How to deal with religion?

Here’s Charlie Stross, responding to the news that a teenager is being is being prosecuted for calling Scientology a cult:

I don’t care whether Scientology is a “cult” or a “religion”, however you slice or dice those terms. Personally, I think the two are interchangeable; your respectable religion is that other guy’s cult, and vice versa.

But I am now officially fed up with this public bending-over-backwards to be respectful and sincere towards superstitionists of every stripe, to the point that religion trumps freedom of speech, as this case demonstrates so clearly. And the religious still aren’t satisfied — they’re out for more. I see no distinction between Christianity, Islam, and Scientology, in this respect: if you give them an inch they’ll try and take a mile, as witness the ambush vote on lowering the age limit for abortion that the god botherers have tacked onto the current embryology bill.

We need to kick the bishops out of the House of Lords, ban the Police and judiciary from taking donations from religious organizations, and get religion out of politics by any means necessary.

So how do we get religion out of politics?

To start off, let’s specify what we’re not trying to do: to eradicate religion entirely. Many billions of people are or have been religious, and all societies seem to have religion in some form or another. These people most get something out of it, or they wouldn’t do it. So religion seems to satisfy some need in many people. And we don’t need to eradicate it entirely: most religious believers are not in person bad people, so it’s perfectly possible to be religious without being evil.

But we do need to weed out religious extremists, by which I mean anyone who thinks religion is a good reason to kill or harm others, or who wants to force non-believers in a religion to be obliged to change their behaviour to conform with the dictates of that religion. Furthermore, anyone who thinks people should be punished if they leave or change their religion is also a religious extremist.

Obviously religion shouldn’t get any special privileges in law: religious people should not be treated with more respect by society than proponents of any other belief system.

The Jesuits said, “give me the child until he’s seven, and I’ll give you the man”; and education is an important part of innoculating against extremism. Religious education should be compulsory in all state-funded schools, and should consist of describing the beliefs of the major 10-20 religions worldwide; pupils would be required to compare and contrast the beliefs of various religions. It would also be pointed out to them where these beliefs are contradictory, and the inference would be made that they can’t all be true, so maybe none of them are. Pupils would also be educated in atrocities perpetrated by or encouraged by religions over the years — we could start with the words of Arnaud Amalric “Kill them all, God will know his own” — and go on to cover inter-ethnic conflicts in religion-based ethnicities such as in Northern Ireland, former Yugoslavia, or currently in Iraq.

If a parent asked a school not to give their child religious education, the school would be legally obliged to not acceed to any such request, and if a teacher or headteacher failed in this obligation, it would be a sacking offence. (Personally I think that any such parent should simply be laughed at, the way they would be if they asked that their child not be taught to read; but that’s just me).

The welfare system is also important. People become more religious in times of uncertainty or when they feel insecure. One of the reasons the USA is more infected with religion than Europe is partly because the welfare systems in European countries typically look after people better than in the USA.

Having considered these measures, we now move on to shakier ground — ground that could arguably be regarded as an infringement of people’s rights.

We could make it illegal to try to get a law changed for religious reasons. So if a religion said that activity X was bad, it would be illegal for an organisation for that religion to campaign for the law to be changed to make X illegal or harder. It would also be illegal for an adherent of that religion to campaign to change the law, unless they did so in strictly secular terms: so you could say “alcohol should be more expensive to prevent people getting into fights at pub closing time” but not anything that amounts to “alcohol should be more expensive because God doesn’t like people getting drunk”.

Foreigners wishing to settle in the UK could be obliged to agree that any loyalty they have to any God or religion will be less than their loyalty to the UK, that they are not religious extremists (as defined above), and that if they ever change their mind about these matters they will either leave the country or report themselves to the nearest police station and agree to be deported. Also they could be required to agree that they will not shun, disinherit or otherwise discourage their son or daughter from having friends, going out with, or marrying someone of a different faith (or none) or ethnicity. This last provision might help descendents of immigrants to become integrated into society.

It would be reasonable in principle but problematic in practise to expect people born here to have to agree to a similar statement. For a start how could you punish those who didn’t agree to it? You couldn’t expel them from the country. What you could do, perhaps, is say they’re not entitled to state benefits. This seems reasonable to me, after all if someone isn’t loyal to Britain, why should Britain be loyal to them? Surely they can just get their God to give them dole money, since these people typically believe in a God who is omnipotent, omniscient and cares about them personally. (And to the extent that God doesn’t have these characteristics, is He worth being loyal to anyway?) But as I implied earlier, this would probably be going a bit too far.

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3 Responses to How to deal with religion?

  1. Pingback: Scottish Roundup » Blog Archive » Labour’s by-election woes and the SNP’s SFT

  2. John says:

    The word cult itself presumably comes from the French where it has no negative connotations at all.

  3. Tauriq Moosa says:

    This article also has my agreement. We need to just eradicate religion. If your religion is best summed up in an episode of south park (‘trapped in the closet’ or the mormonism) you know your belief is probably not worth holding on to.

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