Nicholas Kristof has a NY Times column that makes an argument we hear frequently from the religious right:
At a New York or Los Angeles cocktail party, few would dare make a pejorative comment about Barack Obama’s race or Hillary Clinton’s sex. Yet it would be easy to get away with deriding Mike Huckabee’s religious faith.
Liberals believe deeply in tolerance and over the last century have led the battles against prejudices of all kinds, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock.
But this is an absurd argument. He seems to just presume that ridiculing someone’s race or gender is equivalent of ridiculing someone’s religious beliefs, but that presumption is clearly false. He is committing a category error here. The difference is that religion is an idea (more properly a set of ideas) and ideas, unlike race or gender, deserve criticism. Someone’s race or gender can’t be wrong or absurd, but their ideas certainly can.
Kristof declares that scorning someone’s faith is “intrinsically repugnant” but he says this as though it was self-evident, without a hint of an argument to support it. But does he really believe that? I doubt it. Is it really “repugnant” to scorn someone if they believe, for instance, that we should sacrifice virgins to the Sun God to curry his favor? That utterly barbaric idea deserves our scorn and so does anyone holding it.
I’m on record as saying that I firmly do not believe that merely believing in God is absurd. But when belief in God becomes belief in a particular religion – any religion I know of – then it inevitably comes with ideas that are patently absurd. And there is nothing wrong, much less “repugnant”, with criticizing ideas. And the more stupid or counter-factual the idea is, the harsher that criticism is naturally going to be.
Does Kristof really think it’s wrong to scorn the idea that if you die killing infidels you’ll get 72 virgins in heaven? That idea is not just extraordinarily stupid, it’s barbaric and dangerous and it has led to the deaths of untold numbers of innocent people. Can we really not scorn that idea merely because it comes labeled “religious”? Kristof has clearly not thought this through.
Kristof attempts a disclaimer to all of this nonsense, but he only defeats his own argument in the process:
Look, I don’t agree with evangelicals on theology or on their typically conservative views on taxes, health care or Iraq. Self-righteous zealots like Pat Robertson have been a plague upon our country, and their initial smugness about AIDS (which Jerry Falwell described as “God’s judgment against promiscuity”) constituted far grosser immorality than anything that ever happened in a bathhouse. Moralizing blowhards showed more compassion for embryonic stem cells than for the poor or the sick, and as recently as the 1990s, evangelicals were mostly a constituency against foreign aid.
But Nicholas, you just did what you claimed was “intrinsically repugnant.” You just scorned Jerry Falwell’s religious faith just a few paragraphs after criticizing those awful liberals for daring to criticize Mike Huckabee’s religious faith. And you justify going after Falwell but not Huckabee based on a position that isn’t far from what Huckabee himself has said. If it’s okay to scorn Falwell for saying that AIDS is god’s judgment against promiscuity, surely it’s okay to scorn Huckabee for saying that AIDS patients should be quarantined and that no tax money should be used to research treatments for that disease. Is Kristof seriously going to argue that criticizing Falwell here is justified while criticizing Huckabee’s similar position is “intrinsically repugnant”? If so, Kristof is an idiot.
This notion that scorning people’s religious views is wrong is just plain nonsense. It depends entirely on what those views actually are. If their religion teaches them that they should treat other people well, feed the poor and comfort the sick, there’s nothing worth criticizing. But if their religion teaches them that it’s okay to discriminate against others, harass and beat them, even kill them, then those religious ideas absolutely deserve our scorn. And comparing those willful beliefs to race and gender does nothing but show the utter illogic of the person making the argument.