needs to carry over if you intend to show that you hold a moral high ground.

You can’t properly claim to be a truth-teller if you don’t speak truth. You don’t make friends and influence people by first poking them in the eyes. And you don’t make common cause by distorting the truth about those who might otherwise be your allies.

And in the brilliant words of the Coen Brothers, “Sometimes, you eat the bear…. And sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.” Sometimes your argument is wrong. Don’t let the bear eat you.

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