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Commentary

by Edward Tabash


To Bash Or Not To Bash:
The Debate Secular Humanists Do Not Need

Some of us are bogging down in a debate over whether the promotion of secular humanism should involve "bashing" religion, or whether we should only focus on presenting humanism in a positive light. The answer is that both are necessary components of the secular humanist message, depending on the individual circumstances of each encounter, each audience, and each forum.

When speaking to college women, for instance, it may be necessary to show them examples of the indefensible way that the bible denigrates women. A more watered-down presentation may not sufficiently motivate such students seriously to re-examine conventional assumptions about conventional religion. Helping today's university students become indignant over the absurdities of religious dogma is an essential part of persuading them to consider a secular alternative. If we don't start, very soon, to replenish our ranks with young people, out future will be dim.

There is definitely a time and place to make religion look as ridiculous as it actually is. There is also a time and place to emphasize the opportunities awaiting a person who lives a life free of superstition. Overall, however, one cannot be done without the other. We cannot just approach college students and members of the general public by preaching the virtues of a life free from supernaturalism without giving examples of how and why religious beliefs are absurd and divisive.

When we fear being accused of "religion bashing," we are buying into the trap our opponents have set for us. Republicans can criticize the political philosophy of Democrats and vice versa. Socialists and capitalists can criticize each other's basic worldview. Religionists, however, have insidiously snuck into the public consciousness the notion that religious doctrines deserve special insulation from criticism, ridicule, and doubt. Religionists have poisoned the debate about religion by passing off this concept that, from the outset, religious claims must be treated with a kinder and gentler type of criticism than that leveled at other types of belief systems.

There is no rational basis for providing religious dogma with its own special exemption from harsh criticism. We do secular humanism an immense disservice if we buy into the mindset that criticism of religion has to be more muffled than criticism of other ideologies. Religion is so entrenched in our society that its proponents have been able to foist off onto popular culture the notion that religion always deserves kid glove treatment. Because religion is so entrenched, in order to dislodge it, we have to use all available tactics, including destroying the misconception that religious beliefs are entitled to some special immunity from piercing criticism.

If we allow religionists to censor the words and arguments we use in our struggle to educate society in favor of secularism, we are essentially letting the fox guard the henhouse. Our society will never be receptive to a secular message so long as popular culture considers criticism of religion to be out-of-bounds. Establishing the social acceptability of ridiculing the absurdities of religious claims is an integral part of gaining acceptance for secular humanism. The two cannot be artificially severed.

We cannot be intimidated into weakening our arguments whenever religionists accuse us of "religion bashing." The Catholic church is expert at this bully/crybaby syndrome. The church will attempt to use its claim of divine infallibility to cripple our personal freedoms. Then, the moment we fight back by challenging the church's authority to control our lives, the church accuses us of anti-Catholic bigotry. The forthright answer is that as long as we do not try to deprive religious believers of their civil liberties, as long as we do not attempt to criminalize their behavior - like they wish to do to us - we are not subjecting them to persecution. The Catholic church, along with all the other self-proclaimed real estate brokers of heaven, must be publicly told that hiding behind a claim of speaking for god will not insulate them from criticism.

We thus need to end the pointless debate about whether to "bash" or not "bash" religion in the process of promoting secular humanism. The opponents of religious dogma should be able to attack and ridicule religious beliefs the same as opponents of any other belief system can attack and ridicule that belief system.

Religious doctrines that venture forth onto society's battlefield of ideas should not be entitled to armor that is thicker than that of any other combatant.


Edward Tabash is a lawyer in Beverly Hills, California. He chairs the Outreach Committee of the Center for Inquiry - West.


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