Monday, April 28, 2008

Racism and Religion

Belief in God and the afterlife is precisely as immoral, and precisely as offensive, as racist belief, and for precisely the same reasons.

This sounds like a rather offensive and bizarre statement, doesn't it? How the heck can a good Christian or other religious believer, just for being a believer, be lumped together with Nazis and racists and other evil jerks of that stripe?

To explain what I mean by my opening sentence, I will have to explore a couple of fundamental questions about Racism. Why is racism morally wrong? And is it morally wrong to hold racist beliefs even if one does not act on them? In other words, is it evil to hold racist beliefs even if one is not actually personally shoving Jews into gas chambers, lynching black people, or refusing to hire people with Hispanic surnames?

Racism is wrong because the underlying theory is factually incorrect, to the best of our scientific knowledge as a species. Contrary to what racists believe, people do not fundamentally differ in matters of intelligence, moral fiber, laziness, or worth as human beings in any significant or systematic way related to race. We differ far more individually from other members of our respective races than our race differs on average from other races. This is according to the best of our scientific knowledge in areas such as genetics, biology, neuroscience, and so forth.

The same goes for most other forms of discrimination. Skin color does matter when applying pancake makeup. It does not matter when applying for a job. Gender matters when making babies, but not when making bond trades or dinner. Ethnic origins matter when deciding whether or not to get tested for Sickle Cell Anemia, but should not be used as a test of fitness for political office.

Racism is treating race and ethnicity as if it matters in subject areas where, to the best of our scientific knowledge, race does not matter. Racism is morally wrong because it is factually wrong. If Nazis had been correct in thinking that Jews were disease-ridden subhuman vermin bent on destroying human society and profiting off of its destruction, then they would have been perfectly morally justified in marching Jews into gas chambers, simply as a form of self-defense. If Confederate plantation owners had been right in believing that blacks were subhuman creatures without the natural intelligence or moral judgment to be fit for anything other than life as a slave, then they would have been perfectly morally justified in enslaving them. If present-day racists are right in believing that all Hispanics are lazy, uneducated wetbacks without the qualifications, ability, or work ethic to make good employees, then they would be perfectly justified in refusing to hire them.

But because those theories about the biological nature of racial groups were and are factually incorrect, those beliefs, and the actions based on those beliefs, were and are morally repugnant. Jews are people just like the rest of us. Blacks are no more or less deserving of freedom than anyone else. Hispanics have amongst their number the usual mix of good and bad employees. Racial distinctions are meaningless, except in a tiny handful of very narrow scientific matters directly related to the minuscule differences of DNA that give rise to the visible phenotypic differences that are used to define race. In gross physical appearance, and a handful of obscure medical details, race and ethnicity matter...but in all political, moral, and economic spheres, race is a meaningless distinction. Gender is somewhat more meaningful, but still, outside of a handful of narrow contexts directly related to the physical and genetic differences between them, men and women are pretty much alike. None of those differences have the slightest bearing on any political, moral, or economic question.

Treating racial and ethnic differences as if they matter outside of those narrow contexts is the only workable definition of racism. The various political, moral, theological, and pseudo-scientific theories that claim otherwise are, to the best of our knowledge, completely and utterly wrong. Demonstrably and provably wrong. Refusal to accept this fact is what makes racism and related beliefs morally wrong, it is a form of intellectual dishonesty, quite apart from any violent or economically exploitative side-effects that flow from trying to put those flawed theories into practice. Even if those beliefs are not acted on, those beliefs themselves, because they are still factually wrong, are morally wrong to hold in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If it's morally right to kill someone based on a true belief of the danger they pose, and morally wrong to kill them based on a false belief of a danger they pose, then it is not the killing that is wrong, it is the factually incorrect belief that is the true moral outrage.

So racist beliefs are morally wrong to hold, even if one does not act on them. It is wrong to think blacks are inferior, whether or not you are actually hanging them from trees. It is wrong to think of Jews as subhuman vermin, even if you aren't actually marching them off to Auschwitz. It is wrong to think of Hispanics as inferior, even if you are not actually refusing to hire people with a Z at the end of their last name. It is the factually unsupportable belief that is the problem, and the moral wrong, not the actions which logically follow from such beliefs. If the belief is justified, so is the action. If the belief is not justified, neither is the action.

So now we apply this reasoning to religious beliefs. To the best of our scientific knowledge, there is no God. There is no possibility of an afterlife. The universe in general, and earth and life on it in particular, arose through completely natural processes with no divine inteverention whatsoever. Miracles do not happen, the laws of physics always apply. To believe otherwise flies in the face of quite literally everything we know about science, history, and the way the universe works. For one proof of this, see my previous posting on this blog.

Just like racism, religion's flawed theories have historically led to violence, oppression, and economic exploitation when someone tries to put them into practice. Specific religious beliefs, such as the inerrancy of Christian or Muslim scripture, the infallibility of the Catholic Pope, the status of the Jews as God's Chosen People, the sanctity of the Hindu caste system, and the innate sinfulness of women, have in the past led (with sad logical inevitability) to acts of horrifying violence and injustice. Practically every organized religion has amongst its official doctrines and scriptures at least some concepts that justify or encourage such acts of violence, even if those aspects of scriptures or doctrine are not generally adhered to in the present day.

So religion faces the same problems as racism: it is an unsupportable belief under the current state of scientific knowledge, and it has historically shown a tendency to lead to violence when these factually incorrect beliefs are applied to the real world.

But surely, you may object, religion has also led to the creation of great art, the commission of great works of charity, the building of hospitals, and so forth? Well, the Nazis built the Autobahn, southern plantation mansions were quite beautiful buildings, and I for one actually like the architecture of Albert Speer and the music of Richard Wagner. Racists and have created great works of art. That still doesn't justify their continuing to hold demonstrably false beliefs that fly in the face of scientific evidence.

And racism has even had a few positive social effects. The creation of a racist social order in the early American colonies was fundamental to the creation of a social order in which poor whites were granted the same sort of social privileges as rich whites, something which had not been possible in the previous class-based social order back in Europe. And it was this racism-catalyzed breaking down of social barriers within the white community that made possible the wide acceptance of the ideal that all (white) men were created equal, the omission of that unspoken but widely-understood parenthetical interpolation thus being the foundation of the later extension of such rights and privileges to the non-white and eventually the non-male population. And that's ignoring the positive aspects of Racism's retarded love child, Nationalism, which has contributed to many positive political and social changes, alongside the obvious negative influences it has also had. These positive social effects, however, still do not justify the fundamentally incorrect beliefs at the core of Racism, Nationalism, Sexism, and other unjustly discriminatory belief systems, a wrongness that render them immoral to hold in the face of contrary evidence, regardless of whatever few positive social aspects they may contain.

Of course, one could also counter that the oft-claimed bad effects of religion, the crusades and inquisitions, the jihads and witch-burnings, were not really caused by religion, but rather, were cases of religion being cynically misused as justification for naked acts of theft, conquest, and economic exploitation. And there's a monumental grain of truth behind that claim. The problem is, the exact same thing can, of course, be applied to the examples of Racism's bad effects listed above. Southern slave owners in the antebellum south benefited enormously from the socioeconomic effects of slavery, and it was their fear that an emerging abolitionist majority in the North might threaten that socioeconomic order that led to the Civil War...just as their ancestors' economic interest in finding a source of cheap labor to grow cash crops in the colonies had been the impetus behind the creation of the slave system in the first place. Formal racist theories can be said to have arisen to justify economic exploitation, not the other way around. The Nazis were quite open about the fact that they wanted to conquer, enslave, and economically exploit the “lesser” races of the world, and their theories about the evil machinations of the Jews can be thought of as mere propaganda, justifying Nazi exploitation of the Jews by claiming prior Jewish exploitation of the German people. And of course, that hypothetical racist business manager refusing to hire Hispanics thus faces less competition and opposition when he tries to hire his (presumably white) friends and relatives instead. Because racist and religious atrocities both equally can be excused as mere window-dressing for baser economic and political motives, the fact that the Crusaders were motivated by greed for lands and money as well as by the desire to earn forgiveness for their sins by liberating Jerusalem from the rule of Infidels cannot be used to differentiate between the bad outcomes of religious theories from the bad outcomes of racist theories.

Yes, both racism and religion have been used to falsely justify selfish acts of conquest, theft, and exploitation. One may argue that those tendencies in human psychology that lead to such selfish acts will always be with us, and thus eliminating religious or racist beliefs will not end, or even significantly reduce, the occurrence of such acts. And, sadly, this may be true. But surely removing a common justification for such acts will, at the very least, reduce the number of people who can thus be easily duped into fighting, killing, and dying to further some cynical leader's economic or political gain. The poor whites who bled on the battlefield on behalf of the Confederacy's slave owners were not acting in their own economic interests, but their flawed racist thinking led them to incorrectly think they were. The same goes for the poor Nazi foot soldiers in World War Two. And the same goes for those poor peasants who went off on Crusade, most of them dying in the process, supposedly for the good of their own souls, but really for the good of the Kings and Nobles who hoped to gain loot, new lands, and new feudal fiefdoms. Without that nice-sounding religious propaganda, how many of them would have gone along with such a mad scheme? Eliminating racism and religion will remove two powerful propaganda weapons from the arsenal of the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous, two sadly effective means of fooling their subordinates into dying on their behalf.

So if religious belief is exactly as unsupportable, exactly as incorrect, and thus exactly as dangerous, as racism, how should we treat religious ideals, and the people who hold them? Exactly as we treat racists. When someone says, “God bless you,” react the same as if they had said, “Heil Hitler,” in shock and outrage. When someone says they just got back from Mass, or the Mosque, or Temple, react as if they had said they just got back from a KKK cross-burning, in shock and outrage. Accord religious leaders and clergymen the same social cold-shoulder you would to the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, or a member of the White Aryan Resistance. Refuse to vote for politicians who ostentatiously flaunt their religious beliefs, just as you would refuse to vote for a segregationist or Nazi. If someone wants to say Grace before eating dinner, get up and walk out of the room, the same as you would if they just uttered the N-word. Treat an invitation to a Bible Study class or any other religious ceremony as you would an invitation to a Nazi party rally or a cross-burning.

For in all these cases, what that person is doing is just as rude, just as immoral, just as evil, and precisely as wrong as if they actually were a Klansman, a Nazi, or any other form of racial bigot. Recall that, to the extent that racism has been ended in America, it was largely ended not by killing or imprisoning racists, but by non-racists in society refusing to politely ignore racist behavior, speech, and ideals; by non-racists calling racists out when they uttered racial slurs, or spouted racist beliefs, and by non-racists refusing to vote for candidates that pandered to the racist demographic.

This is not to say that government should censor religious speech or suppress religious beliefs. I do believe in freedom of thought, and that government has no role in suppressing ideals or ideologies, no matter how offensive or unsupported by facts, so long as those beliefs are not actually put into practice in a way that harms others. That is not government's job. Government should not censor racist speech, religious speech, or political speech, because government must remain neutral on such questions. Government must be the government of everyone, including the idiots and the assholes. On a more optimistic note, we NEED stubborn, pig-headed people who refuse to accept the current consensus of scientific truth, because it is those who refuse to accept the conventional wisdom who, at least theoretically, are able to generate new knowledge and correct past mistakes, by looking for better answers than the ones already found. And a handful of important scientific and historical truths were indeed first discovered by individuals seeking (usually unsuccessfully) to find scientific support for a religious or racist belief.

What I am saying, however, is that people who care about intellectual honesty and scientific truth should cease being “polite” when they hear or see religious speech or behavior. They should not fear to be “rude” when it comes to speaking out about just how ludicrous and factually incorrect religious beliefs are. They should shun the ostentatiously religious whenever possible, refuse to take part in religious ceremonies, refuse to swear religious oaths, refuse to pander to the stupidly religious around them.

Here in America, people who care about intellectual honesty and scientific truth are, depressingly, in the minority. We are in the situation faced by the Freedom Riders, spreading the word of non-racism across the Jim Crow south. We are likely to face harassment, persecution, and in extreme cases, personal violence. Of course, we shouldn't be quite so rude that we get burnt at the stake, or even slapped. But, whenever possible, whenever we can get away with it without being subject to personal violence, we should treat the religious exactly as they deserve: like the deluded, dishonest, disreputable and despicable people they are.

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Blogger Lorpius Prime said...

The moral problem with racism is its specific, not general, irrationality. Religion is a very broad set of irrational beliefs, sometimes including racist doctrines (which are bad), but also sometimes including exhortations to be nice to people (which are good).

Rationalism itself can be used to justify all sorts of repugnant shit.

7:43 PM, April 28, 2008  
Blogger Martin The Mess said...

Racist beliefs can also include exhortations to be nice, at least to people in your own racial group. And exhortations to be nice, or generous, or self-sacrificing, are some of the easiest belief structures for those in power to manipulate for their own benefit, and for the detriment of those who believe them.

And when rationalism justifies something, at least it is assumably rationally justified. No matter how repugnant it may be, it may still be a necessary evil. Evil, but still necessary in order to serve a still greater good.

11:07 PM, April 28, 2008  

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